After Sen Carl Levin of Michigan stunned fellow Democrats from Detroit to Washington, D.C., last week by announcing his retirement from his safe seat, the odds of Republicans gaining the six seats they need to control the Senate in 2014 have been upped dramatically.
With Democrats controlling the Senate by a 55-45 margin, Levin, who is finishing his sixth term, became the fourth Democratic senator to say he won't seek re-election next year.
“This is the first time since 1994 when a Senate seat here has been open and, with the Democratic bench of talent so moribund and the Republican bench so strong, I'd put the odds at better than even of Republicans picking up the seat Sen. Levin would have held with ease,” a longtime Republican operative and former congressional staffer told us.
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Coupled with three other Democrats who already have said no to a re-election bid — Tom Harkin of Iowa, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia — Levin’s announced exit means that four Senate seats firmly in Democratic hands are now highly competitive.
Pundits and pols in both parties expect that South Dakota’s Tim Johnson will shortly become the fifth Democratic senator to call it quits.
There are only two Republican senators stepping down, but even the most partisan of Democrats agree that the seats of Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Mike Johanns of Nebraska will remain in Republican hands regardless of the eventual GOP nominees.
The political landscape overall looks strong for the GOP. Each congressional year about a third of the Senate's seats are for grabs. This year 21 seats held by Democrats and just 14 held by Republicans are in play.
Levin would likely have coasted to re-election next year. Now there is sure to be national press attention on the politics in the Wolverine State, given the scenario that an open seat in Michigan could be a game changer for Republican efforts to capture the Senate.
Debbie Dingell for Senate?
But there is another reason for the likely spotlight on the Michigan Senate race: the cast of characters vying for both major parties’ nominations can be dubbed as colorful.
Michigan has a history of strongly backing Democrats in national contests. Obama trounced Romney by a margin of 54.2 to 44.7 percent there last year.
But the state has a long history of opting for Republicans in off election years, such as current GOP Gov. Rick Snyder.
A Senate race lilkely would be decided by the candidate rather than the party, pundits say.
Three-term Rep. Gary Peters of Wayne County is the betting favorite to be the Democratic nomine, but several sources in the state are beginning to speak of a far more intriguing possibility: Debbie Dingell, Democratic National Committeewoman and wife of legendary Rep. John Dingell.
Debbie Dingell is far more than the wife of “Big John,” the onetime chairman of the House Energy Committee and, after 58 years, the longest-serving member of Congress in history.
At 58 (Debbie is John's second wife and was born the year he first came to Congress), she is a major fundraiser for several charities, an elected member of the Wayne State University Board of Governors, and panelist on a weekly public-affairs program on a Detroit-area TV affiliate.
While Peters certainly could count on support from organized labor, Dingell could count on that and much more through her vast social and financial contacts. At this point, neither has made clear any plans for the Senate race.
Ron Paul’s Protege for Senate?
The Republican field is just as unsettled, with the possible candidacy of libertarian Rep. Justin Amash threatening a GOP split.
In two terms in the House representing the Grand Rapids area, Amash has voted the solid libertarian line and is a favorite of Ron Paul’s nationwide movement.
One joke that made the rounds in the U.S. House after Amash was first elected in 2010 was that “Justin came to Congress dreaming of becoming Ron Paul’s heir, but he woke up after realizing Rand Paul was also elected.” Rand Paul, the son of the former Texas congressman and libertarian hero, became GOP senator from Kentucky in 2010.
Amid speculation that Amash will run for the Senate, fears among the Republican Party establishment in Michigan have led to talk that six-term Rep. Mike Rogers of Lansing will also enter the race.
A former FBI agent, Rogers is considered one of the best GOP campaigners in the state, but whether he would leave the House, where he chairs the House Intelligence Committee, is uncertain at this point.
After Levin’s announcement, Republicans began discussing the need for nominating a woman for the seat, noting that Democrats won the governorship with Jennifer Granholm in 2002 and Michigan’s other Senate seat with Debbie Stabenow in 2000.
Republicans have centered their attention on GOP National Committeewoman Terri Lynn Land, a former two-term secretary of state who won her party post with tea party backing, and present Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, who hails from populous Oakland County, where she was once county clerk. Both Land and Johnson are considered strong conservatives.
There is one more factor that gets Republicans' adrenalin flowing as they hope to elect a GOP senator in Michigan for the first time since 1994. Snyder, who signed a right-to-work law in labor-heavy Michigan last year, seems headed for a big re-election win, with no heavyweight Democratic opponent on the horizon.
Any Republican Senate nominee would happily share a statewide ticket with Snyder.
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