With Democrats defending 23 of the 33 Senate seats up for election in November, the opportunities for Republican pickups abound. Although Republicans will play defense in Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada, they will almost certainly make gains in North Dakota and Nebraska. Republicans have good opportunities to take Democratic seats in Missouri, Virginia, Montana, Florida, Wisconsin, and Ohio—and then there’s the list of Democratic seats that could become competitive.
Put Michigan near the top of that list, say Republicans in the state and Senate race watchers. “Michigan can definitely get competitive,” according to Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report. Two-term Democratic incumbent senator Debbie Stabenow “doesn’t poll higher than the mid 40s, which is not a particularly healthy place to be for an incumbent,” Duffy explains. Although Michigan leans Democratic—the state hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1988—Republican Rick Snyder scored a smashing victory in the 2010 governor’s race when he won with 58 percent of the vote.
“I think the Michigan Senate race is up for grabs if we grab a page out of Governor Snyder’s playbook,” says Clark Durant, a former Reagan administration official, businessman, and education reformer who is vying for the Republican nomination. “I think people want someone who is not a career politician.”
To meet Snyder’s success in the general election, Durant will first have to replicate Snyder’s success in the GOP primary by beating frontrunner and former congressman Pete Hoekstra. Whereas Snyder positioned himself as a more moderate candidate to defeat Hoekstra and two other conservatives in 2010, Durant is now running to Hoekstra’s right on fiscal issues.
“If you’re going to defeat someone in politics, you have to offer a clear choice. And like Debbie, Pete has voted for all of these increases in spending and debt—he’s tied into thousand of earmarks and the bridge to nowhere. So is Debbie,” says Durant. “Pete voted for the Wall Street bailout, and the people in Michigan do not think that is a very good idea—rewarding the irresponsible behavior of bankers with their money. Pete voted for that. Even Debbie didn’t vote for that.”
Durant has impressive movement conservative credentials: He was a founder of the widely-circulated Hillsdale College publication Imprimis and worked in the Reagan administration as chairman of the Legal Services Corporation. He later served as founder and CEO of Cornerstone charter schools in Detroit and president of Michigan’s State Board of Education. Durant has also won the endorsements of Utah senator Mike Lee, a Tea Party favorite, and former Michigan GOP senator and George W. Bush’s Energy secretary Spencer Abraham. “He’s a true Reagan conservative who has been part of the conservative intellectual movement for three decades,” Abraham says of Durant. “I think Michigan can be in play. I think to do it they need to have the ability to draw contrasts with Stabenow.”
But Hoekstra certainly has his own conservative credentials: He has a 91% voting record with the American Conservative Union, served as chairman of the House intelligence committee, helped establish the House Tea Party caucus, and has the backing of popular conservatives, such as his former colleague Paul Ryan and Herman Cain.
Hoekstra, who's well-known among Republicans after his 2010 gubernatorial bid, emerged early on as the frontrunner in the GOP Senate primary and continues to hold that position. He led Durant 42 percent to 9 percent in a February PPP poll. But there's plenty of time for voters to get to know Durant. Hoekstra's 2010 loss in the gubernatorial showed he isn’t invincible. And a disastrous Super Bowl TV ad made him look even more vulnerable. The spot featured a Chinese-American actor who spoke broken English and thanked Democratic senator “Debbie SpendItNow” for spending so much American money and strengthening China.
The ad was denounced by Democrats as well as Durant, who calls it “appalling” and says it “reflected everything that’s wrong with Washington. Number one, it demeans people. Number two, it’s misleading. Number three, it’s hypocritical, and number four, it even got its economics wrong.” Following the ad, Stabenow’s single-digit lead over Hoekstra jumped to double digits, although a poll from March showed the race back to 5 points.
Durant makes a solid case that as an outsider and education reformer, he could prove to be a stronger challenger than Hoekstra. But Michigan will be an uphill battle no matter who the Republican nominee is. And Durant has his own vulnerabilities. Although his opposition to the Wall Street bailout may be an asset, Democrats will surely attack him for opposing the auto bailout, which both Hoekstra and Stabenow supported. “I think the auto bailout was a mistake,” says Durant, “because it violated the law. It violated the rights of bondholders. It didn’t take care of all the labor people who were affected by this reorganization.”
“It is hard to know who might be the better general election candidate,” according to the Cook Political Report’s Jennifer Duffy. “While Hoekstra has the experience and has been able to raise the money, he also has an 18-year voting record in the House, an institution that voters hold in pretty low regard."
"While Clark can run as an outsider, he is a newcomer to politics and has not yet proven that he has put together a top flight Senate campaign," Duffy continued. "I don’t think one is more competitive than the other; they just bring different strengths and weaknesses to the campaign.”
In the months leading up to the August 7 primary, Michigan voters may very well decide for themselves that an outsider Tea Party candidate like Durant has a better shot than Hoekstra of beating Debbie Stabenow.