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Senate Races 2014: Why Michigan Never Became Iowa

Peters is the Democratic nominee in Michigan. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Earlier this cycle, Republicans viewed the Michigan Senate race as a potential pick-up opportunity, much like the seat in Iowa.

But it didn’t turn out that way — not even close.

Both Iowa and Michigan featured open-seat races. In these states, Democrats had cleared the field to nominate a House member with partisan voting records. Meanwhile, the GOP’s top candidate picks took a pass on these Senate races, forcing the party to settle for second-tier recruits. To be sure, Michigan was a slightly more favorable battleground for Democrats — but Republicans were bullish about it.

Now, with two weeks until Election Day, the Iowa race is a dead heat with both parties spending massively to win the seat. Nearly 500 miles away, Rep. Gary Peters, D-Mich., solidly leads former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land in every public poll. Earlier this month, the National Republican Senatorial Committee pulled more than $850,000 out of the state, canceling its final two weeks of television for Land and indicating the race was over.

“I’d rather be on Gary Peters’ campaign than on Terri Lynn Land’s,” said Michigan Republican consultant Dennis Darnoi.

So what happened?

The Iowa race had distinct events that changed the trajectory of the race: a television ad about castrating hogs that propelled Republican Joni Ernst to an overwhelming primary win; a video showing Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, denigrating Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, as “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school.”

By contrast, the Michigan race has been “sort of boring,” in the words of state Democratic consultant Mark Grebner.

There has been no game-changing remark. There were no debates (the two campaigns could not agree on a format), so there was “no zinger moment,” said Darnoi. Republicans were never able to get off a clean, clear hit on Peters the way they did on Braley.

In Michigan, Republicans have attacked Peters on immigration, health care and for owning stock in a company that produces petcoke — a gross manufacturing byproduct the congressman has condemned. The Land campaign maintains this is an example of Peters’ hypocrisy. But political observers said they discern no single, clear line of attack with which to define the opposition – on either side of the aisle.

“The messages have been all over the place,” said Michigan GOP consultant Dan Pero.

“Our message is simple: You can’t believe anything Gary Peters says,” Land campaign spokeswoman Heather Swift pushed back. “He says he supports women, meanwhile he pays women in his office 67 cents on the dollar. He says he’s against Petcoke, meanwhile he owns Petcoke stock. He marched with Occupy Wall Street, meanwhile he was a Wall Street broker. The guy will say literally anything to get elected. You always know where Terri Lynn Land stands — she has a record of putting Michigan First. She’s made government work before, she’ll do it again.”

But unlike Ernst, Land never had a break-out moment like the “castrating hogs” spot. Her most memorable ad tried to rebut “war on women” attacks by pointing out that she is a woman. For about 11 seconds of the ad, she sat there drinking coffee, looking at her watch, and not saying anything. It was widely panned.

Instead, Land’s most memorable moment on the campaign trail was in May, when she burst out in a scrum of reporters, “I can’t do this. I talk with my hands,” as they asked her questions. Since then, story after story has portrayed Land as hiding from the media, with national reporters traveling to Michigan to find unannounced campaign events.

Darnoi pointed out Republicans had not been sold on Land’s candidacy since the beginning. Like Ernst, Land was not the top choice: There were early efforts to recruit Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., to run. He passed.

Meanwhile, Ernst exceeded expectations as a candidate, proving one of the best retail politicians this cycle.

What’s more, Peters had experience with tough races. In 2002, he lost a bid for state attorney general by 5,200 votes. In 2008, he challenged an established Republican and won handily. In 2010, Peters fought a Republican wave but survived by fewer than 3 points — becoming just one of a few Democrats in competitive districts who voted for President Barack Obama’s health care law.

In 2012, Republicans targeted Peters when they redrew the state’s congressional map, effectively eliminating his district. He took on another member in strong Democratic, majority-minority district and won by a double-digit margin.

Compare that to Braley: Since he won his first term in 2006, he’s had relatively easy re-election challenges with one exception. In 2010, he won re-election by a couple points.

Of course, Michigan and Iowa are different states politically. Both states have GOP governors, but Michigan is more favorable statewide for Democrats. Obama won Michigan by 10 points in 2012; he won Iowa by 6.

Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of that difference comes next week, when Obama will campaign for Peters. First lady Michelle Obama has campaigned for Braley instead.

Regardless, it’s hard to see how Land recovers in the final weeks.

Public polling heavily favors the Democrat. A Detroit News poll from early October found Peters ahead by 9 points, 44 percent to 35 percent. It follows a string of polls that found him leading Land anywhere from 5 to 11 points. Since April, Land has led in only two polls — one in July and one in late August.

Still, Republicans argue the race is not over in Michigan.

Even with the NRSC no longer spending there, there is a huge amount of money flowing into the state to help Land. Much of it is coming from Ending Spending Action Fund, which, as of Tuesday, had spent $4.8 million to boost Land and attack Peters since the beginning of August. A source tracking media buys says the group has not reserved air time for the final week.

“Land is down, but I think that race is going to close,” said NRSC executive director Rob Collins.

The Republican ground game had reached 3.5 million voters as of Monday, said Michigan GOP spokesman Darren Littell.

“I think that’s premature in a state like Michigan, and particularly if you look at the national environment,” said GOP consultant Stu Standler.

The Michigan race is rated Favored Democratic by the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call.

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