- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 15, 2006

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who won her seat in a squeaker six years ago, is running for re-election in a downbeat economic environment that has made the Michigan Democrat one of her party’s vulnerable incumbents.

Ordinarily, Mrs. Stabenow would have relatively little difficulty in the Democratic-leaning state, where organized labor still wields a lot of clout at election time. But widespread layoffs in the state’s auto industry and an unemployment rate that hit 7 percent this spring have produced a volatile political climate that gives the Republicans a chance to score an upset, state political analysts said Friday.

Mrs. Stabenow’s job-approval scores have hovered around 50 percent, though she fares worse in surveys asking whether she deserves to be re-elected. The latest right-track/wrong-track polls found that more than 65 percent of the voters say their state is moving in the wrong direction. A recent analysis by the Cook Political Report, which tracks the races, put the freshman senator — who won her seat by a 1 percent margin — in the “vulnerable” column.

The contest for the Republican nomination is between the Rev. Keith Butler, a former Detroit City Council member, and Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard, the front-runner, who has all but been endorsed by the National Republican Senatorial Committee. That group’s chairman, Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, is said by party insiders to have actively recruited him.

Republican campaign officials say Mrs. Dole thinks Mrs. Stabenow is vulnerable because of her state’s economic downturn, her liberal voting record and the narrowness of her win in the 2000 election, but that it would take a proven vote-getter to run a competitive campaign. Mr. Bouchard is the former Republican floor leader in the state Senate, and has won 14 elections, his last as sheriff of the state’s second-largest county.

He met with Mrs. Dole and other campaign committee officials in Washington at a private luncheon late last month.

“I had a number of conversations with Mrs. Dole. Michigan has a chance to take back that seat and many people in Washington see me as the best opportunity to defeat the incumbent,” Mr. Bouchard said Friday.

He said a major issue will be what he calls Mrs. Stabenow’s ineffectiveness as a senator. “She has been in Washington for six years, and the only thing she has done is name a federal office building,” he said.

Knowlegis, a Virginia-based government-relations management firm that ranks lawmakers and state delegations in terms of their effectiveness, placed Mrs. Stabenow “a lowly 95th” among all senators, Mr. Bouchard said.

Brent Colburn, Mrs. Stabenow’s campaign spokesman, dismissed such criticism. “The people of Michigan know Senator Stabenow is fighting hard for them every day because they can see the results.”

Political newsletter publisher Bill Ballenger, one of the state’s veteran campaign analysts, said that Mr. Bouchard’s chances depend on how he performs in the primary.

“If Bouchard can win the primary handily and comes out of it with a head of steam, I think he’s going to look to be a fairly attractive candidate,” Mr. Ballenger said.

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