Jacques: Upton waffles on Senate run

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

When U.S. Rep. Fred Upton was at the Republican Leadership Conference on Mackinac Island a few weeks ago, he was sending all the signals that he would soon be getting in the U.S. Senate race to unseat longtime Democratic incumbent Sen. Debbie Stabenow.

According to several GOP insiders, it wasn’t a matter of whether Upton would run, but when he would announce.

Today, however, the congressman from St. Joseph appears to be having second thoughts. One source familiar with Upton’s deliberation says the congressman has gone from “95 percent” certain he’d run to “more like 50-50.”

“He’s gone coy over the last few days,” the source told me.

So what’s changed his mind, or at least leading him to waffle in his decision?

Upton did not return a call seeking comment. But those close to Upton say he’s in part concerned about former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon thrusting himself into many Senate races. Even though Bannon is largely targeting incumbent establishment Republicans, moderate members of Congress — like Upton — know they could also end up in his vindictive cross-hairs.

Upton was one of the only Republicans in Michigan’s delegation who never endorsed Trump leading up to the election, so it’s easy to see why he may fear he has a target on his back.

He may also be weighing the reality that beating such a well-funded Democratic incumbent in a mid-term election under a Republican president is always going to be a long shot. The senator has $7 million in her war chest, and that’s growing by the day.

Upton enjoys the safety of a congressional seat in a district he’s represented in west Michigan since he was elected to Congress in 1986. That’s a lot to risk.

Two other Republican candidates are currently in the race: Political newcomer and Detroit businessman John James and former Michigan Supreme Court chief justice Bob Young. Lena Epstein, businesswoman and former Michigan campaign co-chair for President Trump, bowed out of the Senate race to seek the seat being vacated by Rep. Dave Trott, R-Birmingham.

Young and James are framing themselves as candidates who fully back the president and would work to advance his agenda if elected. Upton’s not likely to make such a pledge. Given the passion of the Trump base in Michigan, that would make it harder for him to even win the chance to face Stabenow.

With vigorous support from his own party, Upton, a moderate with solid general election appeal, could be a formidable challenger next fall.

But winning a key seat matters less to Bannon and his followers than bringing ideological purity to the Republican Senate caucus.

Sticking it to fellow Republicans is an odd priority when the GOP should be focused on turning the 10 Democratic seats — including Stabenow’s — in states Trump won last November.

Though content in the House, Upton is said to be having trouble adjusting to the loss of his chairmanship of the influential House Energy and Commerce Committee at the start of the year. He had to give up the post under GOP term limit rules. His status in Congress isn’t the same, and that might make the Senate bid alluring.

Upton’s flirtation with a Stabenow challenge has already set in motion a scramble to replace him in the House. Current state Sen. John Proos, R-St. Joseph, is term-limited in the Legislature and plotting his next move, and has publicly stated he’d run if Upton gets out.

And former state Rep. Aric Nesbitt of Lawton is also closely eyeing a run. He was term-limited in the House last year, and Gov. Rick Snyder appointed him in February as state lottery commissioner. But Nesbitt wants to return to elected office, and it’s not often congressional seats come open.

Those decisions are tied to what Upton chooses to do. And as of this week, he seems more likely to stay put and comfortable rather than jump into what surely will be a ferocious fight with Stabenow.