Upton inches closer to GOP Senate race

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Congressman Fred Upton is positioning himself for a potential U.S. Senate run but says he hasn’t reached a final decision as he prepares to join nearly 2,000 Republican donors and activists on Mackinac Island for a conference focused on 2018 and beyond.

While aides maintain Upton is not planning any public announcement at this weekend’s Mackinac GOP Leadership Conference, Michigan’s senior Republican in Congress is expected to continue laying the groundwork for an increasingly likely campaign to take on incumbent Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow.

Upton, a 64-year-old who lives in St. Joseph, is set to host a Saturday afternoon island reception just outside the official confab that will feature Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and the state’s entire GOP congressional delegation.

The invite features a logo with “Upton 2018!” overtop an outline of the state. The southwest Michigan congressman is running a new online advertisement with a similar statewide theme, saying he’s “fighting for conservative values” while urging supporters to “stand with me, and let’s win Michigan in 2018!”

“We’re actively exploring” a Senate run, Upton told The Detroit News on Tuesday as he and fellow Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, were honored as Michiganians of the Year for their commitment to bipartisanship in Washington, D.C.

“This is a good week for me to be home, covering the state like a blanket in a lot of different ways, asking people’s input, and we’ll see where it takes us.”

Two Republican insiders familiar with the situation say Upton is leaning toward a Senate campaign.

If he does enter the race, Upton would join a GOP primary field that includes former Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bob Young and Farmington Hills businessman John James, who made his “exploratory” campaign official on Thursday. Grosse Pointe businessman Sandy Pensler is also considering a run. All three are expected on Mackinac.

Entertainer Robert Ritchie, better known as Kid Rock, has flirted with a Senate run and remains a wild card, but he is not registered for the island conference.

Bloomfield Township businesswoman Lena Epstein withdrew from the Senate race this week to join what is shaping up to be a crowded 11th Congressional District campaign to replace U.S. Rep. Dave Trott, R-Birmingham, who is retiring at the end of 2018.

The prospect of an Upton Senate campaign is already generating interest from potential candidates for his 6th Congressional District seat, including state Sen. John Proos, R-St. Joseph.

“Fred Upton has not made any decisions that I’ve seen nor heard, but he sure is beginning to act like a candidate for U.S. Senate, and I’ll begin to act like a candidate for U.S. Congress if there’s an open seat,” Proos said this week.

“Obviously we’ll be on Mackinac this week, and there’s certainly plenty of discussion and machinations and everybody talking about who does what and where, and the potential of two open congressional seats.”

Several Democrats have already filed for the House race, hoping to take on Upton or compete for an open seat. They include 2016 nominee Paul Clements, Matt Longjohn, David Benac, Rich Eichholz and Eponine Garrod.

“I would suspect that, should I choose to run for the Senate, there will be a pretty active primary on both sides of the aisle,” Upton said.

DeVos headlines confab

The Mackinac GOP conference, which begins Friday and runs through a Sunday brunch, remains a popular spot for declared and prospective candidates to mingle with potential supporters and test their messages heading into an election year.

With Republican President Donald Trump in the White House, the 32nd biennial confab will lack some of the star power of recent years that featured presidential aspirants working the porch at the historic Grand Hotel.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a Michigan native and school choice advocate, will headline the 2017 conference.

Other keynote speakers include Republican National Committeewoman Ronna Romney McDaniel of Michigan, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, former Michigan Gov. John Engler and former Congressman turned Fox News personality Jason Chaffetz of Utah.

Michigan Republican Party Chairman Ron Weiser said he is “thrilled” with the lineup but acknowledged it is easier to attract speakers “when you’ve got a presidential election coming up, because all the presidential candidates want to come to your convention.”

Vice President Mike Pence showed interest in speaking at the weekend event but was ultimately unable to attend because of security and logistical issues, Weiser said.

“But we’ll get another visit from him,” he added. “He promised me that in return.”

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, who is running for governor in 2018, and potential primary opponent Lt. Gov. Brian Calley will both participate in a state leadership panel discussion Saturday afternoon. Both are hosting island parties as well.

Republicans are riding high after a series of high-profile electoral wins, including Trump’s surprise victory in Michigan’s November 2016 election.

The GOP controls all three branches of the state and federal governments. But in Michigan, term limits will open seats for governor, attorney general, secretary of state, state House and Senate, presenting Democrats with an opportunity to make significant gains.

The Republican Party “has some real problems” heading into the conference, said Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon, suggesting the GOP is “out of touch” with the priorities and values of working-class voters.

“You’ve got a president who is erratic and has not fulfilled his campaign promises, you’ve got a governor and attorney general who are constantly at odds, and I think you’re going to have very divisive primaries potentially for U.S. Senate and governor.”

Weiser said Republicans are confident that voters will want to continue on a path GOP leaders have started.

“I think they have to answer the question of whether they’re better off now than they were in 2010, and what it was like the previous eight years before that,” he said.

GOP targets Stabenow

Republicans will attempt to maintain control of state government in 2018, but the party also believes it has a realistic opportunity to challenge Stabenow, who has held her seat since defeating incumbent GOP Sen. Spence Abraham in 2000.

Stabenow is a strong fundraiser who won re-election by large margins in 2012 and 2006. But the Lansing resident is a GOP target as one of 10 Senate Democrats up for re-election in a state that Trump won.

Young, positioning himself as an outsider candidate, is vowing to “reform and disrupt — to do as much damage as possible to the ‘business as usual’ D.C. ways.”

He is attempting to show strength as Upton considers a run. Young announced endorsements this week from Engler, former Michigan Supreme Court Justice Maura Corrigan, state Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof and 15 other current or former state legislators.

Upton has a “very senatorial style” and could be a formidable candidate if he gets in the race, “but it would depend on the type of campaign he runs,” said GOP strategist Greg McNeilly of Grand Rapids.

“A lot of these elections come down to who people are more comfortable with in a leadership position,” McNeilly said. “I think people would be very comfortable with Fred as a U.S. senator and that he would never embarrass us. If that comes through in a campaign, that could be a really compelling narrative for him.”

Dillon said Democrats will not take the Senate race for granted and argued Upton has “some big explaining to do” on various fronts, including his prominent role in passage of a House Republican plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act federal health care law.

Stabenow is “an incredibly strong public servant” who works for the interests of average people, “not the Koch brothers or the DeVoses,” Dillon said.

While Young has criticized Stabenow, Upton has refrained as he maintains a working relationship with her in D.C. It is uncertain how aggressively he would attack the incumbent if he jumped into the race.

“For any member of our delegation, we all have our disagreements for sure, but I’m proud of the fact that on lots of issues that impact Michigan, we have never let partisanship take us down,” Upton said.

Staff Reporter Melissa Nann Burke contributed.

Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference

When: Friday, Sept. 22, through Sunday, Sept. 24

What: A biennial gathering of Republicans at the historic Grand Hotel

Who: More than 1,900 people registered for the conference

Friday keynote speakers: U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel

Saturday keynote speakers: Former Michigan Gov. John Engler, former Congressman Jason Chaffetz of Utah, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin and U.S. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California.

Source: Michigan Republican Party