Magazine | September 22, 2014, Issue

The Price of a Gaffe

Terri Lynn Land (AP Photo/Daimler Financial Services via PRNews, File)
In a Michigan Senate race, Terri Lynn Land tries to recover

George F. Will says she owns “a musical name,” and that’s not all Terri Lynn Land has going for her. As she runs for the Senate in Michigan this fall, she may have the forces of history on her side. Since the presidency of Richard Milhous Nixon — a less musical name — Republicans have prevailed only once in the Wolverine State’s Senate contests, but it happened in a year a lot like 2014.

The victory came in 1994, when the retirement of a Democratic senator had opened a seat, a lackluster Democratic congressman tried to fill it, a Republican governor ran for reelection, and an unpopular Democrat sat in the White House. “These are exactly the same conditions we see today,” says Bill Ballenger, a former Republican state legislator who publishes Inside Michigan Politics, a widely read newsletter.

Back then, the result was a triumph for Republican Spencer Abraham, who served a single term before Michigan reverted to its habit of electing Democrats to the Senate. Can Land repeat his initial success, two decades later? “The environment is right for Terri,” says John Engler, who was Michigan’s governor two decades ago. “This is a winnable race.”

Yet it looks like she’s losing. Since the middle of April, Land has trailed Representative Gary Peters, her Democratic foe, in 17 of 18 polls. A pair of surveys in June and July showed her down by nine points. More recent numbers suggest a closer race, possibly within the margin of error. In August, however, Freedom Partners, a conservative group with ties to Charles and David Koch, canceled more than $1 million in issue ads slated for Michigan. “We make decisions based on the most effective use of each dollar at the time,” says James Davis, a spokesman for the group. Land doesn’t lack for funds, having already committed at least $2.9 million of her own money to the cause. Several independent organizations remain committed to her as well. Even so, the decision by Freedom Partners looked like a retreat.

Meanwhile, many Republicans in Washington are congratulating themselves on a successful summer. They beat back tea-party challengers in Senate primaries in Kansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee, and now they’re optimistic about securing a 51-seat majority in November. The GOP needs a net gain of six seats, starting with what look like three easy pick-ups in Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia, where Democratic incumbents are retiring. In half a dozen toss-up states, Republicans think they have a slate of candidates who won’t repeat the amateur-hour errors of 2012, when Todd Akin of Missouri and Richard Mourdock of Indiana blundered their way to defeat in races they probably should have won.

Land’s first priority is caution, and she hopes that national trends will lift her to victory. “She won’t be the 50th or 51st Republican in the Senate, but she might be the 53rd, 54th, or 55th,” says Saul Anuzis, former head of the Michigan GOP. When Republicans look back on this election, they’ll see Land as either a brilliantly disciplined tactician — or a loser who missed a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

The 56-year-old Land was born in Grand Rapids and speaks with the nasally accent that distinguishes native Michiganders (and sounds vaguely Canadian to everyone else). As a high-school student in 1976, she worked for the presidential campaign of the most accomplished politician ever to emerge from her hometown: Gerald Ford. She went to western Michigan’s Hope College, helped her husband build a successful real-estate-development business, and raised two kids. In the 1990s, she served as the clerk of Kent County, managing records and overseeing elections. Then she jumped into statewide politics, winning a race for secretary of state in 2002. One of her first acts was to decline a perk of office: She refused to put her name on the signs that hang in scores of offices where people wait in line for driver’s licenses. She coasted to reelection in 2006, attracting more votes than any other Republican in Michigan that year. By all accounts, she performed well in Lansing. “She did a very effective job at a complex agency,” says Engler. Later, Land announced plans to run for governor, but soon she downgraded her ambitions and agreed to be a candidate for lieutenant governor on the ticket of Mike Bouchard, a county sheriff. In a 2010 GOP primary, they finished fourth.

Up to that point, Land was seen as an up-and-comer among Michigan Republicans. Afterward, she bore the mark of an effort that had failed to win, place, or show. Yet her assets remained in plain view, from her proven vote-getting ability to the simple fact that she’s a woman in a party that often struggles with winning the female vote. When Democratic senator Carl Levin announced he wouldn’t seek reelection in 2014, Land became the first Republican to say she would try to replace him. Party leaders tried to recruit a prominent alternative, such as Representative Dave Camp or Representative Mike Rogers, but they both decided to retire from Congress entirely. Representative Justin Amash, an ambitious libertarian, also thought about the race and chose to skip it. In the end, Land enjoyed the thing that politicians always want: a clear path to their party’s nomination. She received the GOP nod in August, without a fight.

