JACK SPENCER: Michigan Senate — Must win vs. might win

On election night 2014 the usual dizzying array of election results will be buzzing over TV, radio and the Internet. There will be the various national races from around the country, the Michigan gubernatorial race, Michigan’s U.S. Senate race, state Senate races, state House races, possibly a statewide ballot proposal or two, and numerous local races and ballot issues.

From the perspective of Michigan Democrats, the result of the U.S. Senate race will be the most important race to watch. Democrats have held both of Michigan’s seats in the U.S. Senate for the past 12 years. Keeping that domination intact is their “Priority No. 1” for 2014. Even the gubernatorial election is of a lesser importance to the Democrats.

For the Michigan Republicans, the U.S. Senate race represents something they’ve dreamed of having for more than a decade — a legitimate shot at winning a U.S. Senate seat.

However, even if the Republicans fail to win the U.S. Senate seat, they still stand to benefit at the state level by just making sure the race is a close one. If they can keep that race competitive, the Democrats will be forced to spend money on it and use resources for it that might otherwise be available for other races. Those who understand this will be able to view election-year 2014 as many political professionals see it.

This situation was set up when U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Detroit, decided not to run for re-election. Considering that he has served more than 30 years in the U.S. Senate, no one can blame Levin for finally bowing out. Nonetheless, he is doing so in an election year that — at least on paper — could be problematic for the Democrats.

In non-presidential election years, Michigan generally loses much of its blue shading. Turnout tends to favor neither the Democrats nor the Republicans. That’s not always what happens — it’s just what usually happens.

However, voters can grow weary and dissatisfied with presidents and express that dissatisfaction in non-presidential election years. Recent examples of this were 2006, a great year for Democrats, and 2010, a great year for Republicans.

With President Barack Obama in the White House, there’s a better than 50-50 chance that the Republicans will do well in 2014. But keep in mind that no one knows that for sure. It could end up being a great year for either party or just an average run-of the-mill election-year.

The point is that the Democrats have to plan for a worst case scenario — and that could spell “opportunity” in other races for the Republicans.

In spite of the fact that the 2014 election is still far off, it seems clear that the Democrats have already chosen their candidate to replace Levin. To put it bluntly, the field has been cleared for Congressman Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Hills to fill Levin’s shoes.

Peters represents Michigan’s 14th Congressional District and can be expected to do well in Oakland County, a vitally important strategic factor in any statewide election. Prior to being elected to Congress, he barely missed being elected Attorney General, losing by a whisker to Mike Cox in 2002. In that statewide election, Cox received 48.85 percent of the votes to Peters’ 48.69 percent.

On the Republican side, the picture of the U.S. Senate race seems less clear. Many people believe the best candidate would be Congressman Mike Rogers, R- Howell. But it seems that Rogers would prefer to hold onto his safe congressional district seat and his key committee assignments in the U.S. House.

At the moment the current Republican front runner seems to be former two-term Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, who is actively pursuing the nomination. The fact that Land has won statewide elections twice bolsters her credentials for the slot — especially if the principle GOP goal is to at least keep the race close. On the campaign trail Land could hardly be considered as Ms. Excitement, but then again, Peters isn’t exactly Mr. Excitement himself.

Until recently the wild card of the race was Libertarian-leaning Republican Justin Amash, R-Cascade Twp., a two-term congressman serving Michigan’s 3rd district. Amash, a darling of many grassroots conservatives, might have the greatest potential for sweeping to victory in both a GOP primary and the general election. However, Amash might also have the potential for giving Peters an easy win.

Remember, to the Republicans the first goal in the U.S. Senate race is to keep it close. If they could actually win the race, that would be gravy, but keeping it close is what matters most to them. This explains why Amash received pressure from the top not to enter the race while he was receiving pressure and encouragement from grassroots conservatives to get in.

Ultimately, Amash has to assess his own chances. Over the past few weeks he has clearly been stepping away from the idea of running for the U.S. Senate.

There has also been talk of Congressman Dave Camp, R-Midland, taking a look at a U.S. Senate bid, but for the time being, it looks like Land is the most likely person to become the nominee.

All of the potential GOP U.S. Senate candidates are probably reluctant to officially declare that they’re not interested in the race. The possibly of 2014 turning into another 2010 — which would bode well for the chances of any Republican — has to be enticing. And that’s the dilemma. It is tough to say “yes” or “no” when it’s too early to accurately gage what next year’s political environment will be.

Peters’ voted for Obamacare in 2010 and that will probably become an issue in the race. It could make him particularly vulnerable if the Democratic turnout is mediocre or weak. That’s probably one of several reasons the Democrats were so determined to lock him in early as their candidate. Chances are that his campaign is already working hard to try to make sure the Democratic base understands what’s at stake.

In Lansing, the general feeling is that Peters is the favorite to win and keep Levin’s seat in the hands of the Democrats. It always makes sense to bet on the side that’s saying: “We’re going to win this at all costs;” especially when the other side isn’t necessarily playing for the win.

Jack Spencer is Capitol Affairs Specialist for Capitol Confidential, an online newsletter associated with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (MCPP). MCPP provides policy analysis. The political analysis represented in this column does not necessarily reflect the views of the Mackinac Center.