It’s not Christmas in July yet, but Debbie Stabenow got an early gift with more Republicans getting in the race against the incumbent Democrat United States senator.
Bob Young Jr., who was thrice elected statewide to Michigan Supreme Court only to resign from the bench earlier this year, is the latest entrant into the campaign for the Republican senatorial nomination.
Others hoping to be the GOP’s standard-bearer in November 2018 are party apparatchik Lena Epstein, businessman John James and venture capitalist Sandy Pensler.
James and Pensler haven’t formally declared their candidacies, but both have retained Lansing-based political consultants, multiple sources confirmed. Then there’s Fred Upton, the longtime congressman who has publicly flirted with running despite the obvious challenges for a moderate Republican once booed by the Republican State Convention to win over the truest of true believers.
To be sure, the presence of four or five credible candidates, including at least two who could self-fund much or all of their campaigns, is an indication that both state and national Republicans think Stabenow is vulnerable as she seeks a fourth term representing the Wolverine State in the upper house of Congress.
The problem is it’s difficult for whomever the party nominates to actually win.
That’s because there will be little time for the GOP’s disparate factions to unify after a battle royal between three, four or even five candidates and assemble a viable general election campaign between the day after the primary election on Aug. 7, 2018, and when absentee ballots become available some seven weeks later.
The Michigan Republican Party has known for years that waiting until August to select a nominee makes it difficult for a challenger emerging from a competitive primary to unseat an incumbent Democrat.
Changing the rules in the middle of the game isn’t easy. Just ask the party bosses who unsuccessfully tinkered with how to nominate a candidate for lieutenant governor earlier this month. Still, it’s something Republicans need to do, if the party wants Michigan to have one of their own as senator for the first time since Stabenow defeated then-incumbent Spencer Abraham way back in 2000.
Otherwise, candidates for the senatorial nomination will spend the next year focused on each other while Stabenow continues tacking toward the political center in her desperate attempt to adjust to an electoral landscape changed by Trump’s win here last year.
Between Trump taking the Democratic bastions of Bay and Saginaw counties and doing surprisingly well in Genesee County — to say nothing of the generally more favorable conditions in non-presidential election cycles — it’s clear that the right Republican can defeat Stabenow.
Republicans need to use their majority in the Legislature to amend state election law and make the old May school board election the new date of the primary.
Democrats will predictably cry foul, but the reality is that such a change, which accurately reflects the realities of modern-day political campaigning, ultimately benefits both parties in numerous races up-and-down the ballot.
Dennis Lennox is a strategic communications and public affairs consultant.