WASHINGTON -- Democrats may be an endangered species in Michigan, where the re-election prospects of Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Sen. Debbie Stabenow are slipping, owing to one of the weakest state economies in the nation.
Granholm is in worse shape than Stabenow, but both have fallen below 50 percent in the latest polls in a political environment that has turned sour for their party, especially among Democratic blue-collar voters who have suffered the most from massive auto-industry layoffs and an unemployment rate that has hit 7 percent.
Late last month, a Michigan EPIC/MRA poll of likely voters showed that Republican gubernatorial challenger Dick DeVos was leading Granholm by 48 percent to 40 percent. That not only foreshadows a likely comeback for the GOP in the statehouse, but it has raised fears among the Stabenow campaign's high command that she could be caught in the undertow of an anti-incumbent tide in the state.
Granholm's deepening economic troubles are bad enough, signaling the GOP may well pick up several Democratic governorships to offset expected losses in New York and elsewhere. But Stabenow's race, which has been overlooked by the pundits, could well be the sleeper of the midterm elections.
She won in a squeaker in 2000 but since then has been one of the least effective senators in Washington, passing no major legislation of her own and taking no proactive leadership role on behalf of Michigan's failing economy. Stabenow has been one of the most invisible Democrats in the Senate.
Knowlegis, a government management group that ranks lawmakers as to their legislative effectiveness, places the senator near the bottom of their Senate list at No. 95.
But heading into this year, Republicans seemed unable to find a strong candidate to challenge Stabenow. Their hopes seemed centered on the Rev. Keith Butler, a former Detroit city councilman who does not have the political heft needed to finance and run a competitive campaign.
But then North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole, the Republican senatorial campaign committee chairperson, convinced popular Oakland County sheriff Mike Bouchard to get in the race.While Michigan Republicans must first go to the polls Aug. 8 to choose their candidate, Dole and other party leaders here have already anointed Bouchard as their candidate. In a whirlwind series of meetings here last month, former Michigan governor John Engler hosted a fundraiser for him, picking up $80,000, followed the next day by a closed-door luncheon with Dole and other Republican senators who promised their full support if, as expected, he wins the primary.
Bouchard's resume is impressive. He began as a cop on the beat who authored Michigan's Sex Offender Registry. He went on to win 14 elections, serving in the state Senate, where he became the minority floor leader, pushing through one of the state's largest tax cuts ever, and then was elected the top law-enforcement officer in the state's second largest county (1.3 million people) with more than 60 percent of the vote.
He made a name for himself as a national homeland-security leader who went to New York to work in the rubble after 9/11 and then brought assistance to New Orleans' victims in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
In an interview last week, Bouchard spoke confidently of his chances of beating Stabenow, whom he describes as a do-nothing liberal senator who has no record of accomplishment beyond voting against the interests of her state. "She doesn't cast a big shadow in Washington," he said.
"Debbie has been in Washington six years, and the only thing she has done herself is get a federal building named," Bouchard told me.
"She voted against every tax cut to help the economy," he said. "She has favored the liberal wing of her party instead of looking after the needs of Michigan and its workers. When I go to Washington, I will be the senator from Michigan, not the Republican from Michigan."
Michigan's workers are hurting. That's why business executive Dick DeVos, who has made economic recovery his No. 1 issue, is running ahead of Granholm. Bouchard says he will work closely with DeVos in the campaign to coordinate their message of economic revival. Whatever needs to be done in Congress to create jobs in Michigan, he will do, he said.
Notably, he doesn't see a senator's job as just working on legislation, but rather as an aggressive advocate for Michigan and its manufacturing workforce. "I would have no compunction talking to any employer that was thinking about bringing jobs to my state," he said.
Political translation: Debbie Stabenow has one tough fight ahead of her in November.