Former Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Michigan announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate on Wednesday, becoming the highest-profile Republican to launch a bid to unseat two-term Democratic incumbent Debbie Stabenow.
Hoekstra, who helped found the House Tea Party Caucus and represented Michigan's second district for 18 years before stepping down to run unsuccessfully for governor in 2010, is considered the kind of top-tier candidate Republicans have been looking for to challenge Stabenow. His entry immediately makes the race more competitive and comes as a new statewide survey shows Stabenow with upside-down approval ratings. According to a study by the Lansing-based polling firm EPIC-MRA, 38 percent approve of the job Stabenow is doing as their senator while 51 percent disapprove.
In April, Hoekstra said he wouldn't compete for the GOP nomination, citing family concerns about a run. But the former congressman explained his change of heart at his campaign rollout Wednesday."Over the last couple of years the spending in Washington has spun out of control. Michigan needs a U.S. Senator who will cut spending without raising taxes and help create jobs," he said in a statement. "After a good deal of reflection, I've decided that I cannot sit on the sidelines while the President and U.S. Senate mortgage our children's and grandchildren's future. For these reasons, I have made the decision to file the appropriate paperwork to build an organization and begin a campaign for the U.S. Senate. An official campaign announcement will be forthcoming in the months ahead."
Taking into account Stabenow's weak approval ratings and the fact that Michigan has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, national Republicans see an opening in the Democratic-leaning state.
"Anytime you have an incumbent with a 38 percent approval rating, running in a state with double-digit unemployment like Michigan, it's encouraging for someone like Hoekstra to enter the race," said Brian Walsh, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Democrats were quick to respond to Hoekstra's announcement and attempted to pin him to his post-congressional lobbying work for the D.C.-based firm Dickstein Shapiro, which he joined in February.
"Lobbyist Pete Hoekstra has spent his career as an influence peddler for powerful special interests, all at the expense of Michigan seniors, workers and middle-class," said Shripal Shah, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee press secretary, in a statement following Hoekstra's announcement.
Democrats also hit the tea party-backed congressman for his loss to now Gov. Rick Snyder in the state's Republican gubernatorial primary in 2010. But Hoekstra's campaign contends the dynamics of the 2012 Senate race are different.
"He's not focused on last year's election," said Hoekstra campaign adviser Brian Jones. "He's focused on making sure Senator Stabenow doesn't have six more years to cast job-killing votes in the Senate. His focus isn't going to be on 2010. It's a different year, a different opponent."
Hoekstra's campaign will likely try to tie Stabenow to President Obama and the Democratic-controlled Senate. The tea party, which Hoekstra embraced during his gubernatorial run and while serving in the House, could also play a role.
"Certainly the tea party will continue to be an important voice in American politics," said Jones. "There's a lot of people in Michigan who share that sentiment. [Hoekstra] is well-aligned with where a lot of people are today."
As the incumbent, however, Stabenow enters the race with built-in advantages and a history of success in the state. In her first bid for the U.S. Senate in 2000, then-congresswoman Stabenow ousted a Republican incumbent by 1 percentage point. She won re-election by double digits in 2006 and now sits on a $4 million campaign war chest. She has maintained slim leads over Hoekstra in early polling of the potential matchup.
But while Obama won the state in 2008 by 17 points, Michigan state could be more competitive this time around. The EPIC-MRA poll shows the president's job approval rating under water: 60 percent give him a negative grade while 39 percent give him a positive one. Additionally, an EPIC-MRA poll released this week showed him trailing Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney by four points in a hypothetical general election matchup.