Terri Lynn Land, a former Michigan secretary of state, is the Republican nominee for Senate. / John L. Russell, AP
WASHINGTON - Republicans have won several statewide political races in Michigan in recent years - for governor, attorney general and secretary of state - but haven't been able to win a U.S. Senate campaign in the state for two decades. It's a trend they hope to reverse this year, and outside money may make a difference this time.
Former Michigan secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, the Republican nominee, heads into the last two months of the campaign with polls showing her in striking distance of Democratic U.S. Rep. Gary Peters. She has a financial advantage, outside supporters who have outspent her opponent, and an incumbent governor on the ticket who is expected to improve her chances of winning.
"The polls suggest it is close and the parties are behaving like it is," said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report in Washington, who considers the race a tossup and took heat last year from Democrats for ranking it as such. "I don't see any reason to change this," she said.
The race is to replace U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, a Democrat who announced last year he would not run for a seventh six-year term.
With Republicans looking to gain control of the Senate, a win in Michigan - while still considered a long shot by many - would be a huge advantage. No Republican has won a U.S. Senate race in Michigan since 1994, when the party captured control of Congress for the first time in 40 years.
In that race, Spencer Abraham won in a non-presidential year - when Republicans tend to do better with turnout down in Michigan - and had strong backing from incumbent Gov. John Engler. Six years later, Abraham lost to Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who has since won re-election twice.
Land is also running in a non-presidential year, which is expected to provide a boost. But this year's election is not expected to create as much of a wave for Republicans, unlike 1994 or 2010. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, at the top of the ticket, hasn't offered much outward support for Land, either.
But Land is still proving hard for Peters to shake: A survey of 600 likely Michigan voters released Thursday by Lansing firm EPIC-MRA showed Peters with a 45%-39% lead, only slightly outside of 4-percentage-point margin of error. In the firm's last poll in July, Peters led by 9 points.
"She's been up more on TV than he has," said EPIC-MRA pollster Bernie Porn. "They've been testing different messages."
Real Clear Politics, a website that aggregates poll data, shows Peters up by an average of only 4 points. But the EPIC-MRA poll - which also showed Snyder slightly trailing Democrat Mark Schauer - also suggested Land may have difficulty overcoming Peters' 15-point lead among women.
That perceived advantage among women has led outside Democratic forces, including Majority Leader Harry Reid's Senate Majority PAC, to spend more than $3 million on the race, much of it suggesting Land, who also opposes abortion, doesn't represent Michigan's women.
President Obama also chided her for saying women were "more interested in flexibility in a job" than pay equity. Land, in response, ran an ad questioning whether Peters, as a man, understood women better that she does. "Really?" she said in the ad, in which she also silently looked at the camera while asking viewers to consider which of them knew more about women.
Land has also been criticized for failing to explain the precise source of $3 million in contributions she had made to her own campaign and for not settling on debates with Peters. Meanwhile, Land and her independent allies - including Americans for Prosperity, Freedom Partners and Ending Spending, which have put more than $6 million into the race - have hammered Peters for his support of Obama's health care reform law and opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline.
With more than $21 million having already been spent - $13 million by independent, outside groups - it could end up being the most expensive Senate race in Michigan history. As of July 16, Land had raised $8.7 million to Peters' $7 million.
Peters' campaign and his allies note that while most of that has been spent against them, they still are in the lead and Duffy agrees that Land needs to "be ahead by mid-October" if she's going to win. But despite Democratic claims that she is not as strong a candidate as the Republicans wanted - and a poor performance by her in a media scrum in May - she still has a chance of pulling off the upset.
"If she's as weak as the Democrats claim - if she lacks gravitas, is afraid to debate - then why is Peters only ahead after all this time by 4%?" asked Bill Ballenger, founder of Lansing-based Inside Michigan Politics.
Read the original story: Outside money makes Michigan Senate race a tossup