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Searching for the Stabenow challenger

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AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow's vulnerability is in question. Michigan Republican Party Chairman Bobby Schostak drew some unwanted headlines Monday when he told the Detroit News that the “perfect” candidate to run against Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D) had yet to emerge.

"Is there a name yet to be announced that could … all of a sudden be head and shoulders, 'wow, that's the perfect person,' they absolutely will win, and the others should step aside?" Schostak asked. "I expect that will happen, but I don't know who it is. They haven't met with me yet, if they're out there."

“I thought the comments were very unfortunate,” said former congressman Pete Hoekstra, who ran unsuccessfully for governor last year and is now considering a challenge to Stabenow. “It’s difficult enough when you’re dealing with your opponents in a primary, and then if there’s any indication at all that ... a state party chairman may or may not be behind a particular candidate or the field of candidates, that gives you a brief moment of pause.”

Other possible contenders suggest Schostak simply misspoke. “I have talked to the chair several times about the race, and I don’t think they necessarily accurately reflect what his thinking is,” said Saul Anuzis, himself a former state party chairman and two-time candidate for the Republican National Committee chairmanship.

Whether a simple case of misspeaking or not, Schostak’s comments have turned a spotlight on the Wolverine State, where in 2010 Republicans won not only the governor’s race but also picked up two House seats from Democrats as well.

The state’s still struggling economy — Eminem commercial notwithstanding — has made it tough on incumbents of both parties. Because Democrats largely controlled Michigan’s elected office following the 2006 and 2008 elections, they have been visited with broader and deeper losses.

The fundamental question is just how much that political environment will impact Stabenow. After winning in 2000 with just 49 percent, Stabenow cruised to a 16-point win six years later against Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard.

While polling suggests Stabenow’s numbers are in dangerous territory, running with President Obama on the top of the ticket should help Stabenow drive African-American turnout. (No Republican presidential candidate has carried Michigan since George H.W. Bush in 1988.) Stabenow also has $2 million in the bank as of the end of 2010, putting her towards the top of the pack of vulnerable senators in cash.

“I don’t think 2012 is going to be 2010,” said Bill Ballenger, a pundit and former Republican lawmaker.

Assuming there isn’t a secret candidate lurking for Republicans, how does the current field of GOP contenders shake out?

Hoekstra has a base in heavily Republican western Michigan but wound up coming up well short of self-funding outsider Rick Snyder in the 2010 gubernatorial primary. (Snyder went on to easily win the open seat race in the fall.)

Terri Lynn Land, another Republican talking about a bid, was a popular secretary of state. But her decision to pass on the gubernatorial race last year suggests she’s may be skittish taking on such a high-profile race. She’s said she’ll wait to see whether Hoekstra runs before making her decision.

Tim Leuliette and Al Pease, both wealthy businessmen who could at least partially self-fund their campaigns, have been mentioned as possible Stabenow challengers as well. That would be helpful in Michigan, a large state where communicating on television is costly. Michigan Republicans see a potential blueprint in Wisconsin where a previously unknown businessman took down Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold in 2010.

Three members of Congress could run: Thad McCotter, Candice Miller ,and Mike Rogers. Miller, in particular, has a good resume: She was the Michigan’s first Republican Secretary of State since the 1950s, and she’s serving her fifth term in the House. But none of the three has given any indication that they plan to get in the race.

There’s some optimistic talk about former governor John Engler, a hugely popular vote-getter in the state, considering a return to elected office. He bought a new home back in Michigan last year, sparking some speculation about his plans. On the other hand, he just took a job as the head of the Business Roundtable.

Even if Schostak’s perfect candidate gets into the race, there’s no guarantee that he or she would be the nominee. “There is a long history in the 2010 elections of the parties not being effective in trying to manipulate the primary process,” said GOP consultant John Yob.

At the moment, there’s little certainty in Michigan Republican circles about the Senate contest. “This is a wide-open race,” said Anuzis. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing for the party’s chances of ousting Stabenow in November 2012 remains to be seen.

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