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Defending Debbie

Why right-wingers hate Stabenow's stubborn hold on office

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The degree of contempt and hatred the right wing harbors for U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow seems out of all proportion. Vulgar, sexist, obscenity-laced attacks on her can be found all over the Internet.

This is fascinating, both from the standpoint of social pathology, and from the degree her enemies are disconnected from voter-based reality. To those who don't live in nutball fantasyland, Stabenow is a hard-working senator, the first Michigander since the 1880s to chair the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Warmly personable, she still has more than a touch of the small-town girl from Clare, the daughter of the local Oldsmobile dealer back when she was growing up. When I had a long chat with her in Dearborn a couple weeks ago, the only loathing she expressed was for the Asian carp, "the fish that keeps me up at night."

Pressing the Obama administration to do more to stop the giant invasive species from getting into the Great Lakes is a major priority of hers, but not the top one. That could be summarized as "jobs, jobs, jobs," she said. "Helping bring more jobs to Michigan."

Helping people always has been what she wanted to do, since she enrolled at Michigan State in 1968. She earned two degrees in social work while singing folk songs part time in a local coffeehouse. Later, she married, raised two children, wore sensible shoes, and first ran for office in 1974 when she was outraged that the Ingham County commissioners closed a nursing home.

People who know Stabenow usually like her. They've been electing her to office after office ever since. Republicans have more and more trouble even finding a credible candidate to run against her.

Yet you wouldn't recognize this from the venom that drips from dozens of blogs. Much of this is clearly misogynistic, and is often coupled with sneers at the weight problem she's battled for years.

Other attacks are merely spluttering and incoherent. One of the milder ones was posted last week on a blog called Northern Michigan Conservative View. "It would be nice if everybody called her Dangerously Incompetent Debbie Stabenow," the bloggist wrote, adding, helpfully, "It helps to understand who we are talking about. The woman is the MOST LIBERAL DEMOCRAT in the Senate."

Whatever that means. Curiously, this echoes a contradictory theme raised by many of Stabenow's usually anonymous attackers: They portray her as both hopelessly incompetent and also cleverly plotting to force "the liberal agenda" down America's throats.

What her enemies mostly don't say, however, is what really bugs them the most. Not only can't they seem to beat her, this time, they can't even find a candidate to run against her.

Less than a year ago, Republicans were confident that this was the year "we take Debbie out," as one said. Actually, they've been underestimating her since the start of her career. The Ingham County commissioner she ran against a lifetime ago dismissed her contemptuously as "that young broad." She beat him like a drum.

Next it was on to the state House, then the state Senate. Her one major loss was a lucky one. She was the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for governor back in 1994, but lost narrowly to the inept Howard Wolpe when the teachers unions turned against her after she touched off the education reforms that led to Proposal A.

No Democrat could have beaten John Engler in that very Republican year, and had she been the nominee, it could have been fatal. As a good soldier, Stabenow accepted the worthless nomination for lieutenant governor. Two years later, she challenged incumbent Republican Rep. Dick Chrysler.

Chrysler was contemptuous of her too, referring to her as "liberal Debbie" when I interviewed him that fall. She crushed him by a landslide. Four years later, she took on U.S. Sen. Spencer Abraham. He outspent her by more than $5 million. Ten days before the election, he was ahead by 12 points in the polls.

But she'd wisely kept what money she had for a last minute push, and squeaked to victory by 67,000 votes. Six years later, Republicans had what they felt was the dream attack video of all videos. It showed Debbie Stabenow, looking very portly and wearing an unflattering outfit, speaking in the Senate next to a sign saying "Dangerously Incompetent." Worse, the sign matched her red dress.

Republicans then managed to recruit popular Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard to run against her. Incidentally, the sign was actually referring to what Stabenow had been saying about the Bush administration. Voters seemed to get that better than the media.

When the votes were counted, it was Stabenow, 2,151,278; Bouchard 1,559,597. That was an even wider margin than Gov. Jennifer Granholm had over the hapless Dick DeVos. The senator thanked everyone, and went back to work for another six years.

Next year, she has to run again. Confident Republicans thought Pete Hoekstra, the runner-up in their gubernatorial primary last year, would give her the "fight of her life." Except, well, he wasn't willing to run. Incumbents Mike Rogers and Candice Miller weren't about to give up their safe U.S. House seats.

Their colleague, the eccentric Thaddeus McCotter, said he might run for president, but wouldn't dare take on Stabenow. Republicans couldn't even get Frank Beckmann, the blowhard football announcer and part-time right-wing columnist, to run.

That doesn't mean she doesn't have opposition. Randy Hekman, a former probate judge from Kent County, says he is running. So is Peter Konetchy, a guy in Roscommon who does accounting work for law firms. ... OK, I was wrong. She doesn't really have opposition.

A few weeks ago, Michigan Republicans were pathetically saying they heard a former Detroit Red Wing might be able to get into the race. That eventually fizzled, perhaps because their choice may have been a Canadian citizen.

Now, Michigan Republican Party Chair Bobby Schostak has taken to muttering that some knight on a white horse may yet show up. Guess what: They won't. True, the Michigan GOP may manage to recruit a slightly more high-profile candidate, such as Rob Steele, the physician who spent lavishly while losing to John Dingell last year.

But as Terri Lynn Land candidly said when she bowed out, the National Republican Party indicated to her they weren't willing to spend the millions that any challenger would need to have a chance of unseating Debbie Stabenow.

There's a reason for that: They know she is almost certain to win. Two weeks ago, when I talked about this race on Michigan Radio, some predictably anonymous blogger posted a rant saying, "she's as much of a backbencher as there is in the Senate."

Backbenchers don't usually chair major committees, but I suspect Stabenow wouldn't much care what she was called. True, she is not glamorous, though those who still sneer about her weight may be startled to discover that she is now essentially slender.

Nor is she ever likely to run for higher office, or be Senate majority leader. However, she was instrumental in getting this state $1.3 billion in funding for advanced battery research.

More than anyone else, she made the state and nation aware the Canadians were dumping vast amounts of their trash in Michigan, a practice that has since been somewhat curtailed. She might be more adequately described as a workhorse, rather than a show horse.

Which may be why voters keep returning her to the Senate.