LANSING (AP) – After representing Michigan’s most conservative congressional district for nearly two decades, Pete Hoekstra contends his Republican opponents “are totally off base” in trying to convince voters they’re farther to the right.
Yet that was a familiar refrain during his unsuccessful primary bid for governor in 2010, and he’s hearing it again as the presumed GOP favorite in the race to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow.
Hoekstra cites a congressional resume that included high marks from the American Conservative Union, vocal support for less government intrusion and his role co-founding the House Tea Party Caucus with Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann.
“People recognize, for my time in Congress, I was consistently the most conservative member of the Michigan congressional delegation,” the Holland Republican said. “People are saying, `If Pete’s not OK, what does that say about everyone else?”‘
Following the GOP sweep of statewide offices in the 2010 state elections, the lure of ousting Stabenow as an encore this year was so strong that eight Republicans signed up to run. But several candidates failed to collect enough signatures to get on the ballot and a tea party favorite dropped his bid two weeks before Election Day.
Voters in the Aug. 7 Republican primary now have only three choices: Hoekstra, charter school foundation executive Clark Durant of Grosse Pointe and former Kent County Judge Randy Hekman of Grand Rapids, who has been massively outspent.
Hoekstra is the clear front-runner due to a sizable fundraising lead, strong name recognition and the endorsement of several of the state’s top Republicans, including Gov. Rick Snyder.
But Durant has criticized Hoekstra’s repeated votes to raise the federal debt limit and approve spending on earmarks. He also says Hoekstra will have a tough time beating Stabenow because he voted for the Wall Street bailout that she opposed and continues to be tied to Washington through his job as a senior adviser at a law and lobbying firm there.
“Washington is broken. Congressman Hoekstra can’t change Washington, because he is Washington,” Durant said. “We don’t have all the political muscle Pete has, but we’ve stayed even with him because of this other message. … It’s the passion.”
Hoekstra, who spent 18 years in Congress and chaired the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence for several years, finished second in the 2010 GOP gubernatorial primary to Snyder, a multimillionaire who spent nearly $6 million of his own money and ran as a moderate in a field of four conservatives, including Hoekstra.
Hoekstra has campaigned alongside former presidential candidate Herman Cain and other in an effort to tap into tea party support. But the former congressman also has made a few campaign stumbles, such as running a Super Bowl ad featuring a young Asian-American woman speaking awkward English that was panned as racially insensitive by minority groups and even some Republicans.
He got unwelcome publicity again after telling a tea party group that he wants to set up a national office to check presidential candidates’ birth certificates, even though he said he finds “ludicrous” persistent – though debunked – conspiracy theories that Obama was born outside the United States.
Still, many Republicans feel a proven voter-getter such as Hoekstra is more likely to beat Stabenow than Durant. Polls show the 58-year-old Hoekstra’s especially popular among GOP men and he has a wellspring of support to tap in western Michigan after years as vice president of marketing at Zeeland furniture maker Herman Miller Inc. and in Congress.
Durant, who narrowly lost the GOP primary in his 1990 bid for the U.S. Senate, is counting on support in populous southeast Michigan that includes backing from Detroit-area celebrities such as retired auto guru Bob Lutz.
Durant also has won support from Gary Glenn of Midland, who leads a group that was instrumental in pushing through Michigan’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in 2004. Glenn had sought the job too but failed to make much headway despite 40 tea party groups uniting behind him.
“We know from experience (that) when people find out about Pete Hoekstra’s record, they’re not going to be willing to work their hearts out … for Pete just because he’s a Republican,” Glenn said. “If the objective is to beat Debbie Stabenow, then we have to take a course that will give us a nominee other than Pete Hoekstra.”
An independent group called Prosperity for Michigan plans to spend at least $500,000 running ads similar to Durant’s own anti-Hoekstra commercials. Hoekstra’s campaign filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission accusing the super PAC of deception after it filed a July 13 campaign finance report that showed no donations, even though Prosperity for Michigan had collected $188,500 by then. The super PAC revealed the donations in an amended report, prompting the FEC complaint.
Hoekstra predicts he’ll win despite Durant’s super PAC help, noting that his campaign has a strong statewide field operation and fundraising lead.
He raised $3.4 million through June 30, the latest reporting period, and still had half of it on hand after expenses. Durant raised $2.2 million and had about $1.4 million remaining. Hekman’s longshot campaign raised nearly $170,000 and had about $12,000 left. The former judge said he’s drawing voters attracted by his message that it will take a “moral and religious awakening” to deal with the financial crisis in Washington.
The GOP candidates’ combined war chests are dwarfed by the $8.1 million Stabenow has raised and the $4.5 million she had left at the end of June. She already has purchased $3.3 million in ad time for October and November – money she won’t have to spend on a grueling primary like the GOP candidates do.
Republicans need just four seats to take the Senate majority, so they’re expected to hit Stabenow hard, particularly if it appears presidential candidate Mitt Romney will do well in this battleground state where he grew up. Hoekstra insists he’d be Stabenow’s toughest opponent.
“We’re the only campaign that has all the pieces in place to run an effective statewide campaign to beat Debbie,” Hoekstra said.
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