Mich. GOP Gearing Up for a Lively '12 Senate Primary

MACKINACK ISLAND, MICH.—With Michigan Republicans increasingly confident they can put their state’s 16 electoral votes for President in their column for the first time since 1988, there is also growing enthusiasm about electing the Water Wonderland’s first GOP senator in more than a decade.
That was the sentiment among the more than 1,000 party activists gathered here this weekend for the Michigan Republican Leadership Conference.  Having won both of her terms in the strongly Democratic years of 2000 and ’06, there’s an excellent chance the chickens will come home to roost for liberal Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 9.33%) in 2012.
“The Republican nominee will not have to spend an overwhelming amount of money to defeat Stabenow,” Michigan’s Republican National Committeeman Saul Anuzis told HUMAN EVENTS.  “Our candidate will get a tremendous boost just by tying her to Barack Obama—especially if the Republican nominee is Mitt Romney.”  (Anuzis has endorsed Romney, whom a  recent EPIC-MRA poll showed defeating Obama in Michigan by a margin of 46% to 43% statewide).
 Obviously encouraged by the early signs of a Republican year, seven GOP hopefuls have said they are running in the primary next August.  But the consensus of opinion among party activists here at the Grand Hotel was that, much like the Republican presidential contest, the race for the Senate nomination is between two candidates: former U.S. Rep. (1992 to 2010) Pete Hoekstra and Clark Durant, attorney and former Legal Services Corporation head under Ronald Reagan.
Hoekstra’s Support Strong, But His Record’s Under Fire
Were party chieftains to decide the candidate, the 57-year-old Hoekstra’s nomination would be a done deal.  A year after he placed second in the crowded Republican gubernatorial primary to current Gov. Rick Snyder, Hoekstra’s Senate bid has the blessings of Snyder and his other three former opponents from that race.  In addition, the Republican leaders of both houses of the state legislature and more than 1,000 party activists across the state have weighed in for Hoekstra (who hails from the most vote-rich part of the state for Republicans, western Michigan).
“And you can’t call me anything but a solid conservative,” Hoekstra (lifetime ACU rating: 90.94%) told HUMAN EVENTS, citing his voting record from different groups, and awards as a friend of the taxpayers from watchdog groups on government spending.
But it is on this point that Durant and his supporters beg to disagree—and plan to debate the degree of Hoekstra’s conservatism.
“Pete Hoekstra voted to raise the debt ceiling five times in a row after saying that the debt was ‘crushing our children’—his words,” Durant told reporters at the Grand Hotel.  “And he voted for earmarks such as the ‘Bridge to Nowhere,’ the TARP [Troubled Asset Relief Program] bailout of Wall Street—and his support for the Teamsters Union under [President James] Hoffa.”
Durant professed admiration for Hoekstra’s work on the House Committees on Education and Labor, and Intelligence, and the Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, saying, “He’d make a great secretary of education or head of Homeland Security.”  Nonetheless, Durant said, those votes by the former congressman mean that Hoekstra “has forfeited the mantle as a conservative candidate in 2012.”
Hoekstra, he charged, “can be marginalized by this record.  Clark Durant can never be marginalized.”
The former congressman dealt with Durant’s salvos head-on.  Recalling his vote for the TARP bailout, Hoekstra told us:  “That’s right.  I did vote for it, and I not only had calls from the [Bush] White House, but from small bankers in Scottville, near Holland [Mich.].  And knowing what we did, and the fear that a financial collapse would cause another Great Depression, I would do so again.”
The western Michigan resident also made no apologies for his past association with Hoffa, recalling how he chaired the House subcommittee whose revelations of Teamster corruption led to the ouster of the late union President Ron Carey and Hoffa’s subsequent election in a federally supervised election.  Hoekstra acknowledged that Hoffa has done outrageous things, such as his foul-mouthed Labor Day speech—“and I called him to voice my anger on that,” he said.  But Hoekstra also said he worked with Republicans to attempt to secure passage of oil drilling in Alaska in the 1990s.
Of Durant’s criticism, Hoekstra said:  “It’s easy for people who aren’t part of the process to criticize.”
The Outsider
Taking on the establishment runs in the 62-year-old Durant’s blood.  His late father, Dick Durant, was famous for mobilizing conservatives in the moderate-ruled Michigan GOP of the 1950s and ’60s.  Clark Durant himself ran as a “Reagan conservative” in the 1990 GOP Senate primary, but lost the nomination to then-Rep. (now State Attorney General) Bill Schuette.
If there is any major stumbling block in Durant’s candidacy, it is the oft-heard complaint that the ’90 primary bid was his last major political endeavor, and that he has not been very visible within the state Republican Party.  He countered that “there are other ways to be involved,” citing his work as president of the state board of education in the 1990s and as the father of the Cornerstone School, a successful charter school.
Already, numerous Tea Party groups throughout Michigan are signing on with Durant, who has hired as campaign manager Dick Wadhams, former Colorado state GOP chairman and quarterback of Republican John Thune’s dramatic defeat of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D.-S.D.) in ’04.
For more than 50 years in Michigan, Republicans backed by the party “establishment” have won contested primaries for governor or U.S. senator with one exception—1982, when anti-tax crusader and insurance company president Dick Headlee won the GOP primary for governor.  But as several at the Mackinac Island conference told HUMAN EVENTS, the art of politics is rapidly changing, and things thought set in cement a few years ago are not as certain now.  About the only certainty about the 2012 Senate race is that Debbie Stabenow will be facing the fight of her career.