There is a crucial difference between Leslie Touma and the other Republicans who have tried to pry Sander Levin loose from his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Unlike her predecessors, Touma has enough cash to challenge him on TV.
Touma, a 40-year-old auto industry executive from Ferndale, is running television ads that accuse Levin, 67, of Royal Oak, of being soft on crime and voting to raise taxes.
Levin, who remains far ahead in fundraising and in the polls, has responded with his own ads: one that mentions his work on behalf of children and another accusing Touma of not voting in most Michigan elections.
Each candidate says the other's campaign ads are misleading.
"It's been striking to see the media blitz," says Barry Rabe, a University of Michigan associate professor who teaches state politics.
Nationwide in November, voters will decide 34 Senate seats and all 435 seats in the House.
For Republicans looking to pad their majority in both houses, pouring money into Michigan might seem like a good investment. According to Rabe, popular Gov. John Engler tops the GOP ticket and pundits say the double whammy of President Bill Clinton's sex scandal and Geoffrey Fieger's campaign could depress Democratic turnout.
"Sure you're going to put more money into Michigan," he says. "You might get more bang for your buck."
Michigan Republican Party spokesman Sage Eastman says Republicans aim to unseat Levin, who has served eight terms in his district spanning parts of Oakland and Macomb counties. Eastman says the GOP is also targeting Democratic U.S. representatives David Bonior, Lynn Rivers, and Bart Stupak.
Normally it is the incumbents, through the use of PAC money, who can afford expensive campaigns. However, Touma poses a unique threat to Levin in the pricey Detroit media market, where money is especially crucial.
She has recieved tens of thousands of dollars from Lear Corp., a car parts manufacturer where she is on a leave of absence as director of corporate communications.
According to the Federal Election Commission, Touma also received thousands in contributions from Newt Gingrich's Monday Morning PAC, the Michigan Republican State Committee, and other conservative groups.
In addition, Touma has spent more than $100,000 on her own advertising and the national Republicans have spent $350,000 on ads that attack Levin, but don't mention Touma.
"That's just icing on the cake for a candidate," Touma told the Metro Times when asked about the Republican-bought ads.
According to Levin's campaign, the representative has reserved $400,000 worth of advertising on Detroit-area television stations.
"We think Rep. Levin is particularly vulnerable," Eastman says. "We have a candidate in Leslie Touma who is one of the top fundraising challengers nationwide."
However, according to an EPIC/MRA poll conducted last week for the Oakland Press, Levin is expected to beat Touma by a significant margin. EPIC/MRA's Ed Sarpolus says that a poll of 300 likely voters in Levin's district showed 57 percent favor Levin and 30 percent would vote for Touma. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 5.7 percentage points.
Touma says the auto industry has donated roughly a quarter of the approximately $750,000 she has raised so far. Campaign finance reports show her having raised $612,000 and Levin having raised nearly $1.13 million, as of September 30.
Levin, who counts labor unions among his top contributors, served in the '60s on the Oakland County Board of Supervisors and later in the state Senate. He was a Democratic Party chair and lost two gubernatorial races against William Milliken before being first elected to the U.S. House in 1982.
Levin, brother of Democratic U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, is a member of the House Ways and Means Committee. He has gained the support of children's advocacy and civil rights groups, and recently received high marks on environmental issues from the League of Conservation Voters.
Eastman says Touma, a former Engler policy aide who worked in the U.S. Defense Department under Ronald Reagan, would be better to have in Congress because of her fiscal conservatism.
However, Sarpolus says Touma's focus on cutting crime and taxes may hurt her. He says the people polled in Levin's district say they are more interested in education than state taxes and government spending, and more interested in health care than crime.
Another possible drawback for Touma is name recognition. Sarpolus says that about half of the likely voters polled didn't know who Touma was, while another 30 percent said they didn't have an opinion of her.
"The bottom line is, you go with what you know," Sarpolus says.