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Commentary: Peters runs for Senate

For many years, it was far more common for Democrats to have brawling, bruising primary fights than Republicans.

The Democratic Party, after all, was a coalition of sometimes very different factions – African-Americans and Jews; labor and ethnic groups; factory workers and elegant, highly educated liberals in places like Ann Arbor.

They often had little in common except the fact that they were all more opposed to the Republicans.

Republicans, on the other hand, were more homogenous, more like an extended family that was largely business-oriented, largely white Protestant, and didn’t like fighting in public.

They even used to have what they called the Eleventh Commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.” Well, times have changed.

Carl Levin, the longest-serving U.S. Senator in Michigan history, stunned his fellow Democrats by announcing that he wouldn’t try for a seventh term next year.

That meant Michigan will have an open Senate seat for the first time in two decades. Being in the Senate, some think, is the best job in politics. You only have to run every six years, and there are no term limits. You might have expected a lot of Democrats to go after that job.

But the party quickly coalesced around three-term Congressman Gary Peters, after Debbie Dingell determined she couldn’t muster adequate support to challenge him.

Part of this may, frankly, have been because Michigan Democrats have very little bench. There are only four other congressmen. One is brand-new, and the others are all in their 80s. Democrats control nothing in Lansing.

Peters has a wealth of experience: three terms in Congress, time in the state Senate, and a stint as lottery commissioner. He is good at raising money, and starts out as the favorite in this race, partly for one major reason.

While Michigan Republicans have done very well at state-level offices, they have close to the nation’s worst modern record at U.S. Senate races. They’ve won one election in the last 41 years, and none in two decades.

But they know two other things, too. Historically, next year should be a Republican year, based on decades of voting patterns. Democrats had an unbroken claim on the Michigan Attorney General’s office for half a century, until 2002. They lost it that year, in large part because their candidate ran a terrible campaign, and they haven’t won it back since.

That candidate’s name was Gary Peters.  Gary Peters has become a better campaigner since then. He survived the 2010 GOP landslide and easily beat a fellow incumbent in a primary campaign two years ago.

Yesterday, he said it didn’t matter who the Republicans nominate, but that’s probably not true. If the GOP rallies quickly around Lansing-area Congressman Mike Rogers, Peters may have a tough fight on his hands. If, on the other hand, the quasi-libertarian Justin Amash wins a tough and divisive primary, Mr. Peters’ odds of going back to Washington quickly increase.

This is going to be a hard-fought and expensive race, no matter the outcome. Which party controls the Senate may be at stake next year, and with it, the future of the Supreme Court.

As far as this contest is concerned – we ain’t seen nothing yet.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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