Democrat Debbie Stabenow, whose first elective office was as an Ingham County Commissioner in 1974 at age 24 when her opponent referred to her as “that young broad,” is now, at age 67 poised to seek a third term as Michigan’s senior senator who has leadership roles on Capitol Hill on agriculture and other issues.
Before examining her latest quest, I will reflect on the ups and a down that got her to one of the nation’s high-profile U.S. Senate races in a state where Republican President Donald Trump had a surprise win in 2016.
Stabenow was elected to the state House in 1978 and the state Senate in 1990.
Four years later when she ran for governor, as noted by The Almanac of American Politics:
“In response to Republican Governor John Engler’s call for financing education, she proposed to zero out the property tax and start over, apparently calculating that he would reject such a drastic cut. Instead, he accepted her proposal and passed a plan reducing property taxes vastly, and increasing the sales tax, which was approved by voters 70%-30% in 1994.”
In the party primary, the Democratic establishment (including the Michigan Education Association, the UAW and the CIO) opposed Stabenow. She narrowly lost to ex-Congressman Howard Wolpe and ended up as his running mate. The ticket lost big time to Engler, 61%-38%.
Subsequently, Lansing-area Stabenow soared to Capitol Hill. In 1996, she had a 10-point win over freshman U.S. Rep. Dick Chrysler. Then, in 2000, she had a narrow 49%-48% win over first-term Republican Sen. Spencer Abraham in the most expensive Senate race in Michigan history—his $13 million and hers nearly $8 million.
It was nationally one of one of the most critical Senate races of the year and will be again as she seeks a third term in 2018.
In that pursuit, Stabenow’s potential Republican challengers are many and varied. The one getting the most recent media hype is Michigan celebrity musician Kid Rock. Should he get into the race, as he has teased, he polls within 8% of Stabenow in a Target-Insyght poll published by The Detroit News.
In the poll, businessman and veteran John James of Farmington Hills polled second at 16% followed by former Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bob Young of Laingsburg at 14% and businesswoman Lena Epstein of Bloomfield Hills at 8%.
The News had an interesting quote from veteran pollster Ed Sarpolus, who said: “I think part of Kid Rock’s success is the fact that the Trump effect is still out there. I mean Kid Rock curses and swears like (former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci), so Kid Rock is a mini Trump.”
Sarpolus is one of the best in the business but Kid Rock at this stage is not yet a mini Trump, who, after the GOP primary, had honed political positions.
George Weeks, a member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, for 22 years was political columnist for The Detroit News and previously with UPI as Lansing bureau chief and foreign editor in Washington.