LANSING, Mich. — Former U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra headed into 2012 with an aggressive campaign to lock up the Republican U.S. Senate nomination before his challengers really got off the ground, but the script isn't working as well as expected.
Instead of being able to trade on the recognition and goodwill he earned during 16 years as a conservative west Michigan congressman and 2010 gubernatorial candidate, Hoekstra's being hit with opponents' charges that he's not a true conservative and stumbling over his own campaign missteps.
His decision to run a Super Bowl campaign ad featuring a young Asian-American woman speaking awkward English as she thanked Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow for creating federal debt the woman said was weakening the U.S. economy was panned by minority groups and even some Republicans as racially insensitive.
The California woman who appeared in the ad later apologized for appearing in it, and the Hoekstra campaign eventually took the ad off its YouTube video page and dropped an anti-Stabenow website displaying Chinese dragons, teapots and calligraphy. The campaign released a second ad criticizing Stabenow for the same issues but showing an image of the U.S. Capitol rather than rice paddies.
The ad did gain the Holland Republican national attention, although possibly not the attention he wanted. Still, Hoekstra is sticking to a carefully planned script intended to get him to the Aug. 7 primary election in the best possible financial and electoral position. He's won the endorsement of many of the state's top Republican leaders, including Gov. Rick Snyder, who beat Hoekstra in the 2010 GOP gubernatorial primary.
But even a congressman who helped found the Tea Party Caucus in the U.S. House and was considered a reliable conservative is finding a different landscape as he runs for office. Hoekstra has had to fend off attacks from the right by GOP rivals Gary Glenn and Clark Durant, who have criticized his votes to raise the federal debt limit and approve spending on back-home projects known as earmarks during his 18 years in Congress.
Durant, a Detroit charter schools executive who lives in Grosse Pointe, ran his own ad mocking Hoekstra's claims in his Super Bowl ad that he was Pete "SpendItNot."
"Only a Washington politician calls himself Pete SpendItNot when his record proves he's Pete SpendsALot," the ad's announcer says. The ad goes on to say that Hoekstra and Stabenow "both voted to increase the debt ceiling and spending by trillions of dollars. And Hoekstra voted for the Wall Street bailout."
Durant brings up Hoekstra's long history in Washington and current job with a Washington-based law and lobbying firm when he talks to audiences, drawing a contrast by saying his own campaign is about "the American way, not the Washington way." Durant has courted some tea party groups and gathered support in southeast Michigan from those familiar with his work co-founding Cornerstone Schools in Detroit. He also has the backing of three former heads of the Michigan Republican Party: Saul Anuzis, Betsy DeVos and Spencer Abraham.
Glenn hasn't run any ads but used a similar criticism of Hoekstra's record to lock up the endorsement of two-thirds of the state's estimated 65 tea party groups at a recent tea party convention. Those groups now are soliciting campaign contributions and signatures to put the Midland resident on the Aug. 7 primary election ballot. Glenn told reporters Friday during the taping of public television's "Off the Record" program that "I may not have as much money as the other candidates, but I've got the ground troops."
Mindful of the challenge from the right, Hoekstra on Feb. 23 made a daylong campaign swing with Herman Cain, who has suspended his presidential campaign but is still out talking about his tax plan and drawing conservatives to rally for candidates in other races. Although Hoekstra didn't participate in the tea party convention that endorsed Glenn, he has visited tea party groups and won some endorsements.
On Monday, Hoekstra's having House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin keynote his fundraising luncheon in Southfield. Ryan wants to gradually move away from Medicare to private health insurance for many seniors while increasing the eligibility age to 67 and charging upper-income retirees higher premiums, a plan welcomed by voters who worry about deficits and want federal spending cut.
Hoekstra struggled to raise money during his 2010 race for governor, so he's making a concerted effort to focus on fundraising in his Senate campaign. He has raised $2 million so far compared to $1.4 million raised by Durant, $70,000 by Glenn and $115,000 by former Kent County Judge Randall Hekman, one of several Republicans who also have been campaigning for the seat. Hoekstra has $1.5 million in available cash compared to $1.2 million for Durant.
Hoekstra's lead over his rivals is clearer when it comes to polls.
A Feb. 11-13 telephone poll of 500 registered voters who were likely to participate in the state's Feb. 28 GOP presidential primary showed 50 percent supported Hoekstra, 5 percent supported Durant and 2 percent supported Hekman. No other candidate, including Glenn, got as much as 1 percent.
But all of the candidates still have work to do to excite GOP voters. Thirty-eight percent of those polled were undecided in the Glengariff Group Inc. survey commissioned by The Detroit News, WDIV-TV and WZZM-TV. The poll had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
A Feb. 18-22 poll by EPIC-MRA that merely looked at the favorability ratings of Hoekstra and Durant found that 47 percent of likely Republican presidential primary voters still didn't recognize Durant's name, compared to only 11 percent who didn't recognize Hoekstra's. Nearly half of those polled said they had a favorable view of Hoekstra.
Federal election figures show that Stabenow, who's running for a third term, has raised $8.8 million and has nearly $5.9 million on hand. She's been running ahead of the GOP contenders in polls so far.
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