Finley: GOP slow to start 2018 Senate race

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

The question everyone asks about Michigan politics looking toward 2018 is, “Who’s going to run for governor?”

An open gubernatorial seat has been firing up speculation for nearly two years already, and hopefuls from both parties have long been off and running.

But there’s not much talk yet about the other big race on the ballot that fall — the U.S. Senate seat Debbie Stabenow will be defending.

Stabenow, a Democrat, is expected to seek her fourth term. And no Republicans have expressed interest in taking her on.

That may be because of the senator’s impressive campaign record. She defeated incumbent Spencer Abraham to capture the seat, then turned back well-known and well-funded challengers Michael Bouchard, Oakland County sheriff, and Pete Hoekstra, then a congressman.

Those were among the best names Republicans had to offer, but she beat them handily.

And she’ll have barrels of campaign money; she has $2.5 million on hand, and much more will come in over the next two years.

Consider as well that Michigan hasn’t elected a Republican to the Senate in more than 20 years and you get a feel for why no one is clamoring to be the GOP’s sacrificial lamb in 2018.

But a Stabenow re-election is not automatic, particularly after Donald Trump became the first Republican presidential candidate to win here since 1988.

A state that had been solidly blue in federal elections suddenly turned red on the strength of a candidate who connected with voters. That will make the Republican money look hard at Michigan’s potential in 2018.

The first challenge will be finding the perfect candidate. Conventional wisdom and the experience of Abraham, Bouchard and Hoekstra suggests sending a man into the battle against Stabenow might not be the smartest choice.

And Trump’s victory here suggests the best choice might be someone from outside the political world.

No names pop into my head at the moment. But there’s still time to find and develop a candidate who fits at least half of those requirements.

There are some wild cards to consider when weighing the GOP’s chances of upending Stabenow.

First is how successful Trump will be in his first two years. Midterm congressional elections are tough on the party that holds the White House. If Trump tanks, 2018 could be a washout. If his policies trigger an economic boom, GOP House and Senate candidates should benefit.

The other factor to watch is the return of Ron Weiser as chairman of the Michigan Republican Party. Weiser, a newly elected University of Michigan regent, is a master fundraiser and political strategist.

He orchestrated the state party’s smashing victories in 2010, and was a key member of the national party’s fundraising team this year.

If elected chairman, Weiser could bring in enough dollars to not only worry Stabenow, but also to break Michigan’s longstanding pattern of not electing a new governor from the same party as the outgoing governor.

Nolan Finley’s book “Little Red Hen: A Collection of Columns from Detroit’s Conservative Voice” is available from Amazon, iBooks, and Barnes & Noble Nook.