Pensler joins U.S. Senate race to take on Stabenow

Jonathan Oosting and Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Grosse Pointe businessman Sandy Pensler said he is prepared to spend millions of his own dollars as he seeks the Republican nomination to take on incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow in 2018.

Pensler, 61, is formally launching his campaign Monday after spending more than two months traveling the state and putting his business affairs in order so he can devote more time and energy to the run.

“I think the country is at a tipping point between two visions,” Pensler told The Detroit News in an exclusive interview ahead of his announcement.

“There’s one that is Washington directing things on a pathway that will lead to weakening of the country. And the other is putting individuals and markets in charge and empowering Michiganders to solve problems.”

Pensler is the founder of the Pensler Capital Corp. private investment firm. The turnaround specialist owns and operates four manufacturing plants that he said had faced potential closure when he bought them, including a Korex Corp. facility in Wixom that produces detergent products.

Pensler joins a GOP primary race that includes former Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bob Young and John James, a businessman and military veteran from Farmington Hills. James had $216,200 in the bank to Young’s $102,000, while Stabenow had a nearly $7 million campaign war chest at the end of September.

But Pensler said he is willing to spend millions on the race.

“I don’t think we can effectively get our message out without that kind of commitment,” he said.

Stabenow won re-election by wide margins in 2006 and 2012, but Pensler called her a “career politician” whom he is ready to take on. Former Congressman Pete Hoekstra of Holland ran “a good campaign” six years ago but was “severely underfunded,” he said.

“We won’t have that problem. We’ll have sufficient funds.”

Experts say the race for the Republican nomination is relatively wide open after U.S. Rep. Fred Upton of St. Joseph, the party’s elder statesman in Congress, said Friday he will not run for Senate.

If Pensler spends millions of his own money, “that would certainly change the race,” said Dave Dulio, chairman of the Oakland University political science department.

None of the Republican candidates have wide name recognition in Michigan, Dulio said.

“They’ll start 2018 on the same level. That’s good for all of them. There’s not one person up front with a lot of name ID, so that they’d have to spend a lot of money to get out in front.”

Stabenow is one of 10 Senate Democrats up for re-election next year in a state that GOP President Donald Trump won in 2016. But it is unclear whether national Republican groups will spend heavily in the general election now that Upton has opted out.

Mid-term elections tend to favor the party that does not control the White House — in this case, the Democrats.

“Given how many other Senate races are out there, I don’t know if Michigan is ever going to fully activate as a top-tier race,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

“It very well could, I don’t know. But Republicans certainly have a history of striking out in the Senate in Michigan for the past several cycles. I don’t think it’s a top-tier race, as of right now.”

Pensler said he was surprised that Upton opted against a run but had planned to enter the race regardless.

Stabenow “doesn’t understand economics,” he said. Pensler has two economics degrees from Yale University and has taught there, according to his campaign. He also has a law degree from Harvard University.

“She’s never seen an entitlement system that she doesn’t want to expand or a tax she doesn’t want to increase,” Pensler said. “It’s not that her intentions were wrong ... but the unintended consequences of almost every one of her actions and her policies seems to be to hurt the people she is trying to help.”

Most Michigan Republicans competing in party primaries for 2018 are standing by President Donald Trump despite his sluggish approval ratings. Pensler is no exception, saying that while he does not agree with the president 100 percent of the time, “his policies have been terrific.”

“His personality and mine aren’t the same, but frankly, I don’t think he would have gotten elected without those attributes,” Pensler said.

Pensler has never held political office but ran for Congress in 1992, losing in the 8th District Republican primary. He lived in Okemos at the time.

Pensler was born in Michigan and raised in Detroit. He split time between Michigan and the East Coast as an adult and has lived in Grosse Point during the past five years with his wife, Anita, and two children.

Pensler applauded the U.S. House for approving a major tax reform plan on Thursday but said he is trying to alert the Michigan delegation to a “big problem” with the legislation.

As it stands, the measure could actually lead to a tax increase for some small businesses, including many Michigan manufacturers, he said, adding “That will get fixed.”

All three Republicans seeking the U.S. Senate nomination attended this month’s Macomb County GOP speech by former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who is locked in a virtual war with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.

Asked if he would stand by McConnell if elected to the Senate, Pensler said the majority leader needs to get more done to earn his support.

“If he can get health care, immigration, tax reform done, terrific,” Pensler said. “Otherwise ... he shouldn’t be the leader. It’s a results-driven analysis for me. So far he hasn’t gotten it done.”

Staff Writer Melissa Nann Burke contributed.