What a difference a year makes. And U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) probably couldn’t be happier.
This week, yet another one of her high-profile opponents, former Supreme Court Chief Justice Bob Young, bowed out. The Harvard alum known for his erudite eviscerations from the bench had tried to metamorphose into an angry Trump acolyte, from his Facebook Live announcement in which he yelled about being “the disruptor” to his cringey slogan, “Bow Tie. Bad Ass.”
It was like if William F. Buckley suddenly tried to transform himself into Vanilla Ice. And it didn’t work.
Young follows in the footsteps of Lena Epstein, a Trump surrogate who decided her talents would be best used in an open metro Detroit congressional seat. And of course, U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) and rap/rock star Kid Rock never pulled the trigger, despite considerable hype.
That leaves the GOP field with three candidates: John James, an Iraq war veteran and political newcomer; businessman Sandy Pensler; and historic preservationist Bob Carr.
Stabenow, who’s sitting on a $7 million war chest, probably isn’t shaking in her boots — but she’ll run like someone who’s 20 points behind. That’s just the Stabenow way.
But let’s remember that at the onset of 2017, Republicans were riding high. Trump had just become the first Republican to win Michigan since 1988, pushing him over the top in the Electoral College. And victory was all the sweeter since even many conservatives had resigned themselves to four years of another Democratic president.
So Republicans were feeling buoyant about 2018. They’d already had an impressive run since 2011, controlling the governor’s mansion, attorney general’s office, secretary of state’s domain, state House, state Senate, state Supreme Court and congressional delegation. And most GOP strategists expected the good times to keep on rolling through the next election, especially as Michigan was Trump country now.
They even set their sights on the most powerful Democrat in the state, something that had seemed laughable before Nov. 8, 2016. I’d even written a column in the fall of 2015 with this lead: “Every six years, Michigan Republicans get to play their least-favorite game: Who wants to lose to Debbie Stabenow?”
Consider the electoral history of Michigan’s senior senator. Stabenow won the seat in 2000 by coming from behind to knock out incumbent Spencer Abraham, who Republicans had thought was a lock. Since then, she’s dispatched both her challengers, Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard and former U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, by double digits.
The three-term senator is the once (and perhaps future) Senate Agriculture Chair, as she’s never lost touch with her farm roots in Clare. Nobody outworks her and she’s always a prodigious fundraiser.
But as Republican powerbrokers eagerly awaited President Trump’s inauguration, they tittered that Stabenow’s time was finally up.
Some dejected Democrats worried they were right and confided that if the GOP could oust Stabenow, that would be the death knell for the party in Michigan. The state’s other Democratic senator, freshman Gary Peters, would be toast in 2020 and nobody with a “D” after their name would ever win anything again.
If there’s one thing that Democrats excel at, it’s dreaming up elaborate Chicken Little scenarios.
Republicans began jumping into the ‘18 Senate race with abandon. But everyone was overshadowed by the prospect of Kid Rock teasing a run, with even former White House senior adviser Steve Bannon reportedly wooing him.
The national media nearly collectively lost their mind, spinning cliché-strewn stories and tweets about how the hardscrabble Macomb County kid (who grew up in a sprawling mansion) would capture the hearts of all the hard hats at the Warren bowling alleys and become the Donald Trump of the Senate.
After exploiting everyone’s credulousness and selling out some concerts, Kid Rock went on “The Howard Stern Show” last fall and almost admirably declared, “F--- no, I’m not running for Senate; are you kidding me?”
By then, Epstein had already dropped out of the Senate race to pursue the seat left open by the retirement of U.S. Rep. Dave Trott (R-Birmingham).* But at least she left behind the gift that keeps on giving, a deliciously awkward 55-second YouTube video titled, “Lena Epstein Welcomes Kid Rock 2 the Party,” complete with her flashing a Sarah Palin-style wink.
Upton took a pass on the race before Thanksgiving (thankfully before he had to degrade himself on social media). And now Young has taken his badass bowtie and gone home.
As it stands now, Republicans find themselves in the familiar position of trying to coalesce around a less-than ideal nominee, kicking in some cash and hoping against hope that Stabenow slips up.
They could always get lucky in 2018. But not too many would take those odds.
* Party affiliation corrected.
Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.