Identifying and analyzing emerging trends in campaigns and elections.

Gary Peters’ Boonstra Blunder in the Michigan Senate Race

In Senate on March 7, 2014 at 11:04 am

Things haven’t gone quite to plan for Rep. Gary Peters (D-MI-14) in his bid to succeed retiring Sen. Carl Levin (D).

When the senator announced he wouldn’t be seeking re-election early last year, Rep. Peters immediately jumped into the race and very quickly sewed up consensus party nominee status. Literally overnight, he became the decided general election front runner. (Because Michiganders haven’t elected a Republican senator since 1994, the federal Democratic nominee here always begins in a stronger position than his or her Republican opponent.)

Things got even better for Peters when the Republicans stumbled out of the gate. Former two-term Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land eventually evolved into consensus contender status, but she appeared to be a reluctant candidate at first, so much so that the GOP party leadership made no secret of the fact that they were trying to recruit someone who they believed would be a stronger opponent for Peters.

Putting Michigan into play is extremely important for the Republicans if they are to make a serious run at wresting the majority away from Harry Reid and the Democrats, so it was imperative for their political goals that they find the strongest possible party standard bearer. Thus, the Republicans’ fumbling start yielded Rep. Peters yet another advantage.

But the adroit Peters, who shrewdly won his last congressional election by jumping into a crowded majority black Detroit CD after redistricting eliminated his previous Oakland County-anchored district when the state lost a seat in national reapportionment, may have backed himself into an early corner in this 2014 race. It is never good when a candidate in any campaign begins trading fire with a person or entity other than his or her opponent, but that’s what the Peters operation has done. When the subject of the controversy is an individual who has a life-threatening disease, the negative reverberations are even worse.

Julie Boonstra is a long-time Michigan resident who is stricken with leukemia. She claims that the Affordable Care Act has made her healthcare situation worse, for treatment and cost reasons. The conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity featured Boonstra in a statewide ad campaign, and Peters’ campaign erupted. They first claimed that her statements about Obamacare had not been verified and attempted to force television stations throughout Michigan to stop airing the ads. Not surprisingly, AFP has just launched a new statewide ad again featuring Boonstra, and this time she pleads with Peters to stop attacking her and instead asks for his help. (See the one-minute clip above.)

Now the campaign is in an untenable position: being on the wrong end of a battle with a victim, and looking like a bully. In the meantime, Republican Land simply remains quiet on the sideline.

Though the GOP brass originally downgraded Land’s ability as a candidate, she has so far proved them wrong. Her year-end (2013) fundraising totals show more than $2.1 million with an additional $1.6 million self-donated to her campaign. Starting much later than Peters, she has surprisingly exceeded his total receipts ($3.71 million to $3.46 million). Furthermore, a series of independent polls consistently post her to slight leads over the Detroit congressman, thus making his “Boonstra blunder” potentially even more damaging.

Now, his campaign management is shifting. In a clear sign of internal trouble, Peters just this week replaced his long-time campaign manager, Julie Petrick, with Paul Tencher, a veteran Democratic strategist who piloted Sen. Joe Donnelly’s (D-IN) upset victory in the 2012 Hoosier State race. Petrick indicates that she is leaving the campaign for “personal family reasons” and such may be the case, but the timing of her departure is certainly suspect and will undoubtedly be seen as a move to right what appears to be a sinking ship.

What originally was billed as a walk in the park for Rep. Peters is quickly becoming one of the most interesting campaigns in the country. Now, the race is sure to remain competitive all the way to November, and even more so if the Peters campaign continues to focus on tangential targets instead of the one directly in front of them.

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