#page#Yet Land may also be the kind of candidate who would have benefited from a contested primary — the intraparty competition that carries the risk of defeat but also the reward of experience and, possibly, improvement. Land is commonly accused of not being ready for the job she seeks. Democrats make the claim out loud and many Republicans whisper it in private. All of them point to what happened on May 28. 

Every year, the Detroit Regional Chamber hosts a policy conference at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, a popular resort. Business and political leaders gather for speeches, panel discussions, and conversations. This year’s event featured a forum for both Senate candidates. Peters spoke first, followed by Land. Then came a press scrum. Reporters descended on Land, peppering her with questions. She seemed confused about the meaning of “net neutrality” — a policy favored by many liberals to stop Internet providers from charging fees to companies for better access to their networks. Then she dodged a question about the federal government’s bailout of Chrysler and General Motors, managing only to repeat some formulation of “I support the auto industry” before an aide pulled her away, ending the session, which lasted less than three minutes.

In the middle of the encounter, Land’s hands bumped into a microphone. Then, “looking slightly panicked and clearly uncomfortable,” according to an account in the Detroit Free Press, she spoke the words she probably now regrets: “I can’t do this. I talk with my hands.” Ever since, Michigan politicos have debated the incident. Did she merely want more personal space, or was it a kind of Freudian slip? A generous interpretation allows that she was mildly flustered. A more brutal one says it revealed, in dramatic fashion, that she’s easily overwhelmed and ill equipped for the stress of a grueling campaign, let alone a career in the Senate. Her response hardly helped: All summer long, Land avoided reporters, turning down interview requests and limiting her public appearances to tightly controlled meetings in which she appeared before small audiences of people who agree with her.

On August 27, Land called me for a 15-minute phone interview. She was ready for a question about net neutrality: She knows what it is and she’s against it. On the car-maker bailouts, she continues to talk around the question: “Our goal always has been to make the auto industry successful,” she says. “We may have had different ideas about what to do, but we shared the same goal.” She still won’t say how she would have voted as a senator, though. She praises the performance of Governor Rick Snyder, including his plan to spend nearly $200 million to prop up Detroit’s broken pension system, and says that Michigan should fix its roads by keeping more of its gas taxes at home. She wants to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, reform the tax code, ease regulations, and cut the budget deficit. “The most important thing is jobs and the economy,” she says. “The House has passed more than 300 bills that the Senate has not taken up.” Is there a particular bill she’d like to see the Senate consider? “Any bill on jobs and the economy.”

Peters, from suburban Detroit, is a standard-issue liberal — a little boring but also battle-tested. Over the last six years, he has prevailed in a series of difficult elections. He defeated eight-term Republican congressman Joe Knollenberg in 2008 and survived a strong GOP challenge in 2010. Two years later, after redistricting, he faced a primary against his colleague Democratic congressman Hansen Clarke. Peters won that contest, too, as a white candidate in a majority-black district. So he knows his way around a hard race — and if he wins a seat in the Senate this fall, he may not face another tough one for a long time. “Our chance to beat him is right now,” says Greg McNeilly, a Michigan Republican strategist.

Land’s task is to make the election turn on the record Peters has built in Washington, as a congressman who has voted for the Affordable Care Act and other controversial items on the agenda of the Obama administration. This can be done with TV ads, of course, but strong candidates make it happen in other ways, too. Sometimes the situation calls for taking a few chances. A common tactic for an office-seeker in Land’s underdog position, for example, is to demand public debates. Yet she seems to want no part: Peters has asked to face off five times and Land has refused to commit to even a single meeting. It’s the latest exchange to amplify a major theme of the Peters campaign: He’s prepared for the Senate and she’s not.

At some point, Terri Lynn Land will need to prove she can do this.

John J. Miller is the national correspondent for National Review and the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. His new book is Reading Around: Journalism on Authors, Artists, and Ideas.

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