Young drops out of GOP Senate race in Michigan

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Former Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Young Jr. said Wednesday he is dropping out of the race for U.S. Senate in Michigan after months of lackluster fund-raising.

Young, a Detroit native, told WJR’s Frank Beckmann that he hopes his departure would help Republicans coalesce around a “principled conservative” in the campaign to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Lansing.

“The only way to successfully retire Debbie Stabenow is through the early selection of a consensus conservative candidate who will remain true to conservative values and the rule of law, and who can focus the party’s resources on winning in November,” Young said in a Wednesday morning statement.

“I want to thank the donors, volunteers and party leaders who have backed my campaign, and I urge you to join me in continuing the important work of retiring Debbie Stabenow in 2018.”

Young acknowledged low fund-raising numbers for his campaign, saying he never got the backing of major GOP donors.

“I didn’t have apparently enough appeal to the major donors out there who may be waiting to see who emerges as the leading candidate,” he told WJR.

Young’s biggest endorsement came from Republican former Gov. John Engler, who appointed Young to the state’s highest court in 1999.

Businessman John James, 36, of Farmington Hills brought in nearly two times as much money as Young of Laingsburg for the quarter ending Sept. 30, reporting about $309,150 in receipts to Young’s $156,000. Totals for the last quarter of 2017 have not been reported.

Young had just $102,000 in the bank at the end of the third quarter, while James had $216,200 and Stabenow had nearly $7 million on hand, according to campaign finance reports.

Financier Sandy Pensler, 61, of Grosse Pointe entered the race in November and pledged to spend millions of dollars from his personal fortune to win the GOP nomination.

Historic preservationist Bobb Carr is also running as a Republican. Carr, who lives on Mackinac Island, lost a 1996 challenge to former U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Menominee.

Young told WJR he believes he could have won the nomination. But multiple candidates competing in the Republican primary contest in August leads to a “war of attrition” that doesn’t give the eventual nominee enough momentum to mount a winning challenge to Stabenow in the fall, he said.

“I think having three significant challengers in a contested primary makes it more likely that she will prevail,” he told WJR. “I don’t need another public office, and I thought the better course to ensure her defeat was to step aside.”

Young did not endorse another candidate but said he would back the eventual Republican nominee.

David Dulio, chair of the political science department at Oakland University, said it’s unclear how Young’s departure could change the dynamics of the race, in part because neither James nor Pensler is well-known statewide.

“I think we have to see how things go in the next couple of months before we can really get a sense of who’s favored or who looks like the front runner,” Dulio said.

“If we see some good fund-raising numbers from James for the last quarter, that’s a good sign. And that might cause Pensler to take some action on his end. But until we see who’s going to have the funds they need to mount a serious challenge, it’s kind of status quo.”

James said Wednesday he had bumped into Young when he was with young man on the street during the early days of his campaign.

“I had the opportunity to share with this young man what Justice Young has meant to our state and to our party, and I meant every word,” James said in a statement.

“Justice Young is a true trailblazer, and we owe him a great deal of gratitude and respect. His wisdom and class are only exceeded by his love for God and country.”

Pensler called Young a “great leader” for Michigan and an “unwavering supporter of the Constitution.”

“I will miss his wit, wisdom and bow ties on the campaign trail and wish him and his family all the best in the future,” Pensler said in a statement.

Michigan Republican Party Chairman Ron Weiser said he was thankful to Young for his years of service, saying he would continue to be a “tremendous asset” to the GOP.

“Despite not running for office himself, Bob has assured me that he will be actively involved in the 2018 elections,” Weiser said in a Wednesday statement. “He is a principled conservative, our party is lucky to have him, and I look forward to working with him.”

Tom Shields, a Lansing-based Republican consultant, said historically it’s been difficult for GOP candidates to get traction early in U.S. Senate races in Michigan.

“A lot of people sit back and wait to see who wins the primary and then back the nominee, which is too late. It’s a losing strategy,” Shields said.

“Then they’re woefully behind in trying to compete against someone well-financed like Debbie Stabenow. It’s a never-ending cycle.”

And while Supreme Court races are statewide campaigns, the candidates only run once every eight years.

“They are high-profile races for the party, but they aren’t profile races for the general electorate. People can’t name two Supreme Court justices if you ask them,” said Shields, who ran two of Young’s campaigns for the high court and now works with Pensler.

Young, 66, of Laingsburg spent 18 years on the state’s high court before retiring in late April. He returned to private practice at the Dickinson Wright law firm, where he is affiliated with the Lansing office. He has also been an adjunct professor at Michigan State University College of Law.

His colleagues on the court selected him for an unprecedented three consecutive two-year terms as chief justice.

As a candidate, President Donald Trump included Young on a list of 21 judges, justices and other officials he would consider appointing to the nation’s high court.

Young has dismissed his chances of getting a U.S. Supreme Court nomination, saying he is too old.

Staff writer Michael Gerstein contributed