Spence, Debbie & the money 

Call it the political wheel of fortune, take note of how quickly it can shift, and pay close attention to who is providing the spin.

It was only last fall that the pundits were declaring how politically vulnerable Sen. Spence Abraham appeared to be. Largely unknown to voters despite being an incumbent, carrying a heavy load of special-interest baggage, and facing the prospect of going against charismatic Democratic U.S. Rep. Debbie Stabenow, it was looking as if it might be one term and out for the Republican from Auburn Hills.

What a difference a year and an estimated $15 million in television ads can make.

Instead of facing an uphill battle, Abraham — who as late as this summer appeared to be locked in the tightest of races — now holds a commanding lead as the campaign enters its home stretch.

According to pollster Ed Sarpolus, as of last Friday Abraham led the race with 47 percent of the vote compared to 40 percent for Stabenow, with 13 percent undecided in a query of 600 people.

The good news in those numbers, says Craig Ruff of Public Sector Consultants, is that Abraham has yet to reach above the magic number of 50 percent.

“Traditionally, if an incumbent is not getting a little over 50 percent of the vote, history suggests the undecided voters will go overwhelmingly to the challenger,” Ruff explains. “So I don’t think this election is over. There is a long way to go until election night.”

Ruff, however, adds this caveat: “I’m sort of lonely on this.” Virtually every other pollster and pundit looking at the point spread, says Ruff, is ready to hand the election to Abraham.

As this story is being written Monday afternoon, the impact of a televised debate between the two candidates the day before and a debate earlier Monday at the Economic Club of Detroit is not known.

Adding up ads

What is known is that Stabenow came out swinging at the Economic Club luncheon, hammering Abraham about the $15 million she says the senator and interests supporting him have spent on TV ads.

Calling for campaign finance reform, Stabenow complained that special interest groups such as the insurance, pharmaceutical and high-tech industries are pumping millions of dollars into so-called “issue” ads that don’t show up on campaign finance reports. Abraham responded by first pointing out some of his accomplishments, including bringing home more road repair money from Washington, then slapping Stabenow with the “liberal” label, claiming she wants to turn back the clock to the days of big government.

He didn’t bring up the issue of campaign finance until a question from the audience forced the matter. Then he accused Stabenow of taking plenty of special-interest money herself.

Asked by Metro Times whether the $15 million figure is accurate, Abraham spokesman Joe Davis said it is “totally false.” Asked what the correct number is, Davis said he didn’t know.

“All I can say is that it’s less than $15 million,” assured Davis.

However, he had no trouble ticking off the amounts others are spending on ads attacking his boss. According to Davis, the AFL-CIO, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, and the anti-immigration group FAIR are each spending a million bucks on ads targeting Abraham. At the Economic Club debate, Stabenow denounced FAIR, which has set its sights on Abraham because of his support for legislation that opens the door to foreign workers in the computer industry.

There is no doubt, however, that Abraham is not much loved by organized labor or the environmental movement.

The backing of environmentalists has been especially important, observes Ruff.

Strategic spending

It helps that Abraham provides such a rich target. According to the most recent evaluation of voting records conducted by the League of Conservation Voters, Abraham, on a scale of 0 to 100, scored a dismal 6. With Stabenow achieving marks in the mid-80s, there is little wonder why greens — at least with a small “g” — are putting their muscle to work for her.

“The truth of matter is, Sen. Abraham has gone out of his way to claim himself to be pro-environment and to misrepresent his record,” says Michigan Sierra Club Director Alison Horton. “It’s been an uphill battle to cut through his campaign rhetoric.”

“The League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club have been fairly effective,” contends Ruff. “Without the attention they’ve been bringing to Abraham’s environmental record he might now be well above 50 percent and steamrolling his way toward victory.”

But even with their support, Stabenow estimates the other side has put two ads on the air for every one she and her allies have been able to broadcast.

“Given what the way we’ve been outspent, it’s amazing that we’re not down 60-40 at this point,” says Stabenow press secretary Karen Polla.

In a sense, this race offers a clear-cut example of how the candidate with the biggest bankroll can shape an election.

Until this summer, polls showed Abraham and Stabenow running neck and neck. Then Abraham and his allies, all of whom had been taking shots at Stabenow since she first announced her candidacy, began their full-fledged barrage. The Stabenow camp, with fewer resources, had to decide whether to deplete her war chest by responding immediately, or to hold fire until closer to election. They decided to wait, a decision that observers say changed the course of the race.

Abraham and his allies were able to “define” Stabenow, observes Lansing-based pollster Sarpolus. “All they know about her is what Spence told them. Now she’s in a position where she has to repair the damage Spence did.”

A breakdown

For Jeff Cronin, press secretary for the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group Common Cause, it all adds up to a strong argument for campaign finance reform.

“What we are seeing in all these high-profile Senate races, including the one in Michigan, is a complete breakdown of campaign finance laws,” asserts Cronin.

What is especially important, says Cronin, are new regulations that will require special-interest groups funding ads to reveal themselves — in a timely manner, before an election is over.

Although Abraham insisted at the Economic Club debate that he supports campaign finance reform, Cronin identified him as one of a handful of senators “who are holding finance reform legislation hostage.”

For campaign finance to succeed, the public must apply pressure. But with issues such as prescription drugs, Social Security, crime, education and military spending maintaining a higher profile, that is no easy task.

“Campaign finance reform is rarely someone’s No. 1 issue,” explains Cronin. “The key is for groups like us to connect the dots, to show people if you care about an issue like prescription drugs, you better care about who is paying for these campaigns. If you care about health care and you care about the environment, you better care about campaign finance reform.”

Curt Guyette is the Metro Times news editor. Call 313-202-8004 or e-mail cguyette@metrotimes.com

More by Curt Guyette

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