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November '14: Right now, it's all about the Benjamins

We’re more than a year away from the next statewide election – November 2014 – but, we’re already seeing plenty of hand-wringing among Republicans and Democrats over who will run for statewide offices.

Success for Democrats will depend a lot on voters in an off-presidential year. They need to hit or come close to hitting the 62 percent turnout – about 7.5 million voters across the state - that was part of the Democrats’ winning formula last year.

Republicans meanwhile, want to – need to – alter their message to capture a bigger share of whoever turns out without adulterating their values on gay marriage, affirmative action.

So that’s the backdrop as both parties try to sort out who will run. There’s no shortage of Republicans interested in that Senate seat that’s open because Carl Levin is retiring. There’s a sense that Congressman Mike Rogers could clear the field if he decides to run. We're not totally convinced that’s the case. An open Senate seat in Michigan is pretty rare. There’s some early, somewhat conflicting polling on this.

An MRG poll found Rogers leading a pack of five potential candidates at 34 percent of 600 likely Republican primary voters. He was followed by Congressman Justin Amash and former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land with 15 and 14 percent, respectively.

Another poll, a Murray Communications-Portable Insight survey of more than a thousand likely primary voters, put Rogers at about 35 percent in a pack of eight potential candidates – some of whom have already said they won’t or probably won’t run. Land came in second at about 30 percent.

Now, we know these polls are very early. They don’t represent probable outcomes, but reasonably possible outcomes. But they are information that candidates and their potential funders can use to make decisions. And, what’s interesting is what’s really absent from this election cycle, so far, at least: a self-funder. A Rick Snyder or a Geoff Fieger with enough personal wealth to pick up all or most of the tab for their campaign. That means every prospective candidate is looking for benefactors.

That’s where the action is right now: Recruiting people to be in fundraising teams. Candidates will also want to Super-PAC up. Typically, that means taking a couple of people from their inner circle and sending them off to set up a parallel political organization - a Super PAC - that cannot specifically coordinate with a candidate’s campaign, but can run TV ads and other that are supportive.

Now is also the time for stroking big donors, the kind who can write checks with lots of zeroes and get their friends to do the same. And, importantly, do it before those big donors make promises to other candidates. All of that has to be in place before the crowd-pleasing balloons-and-confetti formal announcement.

On the Democratic side, Congressman Gary Peters appears to be on most short lists to take the nomination. But we certainly can’t count out Debbie Dingell – southeast Michigan power broker, Democratic National Committee member, and spouse to the dean of the U.S. House of Representative, John Dingell.

Democrats really, really, really, really don’t want to see big primaries that will burn money and goodwill that could be used in the general. But, their tougher job seems to be finding someone to run next year against Governor Snyder. His polling numbers aren’t all that great, but November of 2014 is still a long way, and there’s no clamor among Democrats that this is theirs for the taking.

Right now, the short list seems to be state Representative Vicki Barnett, state Board of Education President John Austin. A lot of Democrats are pinning their hopes on former Congressman Mark Schauer, who says he’ll decide by the beginning of summer. And then there’s former Congressman Bart Stupak. A very interesting prospect. He led a group of Blue Dog Democrats that got enough conservative codicils into the Obamacare legislation to get it passed. So, um, not exactly beloved by progressives in his party.

If Stupak faced Rick Snyder, he would actually be to the right of the Nerd on some things - abortion, for example. Stupak’s plan to win in November would be to cobble together a coalition of conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans who are upset by controversies like right-to-work. Stupak just has to make sure he doesn’t upset too many people in his own party in the process.

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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