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This isn't another Levin retrospective... we're talking political implications of his retirement

The political chattering class is busy today in Michigan talking about Senator Carl Levin – retiring after three decades in the US Senate. Politicos are remembering a long and distinguished career – a career, we should mention, that is certainly not yet over. Senator Levin still has another 20 months before the end of his term. But if we’re honest – really honest – this announcement kicks off the insider talk about who will run to replace him. Right now, that’s a delicate subject: sort of like talking about what’s in the will while you’re still at the funeral. But, the plotting has already begun… this is politics, after all.

It would be somewhat uncouth - slightly tacky - for anyone to publicly express interest in the seat this soon. But, let’s just say, anyone who has not taken themselves out is either in or thinking about it. On the Democratic side, we’ve got Congressman Gary Peters and Democratic National Committeewoman and southeast Michigan power broker Debbie Dingell. On the Republican side we’ve got Congressman Justin Amash, former Sectary of State Terri Lynn Land and Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley.

Calley, however, is in a bit of an awkward position if his name keeps getting mentioned.  Attorney General Bill Schuette made sure he took his own name out of consideration very quickly. For his office, like lieutenant governor and secretary of state, the nomination is made at a party convention. If Schuette, Calley or Secretary of State Ruth Johnson keep popping up on people’s lists of possible Senate candidates, that invites an effort for other contenders for their jobs to organize a convention challenge – which is just a couple thousand people; something that’s do-able for a lot of people who might not have the wherewithal to organizer a primary campaign. So, some possible contenders really have to decide quickly: fish or cut bait. It may be an honor to be mentioned… but that doesn’t necessarily make it a good thing.

This also begs another question:  How does having an open Senate seat (something that hasn’t happened in Michigan in 20 years since Don Riegle retired) affect the rest of the political landscape? It certainly puts this race in the national spotlight. And it changes lots of political calculations: Does having a competitive Senate race drive turnout in 2014? Is it a problem to have one more statewide contender competing for fundraising, volunteers, air time, and media attention? Or does it drive up interest? Will it help Democrats with their goal of driving up turnout in a non-presidential year?

It’s a good chance for Republicans to challenge the conventional wisdom that Michigan sends Republicans to Lansing, but Democrats to Washington. At least in statewide races. And, we certainly also have to mention that this is now adding one more statewide candidate to 2014. In 20 months we were already going to go to the polls in the race for governor, secretary of state and attorney general.

Now, both parties have to find another candidate. And Democrats are already struggling to figure out who they’re going to run for governor next year. But people who weren’t looking at a race for governor, may look a little more favorably on a Senate race. The world’s most exclusive club. And, if people forsake their current elected offices to run for the Senate… well, that creates opportunities. For example, let’s say a member of Congress who doesn’t seek reelection in order to run for the Senate, well, that creates another opening.

So, people serving in the state Legislature, county commissioners, or city councils could all be looking to make a move. It’s like a chessboard. Except every piece is a player deciding where they want to move. A messy chessboard. A lot of people with aspirations big and not so big will be seeing their chance. That also means a lot of people who are friends today are about to become adversaries. There are people who are friends today who will not be friends come Wednesday, November 5th, 2014.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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