Upton, Pensler move toward Senate race decisions

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Mackinac Island — U.S. Rep. Fred Upton said Saturday he is continuing to inch toward a decision on running for the U.S. Senate but is not planning making the call this week or next.

Upton was among possible, likely or declared Senate candidates jockeying for position – and donor support – at the Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference.

“This has been a very important week,” Upton told The Detroit News outside a crowded reception he hosted on the island. “Obviously the Republican pooh-bahs from all over the state are here, and I’m listening.”

Grosse Pointe businessman Sandy Pensler is also considering a run and said he is prepared to spend millions of his own dollars as Republicans gear up for the chance to take on Democrat incumbent Debbie Stabenow of Lansing in 2018.

Pensler, who runs a private equity firm and has an economics degree from Yale University, criticized Stabenow and said he couldn’t “sit on the sidelines” while she runs for re-election. He currently owns four manufacturing plants that had faced potential closure, including a facility in Wixom that makes detergent products.

“Hopefully with my turnaround background and my economist background, I can follow through on what things work rather than just what sounds nice,” he said. “I think that’s differentiating between me and pretty much everyone else at this point.”

Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bob Young and Farmington Hills businessman John James are the only declared Republicans, and both had significant presences at the biennial GOP confab. They are also both African-Americans in a party that has not been as racially diverse as the Democratic Party.

Young supporters peppered the island wearing sticker bow ties mimicking his signature neckwear. James backers wore T-shirts with images of Apache helicopters he flew in the U.S. Army.

But Upton, a St. Joseph Republican who would likely seek re-election to the U.S. House if he doesn’t run for Senate, made the biggest splash with “Upton 2018!” stickers, Facebook ads and a Saturday reception that featured free champagne and high-profile guests, including Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and congressional colleagues.

Young, who has the backing of former Michigan Gov. John Engler, said Friday his Senate campaign is going “very well” and is not concerned by a potential Upton run.

He called himself a strong supporter of the U,S. Constitution and an “authentic conservative” whose message is resonating with Republican voters.

“I’m not a swamp dweller,” Young said, explaining why he is positioning himself as an outsider candidate despite three statewide elections to the state Supreme Court. “These are people who think Washington is toxic and antithetical to what they expect from their federal government.”

James, an Iraq War veteran and political newcomer, called it an honor to meet Republican officials and activists who have accepted him with “open arms” because of their shared values.

“This place right now, this is the Alamo, this is Michigan’s Alamo,” James said of the GOP conference at the historic Grand Hotel, “because you have people who believe very, very strongly in protecting the United States Constitution, and it’s under attack.”

James was joined on the island by his family, including his father, prominent Detroit businessman John A. James, who donated to Stabenow during the 2012 election cycle but is now proudly supporting his son.

He too downplayed a potential Upton run.

“I believe that it’ll be tough to beat a 40-year career politician with a 30-year career politician,” he said. “I believe my contrast is strongest, and it’s what Michiganders who I’ve been speaking with truly want, a conservative outsider who understands how to keep America safe and create jobs.”

Former Michigan Republican Party Chairman Saul Anuzis said the GOP has already fielded “very strong” candidates for the U.S. Senate but said Upton would enter the race as the favorite, should he jump in.

“It takes two things to win an election: money and everything else,” Anuzis said. “If you’re in a race against someone like Debbie Stabenow, you have to have something different, and you have to be in position to win.”

Young and James could be “viable,” he added, “but the question is, who’s the strongest and who’s in the best position. I think it’d be hard to argue that Fred isn’t today, but a lot can change.”