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A national group focused on electing Republicans to the U.S. Senate is rolling out a new Michigan ad Tuesday targeting Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Lansing, an early sign the GOP could make a real run at a seat it hasn’t held in 16 years.

The ad, set to air during the University of Michigan versus Michigan State men’s basketball game on ESPN, seeks to put pressure on Stabenow to confirm Neil Gorsuch, President Donald Trump’s pick to fill a vacant seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee says the limited-run ad is part of an “aggressive” media campaign targeting Senate Democrats in states Trump won on Nov. 8. It’s the first paid ad by the NRSC in Michigan for the 2018 election cycle.

Stabenow has twice coasted to re-election in the Senate and at this point is “hands down the top Democrat in the state,” said Susan Demas, editor of Inside Michigan Politics. But Trump’s surprise win here — the first by a Republican presidential candidate since 1988 — has party leaders “feeling their oats” and believing they could spin gold again to take down Stabenow in 2018, she said.

“They did what everybody thought was impossible — they won Michigan with the top of the ticket,” Demas said.

As The Detroit News reported last week, U.S. Rep. Fred Upton of St. Joseph is considering a Senate run. Upton, the senior Republican in Michigan’s congressional delegation, doesn’t have the same name identification as Stabenow but “would be a very dangerous challenger,” Demas said.

The new TV commercial, a so-called issue ad because it does not encourage votes for or against a political candidate, directs viewers to call Stabenow and tell her to “put your country ahead of your party” by encouraging Democratic leadership to allow a vote on Gorsuch’s nomination.

Stabenow has said she’ll “do her job,” meet with Gorsuch and review his record. But Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has promised to filibuster the nominee, arguing it is important the Colorado judge be “mainstream” enough to win support from at least some Democrats. There are 52 Republicans in the Senate, but breaking a filibuster would require 60 votes.

“Stabenow’s Democrats want to block a vote” on Gorsuch, a narrator says in the ad. The commercial attempts to link Stabenow to Schumer while recalling her own comments from last year, when she encouraged Senate Republicans to hold confirmation hearings for Judge Merrick Garland, who then-President Barack Obama had nominated for the Supreme Court.

Stabenow has not joined Schumer in calling for a filibuster over Gorusch but has continued to criticize Republicans for failing to allow a hearing on Garland, let alone a vote. His nomination languished for more than nine months before it expired Jan. 3.

“I have deep concerns about Judge Gorsuch and the impact his rulings would have on Michigan families,” Stabenow said in a statement. “Although Republicans for over a year refused to do their job and blocked the previous Supreme Court nominee, I take my responsibilities as a senator seriously and plan to meet with him and thoroughly review his record.”

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Hills, is taking a similar approach.

“While Republicans refused to even hold a hearing for Merrick Garland, Sen. Peters believes there should be a hearing process for Neil Gorsuch because the American people deserve to hear from the any Supreme Court nominee,” a spokesperson said.

Stabenow, a former U.S. representative and state legislator, won election to the Senate in 2000, narrowly defeating incumbent Republican Sen. Spence Abraham by less than three percentage points.

The Lansing Democrat has since topped Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard by 15 percentage points in 2006 and besting former U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Holland by more than 20 points in 2012.

Much like retired Sen. Carl Levin before her, Stabenow is “reaching the point where Republicans might just be expected to pack it in and not make a serious effort to take her out,” said Bill Ballenger, a longtime Michigan political pundit and former GOP state legislator. “But then came the shocker – and that was Trump winning Michigan.”

While Trump was an outsider with a unique voice, Ballenger said potential candidates like Upton or former U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers of Brighton could make things interesting for Stabenow in 2018.

“She’s far more liberal than I think the mainstream voter in this state is,” Ballenger said. “I think she’s potentially vulnerable. The problem is you can’t beat something with nothing.”

Incoming Michigan Republican Party Chairman Ron Weiser, who will be formally elected to the state party post this weekend, said he has not had any direct discussions with Upton about challenging Stabenow.

“Well, we have to find a good candidate,” he said of the Senate race. “I’m not sure whether Fred is interested in being a candidate. He has not called me, and I’ve had discussions with a few other people, and we’ll find out who the candidates are gonna be, because there could be more than one. There could be a primary.”

Stabenow’s 2012 blowout win over Hoekstra was aided by former President Barack Obama’s double-digit margin of victory in Michigan, “but you can’t overlook the fact she is a very hard worker, a hard campaigner and a very good fundraiser,” Demas said.

Regardless of Stabenow’s electoral muscle, Republicans are “clearly rearing to go, candidate or no,” Demas said. “We’ll see if they can get a top-tier nominee, but they’re certainly trying to lay the groundwork for one.”

joosting@detroitnews.com

Staff Writer Michael Gerstein contributed

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