Battle for Michigan’s U.S. Senate Seat Becoming Political Minefield

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) defends seat against GOP rival John James, who says he puts people over party. Surrogates including Trump and Obama are coming to their aid. But third-party hopefuls say only they can bridge the current political divide.

The race for the U.S. Senate in Michigan is becoming a tale of two themes.

Does incumbent Democrat Debbie Stabenow justify the campaign mantra that she “gets things done” on Capitol Hill?

And can a Republican backed by President Trump win with a call to put people ahead of party?











Suiting Up For Constituents 

A few weeks ago Incumbent Michigan U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow entered friendly territory — a union hall in Macomb County.

Stabenow says she’s been endorsed by groups like the United Auto Workers and the Michigan Farm Bureau because she fights for unions, battles against Right to Work laws and reaches across the political aisle to help farmers as the ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

“I suit up every day for Michigan. I get things done,” Stabenow says. “Whether it’s passing a bipartisan farm bill that protects our water through conservation and helps farmers and our food system, whether it’s leading mental health efforts, protecting the Great Lakes, I am involved every day in getting results for people in Michigan.”

Quinn Klinefelter/WDET

Stabenow is also a critic of President Trump’s economic approach. She says the last thing Michigan needs is a trade war.

“Tariffs should be last resort, not first resort. The way the President is doing this is hurting our farmers, taking away markets they need to be able to sell their products, export their products,” Stabenow says. “It’s hurting our suppliers, our auto manufacturers. I’m deeply concerned about layoffs that I think that are coming. I think it’s important to fight for fair trade but the way they’re doing (it) is going to hurt us in Michigan.”


“Tariffs should be (the) last resort, not first resort…I think it’s important to fight for fair trade. But the way (the President) is doing (it) is going to hurt us in Michigan.” – U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI)


It’s a message that goes over well at the union hall with voters like Sharon Gire, who says she is truly a fan of Stabenow.

“She’s always been an advocate for children and families. I’m a social worker and she is too, so that’s part of why we see eye-to-eye, I think. She cares about people. She’s done so much in terms of fighting for reasonable price controls so people can afford prescription drugs.”

Gire adds that Stabenow stays true to her word. That’s a stark contrast, Gire says, compared to President Trump, who has vowed several times to bring manufacturing jobs back to Michigan.

“In fact he’s done almost the opposite of some of the things he promised people. I’m probably more solidly Democratic than I’ve ever been,” Gire says.


Battling To Put People Before Party

A few days after the union rally, but only a few miles away from the hall, the view of Stabenow and Trump is decidedly different.

Loud applause greets a former combat veteran who is captivating the crowd at a VFW hall in Saint Clair Shores.

Republican U.S. Senate challenger John James is both a business owner and a graduate of West Point.

He says his experience in military battles and corporate board rooms gives him insight Stabenow’s four decades as a government official simply cannot match.

“I’m a little bit biased with veteran’s issues right now, with homelessness, opioid abuse,” James says. “(But) we also have a duty to make sure to increase economic opportunity here. We’re not just competing with China and Mexico for jobs, we’re competing with Texas and Tennessee for jobs. We need to create a more favorable environment from a regulatory and a taxation standpoint that would make (Michigan) the home for social and economic mobility the way that it was in the past.”

Yet James is also negotiating a political minefield.

Quinn Klinefelter/WDET

He’s been endorsed by both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, who has repeatedly helped raise funds for James’ campaign war chest.

But both on the stump and in campaign advertisements, James, an African American Detroiter, says he will put people ahead of party.

“People of different races, creeds, sexual orientations coming together for a mission. And that’s what I’m used to as a businessman and as an Army officer. Because that should be an asset,” James says. “The reason why our nation is so great is because of our diversity. We can look at the same issue different ways. Now, I have to say that I’m a conservative in the Republican Party because that is the vehicle in our current political system that you have to take to do anything to change something for the positive, for the better.”


“People of different races, creeds, sexual orientations coming together for a mission. That’s what I’m used to as a businessman and as an Army officer. Because that should be an asset.” – Republican U.S. Senate candidate John James


That call for diversity, combined with James’ vow that he supports Trump “2000 percent,” seems to resonate across the VFW hall, from grizzled veterans to millennials like 23-year-old Ben Hirschmann.

“I feel like John James is the outsider just like Trump. He doesn’t buy into all the tactics that a lot of politicians buy into. He’s not pro-white (or) pro-black, he’s pro-American. And that’s what we need in someone that’s holding office for Michigan,” Hirschmann says.


Surrogates Take Aim

But being tied to Trump is a two-edged sword.

It makes James a tempting target for high-profile Democratic campaign surrogates flooding Michigan as the election nears, surrogates including former President Barack Obama.

“We don’t need somebody like Debbie’s opponent, who says he supports President Trump 2000 percent,” Obama told a crowd in Detroit. “Really? Nothing that that guy’s done‘s bothered you at all? Nothing? Wow!”

Republican surrogates counter by blasting Stabenow’s record.

That includes the GOP’s campaigner-in chief.

President Trump told a crowd at a recent rally in Macomb County that Stabenow took money out of workers’ pockets by voting against the GOP’s tax cuts, an assertion the Vice President has also repeatedly made in Michigan.

The President doubled-down on Stabenow, however, saying she had left the door open for immigrants to take American jobs.

“Debbie Stabenow is one of the leaders for weak borders and letting people in,” Trump said at the rally. “I don’t know how she gets elected! A vote for a Democrat in November is a vote for open borders and crime, it’s very simple. It’s also a vote for much higher taxes. It’s also a vote for (you to) be careful of your Second Amendment (right to bear arms,) okay?”


Doing The Job Or Not?

The narrative of “What has Stabenow done in office?” plays across the rest of the campaign field.

Marcia Squier for US Senate

Green Party candidate Marcia Squier says it means far more than whether someone is aghast at Trump’s actions and policies.

“Most of my supporters are aghast about what Debbie Stabenow is doing,” she says.

Squier maintains that she used to support Stabenow until she examined just what the Senator was supporting.

“All these people like myself who voted for her, we see that she voted for half of Trump’s cabinet,” Squier says. “She votes for the military budget.  She gets all her money from Wall Street. And it breaks my heart. Every time she votes she’s pretty much doing my job for me. But the whole reason I’m running is because I feel like she’s not doing her job.”

U.S. Taxpayer’s Party candidate George Huffman III says few public servants are really doing their job of serving the public.

His party accuses officials in both Michigan and the nation as a whole of steering far from the boundaries set in the U.S. Constitution.

They say the federal government must be trimmed back.  

“I think there are issues that are really pressing for the country that our two-party system’s not dealing with. Third parties are not gonna be clones of the other parties. The media will have to pay attention to that.” – Natural Law Party candidate John Howard Wilhelm


Natural Law Party candidate John Howard Wilhelm goes further.

He says it would almost have to be an accident if he were elected to the U.S. Senate.

But Wilhelm says if it ever happened, that “accident” would help revolutionize political discourse.

“I think there are issues that are really pressing for the country that our two-party system’s not dealing with,” Wilhelm says. “If you could open it up to third parties, they are not gonna be clones of the other parties. The media will have to pay attention to that. And I think we’ll have much better dialogue about peak oil, population sustainability and immigration.”

At the moment, however, with the midterm elections drawing close and a U.S. Senate seat at stake in Michigan, the chances of civil political discourse seem very remote.  


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  • Quinn Klinefelter
    Quinn Klinefelter is a Senior News Editor at 101.9 WDET. In 1996, he was literally on top of the news when he interviewed then-Senator Bob Dole about his presidential campaign and stepped on his feet.