Michigan 2014: Now or Never for the GOP

Republicans hope statewide victories next year will be a springboard to 2016.

Former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land may be the only hope for Republicans to capture an open Senate seat in 2014.

Former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land may be the only hope for Republicans to capture an open Senate seat in 2014.

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It's become a time-honored tradition for Republicans: Making the sale that Michigan is in play at the national level.

But history is a sobering arbiter.

The last GOP presidential candidate to carry the Wolverine State was George H.W. Bush in 1988. Favorite son and former governor Mitt Romney lost the state by nine points last fall.

And it's been nearly two decades since Republicans last won a U.S. Senate contest, when Spencer Abraham rode a national GOP wave in the 1994 midterms to swipe away an open seat, only to fork it over six years later.

As the biannual Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference kicks off Friday, Michigan GOP activists, operatives and politicians plan to once again make an aggressive case that 2014 is their year to break the drought.

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But the stakes are demonstrably higher this time. Because if they fail to deliver in such a favorable political environment -- capturing an open Senate seat in the off-year in the second term of a president from the opposing party who is burdened by sagging popularity -- they're cognizant that pitching Michigan as a presidential battleground in 2016 will likely prove ephemeral.

"The time is never going to be better. This is the best chance for Republicans to pick up a Senate seat ever," says GOP ad man Fred Davis, who has worked several statewide races there.

And even so, it's still at best a 50-50 shot.

Barring a late yet-to-be-named entrant, the hopes of Michigan Republicans rest on the shoulders of Terri Lynn Land, a twice elected former secretary of state who has considerable personal wealth at her disposal.

Land was certainly not the first choice of party pooh-bahs, but she looks to be the last contender standing, which is a scenario Michigan Republicans are quite accustomed to. The most talented pols brimming with promise -- this time, Reps. Mike Rogers and Dave Camp -- are prone to take a pass due to the years of blistering losses. "It becomes a vicious cycle. It's never happened, so it never will," says the Republican operative explaining the thinking of would-be candidates who flirt but ultimately pass on a run.

It also helps explain the blaring disclaimer on a recent National Republican Senatorial Committee memo, promising that their case for putting Michigan in the battleground column is "More Than Just Hype."

It's true. President Obama's favorability has sunk under 50 percent in the state. The Democratic candidate, Rep. Gary Peters, has already lost a statewide race for attorney general in 2002 and is less known than Land. There's even a public poll showing Land tracking slightly ahead of Peters in the early going -- a true rarity for any Republican.

But they're also betting big on the fortunes of Gov. Rick Snyder, whose polling numbers have rebounded after signing off on the Detroit bankruptcy. If Snyder can't win a second term as governor, Land doesn't likely have a prayer. In fact, several Michigan strategists cited Snyder's coattails as being critical to a Land victory. And a Snyder victory is far from a slam dunk.

Additionally, there are the well-known divisions within the state party to contend with. For every Republican willing to tout Land's indomitable work ethic, there's another ready to slice her style or dismiss her resume. Her husband is worth tens of millions of dollars from assets in housing, allowing her to pledge at least $5 million in personal funds to the race.

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"The reality is she's awkward, lives in the wrong part of the state and has failed miserably at most of her campaigns for electoral office," says one Michigan GOP activist, ticking off her losses in runs for the state legislature, the state board of education and an ill-fated campaign for governor.

Consequently, drilling down to the GOP game plan turns out to be less about Land and more about atmospherics. With close to a million fewer voters expected to come out compared to 2012, the dwindling Detroit-centric Democratic base won't produce the margins the party is accustomed to in the reliably blue state. GOP chairman Bobby Schostak is pledging to raise a record amount of money. The party has already opened 20 field offices around the state. And even if Land is lackluster, no one would argue Peters is an overly inspiring figure either.