The Bosom of Abraham
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September 25, 2000

How the junior senator fares in Michigan


Traverse City, Mich.

If Spencer Abraham needed an even clearer signal that his reelection to the Senate is in trouble, he got it at a GOP breakfast here in July. It’s not that the crowd of Republican activists received him poorly; they clapped politely when he reached the podium, and listened intently to several minutes of unmemorable remarks. It’s what happened next: Abraham introduced Michigan’s lieutenant governor, Dick Posthumus. The banquet hall burst with excitement. Men wearing red blazers in honor of the local cherry harvest jumped to their feet, set off like the fireworks that had lit up Grand Traverse Bay the night before. Minutes later, Gov. John Engler won a similar response.

Posthumus won’t appear on the ballot for another two years, and Engler’s future is term-limited and unclear. It’s Abraham whose job is on the line in a few months, and he’s perilously close to losing it. Will a Republican audience that won’t stand up for him today canvass neighborhoods for him when the cold comes in October?

This question has prompted any number of pundits to declare Abraham the Senate’s most vulnerable incumbent this year. He’s also a bellwether: If he wins, there’s a good chance George W. Bush also will triumph, and Republicans will hold the line in the Senate; if he loses, the GOP may take a beating all over the country. But even more is at stake for conservatives. This year’s election will test the strength of the Senate’s class of 1994–nine members swept into office on a conservative tidal wave and now facing voters for the first time as incumbents. If their success is to have lasting consequence, it will take victories in swing states like Michigan this fall. Unfortunately, Abraham has spent much of the last five years hurting his chances. For months, he has looked like a goner. That’s starting to change, but his race ought to be a nail-biter.

When Abraham arrived in the Senate, the conservative movement had high hopes for him. Born to a family of modest means in Lansing, he went to Harvard Law School and helped found the Federalist Society, now a vital part of the conservative counter-establishment. He returned to Michigan and, at the age of 30 in 1982, became the GOP’s state chairman. Over the next eight years, he plotted a conservative resurgence that culminated in Engler’s 1990 upset of Gov. Jim Blanchard. He went on to work for Vice President Quayle and was later a serious candidate to head the Republican National Committee. Back in Michigan, he declared for the Senate, won a tough primary, and rode to a nine-point victory.

Colleagues consider him brainy, and he’s well-liked–so smooth behind the scenes that he quickly earned a good relationship with majority leader Bob Dole (whose 15 percent across-the-board tax-cut idea in 1996 came from Abraham), and then became a confidant of Dole’s successor, Trent Lott. He’s been the chief sponsor of more than a dozen bills passed by the Senate–a good record, even for a veteran lawmaker–and has carved out a policy niche for himself in high technology, writing laws on digital signatures, cyber-squatting, and worker visas. If Abraham survives reelection, there might be a leadership post in his future.

This Senate seat is his first elective office at any level, and he’s made rookie mistakes that another politician with a fuller resume might have avoided. Ask just about any Republican in Michigan for an assessment of Abraham, and the response will include the claim that he isn’t back home enough. He may be better known in Silicon Valley, Calif., than in Saginaw, Mich. The charge piques Abraham–“I’ve been to every county at least twice,” he complains–but even his closest allies repeat it. And it’s clear, when you spend time around him, that he derives little pleasure from retail politics. He doesn’t seem to enjoy himself on the campaign trail or giving an interview. These are chores to him, and he performs them like a teenager who’s told he can’t borrow the car until he’s mown the lawn. Talking to a dozen constituents at a Jeep dealership in Alpena, Abraham doesn’t smile.

He is running neck-and-neck with a tough challenger. A June poll had Abraham leading Democratic representative Debbie Stabenow 42 percent to 40 percent–red-alert numbers for any incumbent, who can probably count on most late-deciding voters to opt against him in the final days before an election. Despite the recent success of Engler, Michigan is no happy hunting ground for Republicans, let alone conservatives; Abraham could have anticipated a tough contest years ago, and his voting record suggests he’s hedged. National Journal, for instance, rated him the Senate’s eighth most liberal Republican. That’s not exactly Jim Jeffords territory, but it’s within sight. Abraham has cast a few union-friendly votes-he supported a minimum-wage increase, for instance–and doesn’t like to talk about abortion, even though he’s reliably pro-life. A recent constituent newsletter cites mushy praise from the Chicago Tribune: “Maybe we’ll see a softer, gentler GOP, as exemplified by Abraham.”

One decision in particular has disappointed some conservatives. Last year, Abraham followed Engler’s lead and came out against a school-choice proposal that Michigan voters will decide on this fall. Engler argued that it was polling too poorly to pass and would increase Democratic turnout. Today, Abraham refuses to talk about it. “I’ve expressed concern,” he says. “But my role is not to make the case for or against the initiative.” So he won’t.

The issue that has earned him the most notoriety, however, is immigration. It’s the one subject about which he can become animated in conversation. Many pro-immigration conservatives credit Abraham with preventing the national GOP from following the sorry fate of California’s Republicans in the wake of Proposition 187, the anti-illegal-alien ballot initiative that arguably saved Pete Wilson’s governorship but also turned a whole generation of Hispanics against the party. This, in turn, makes Abraham a villain to restrictionists, whom he confounded in 1995 and 1996 when Congress weighed new limits on immigrant admissions and he was an upstart member of the Judiciary Committee. The Federation for American Immigration Reform has run a vengeful ad campaign against him this year, asking: “Why is Senator Spencer Abraham trying to make it easier for terrorists like Osama bin Laden to export their war of terror to any city street in America?” This was a tactless comment, considering Abraham is an Arab American (his background is Christian Lebanese), and it caused groups like the Michigan Catholic Conference to defend the senator publicly. It also created an opportunity for triangulation: His supporters could say that Abraham may be conservative, but he’s no nut-job like the extremists attacking him.

But if he loses, many Republicans may decide that Abraham himself went too far–especially in a state like Michigan, where the only voter concern about borders has to do with car traffic on the bridges to Ontario. His vigorous support–in both words and actions–for immigration has won him a fan base outside of normal GOP circles. He’s been feted at an awards banquet of the National Council of La Raza, a leading Hispanic group. The invitations to his most recent birthday fundraiser–called “Spence-o de Mayo,” even though it falls in June–featured the GOP elephant insignia on an orange sombrero. An Abraham defeat might send conservatives the message that–despite all the happy talk in Philadelphia–they embrace immigration at their peril. The senator insists he’s played the issue wisely. “There are a lot of immigrants in Michigan, and a lot of others who have a strong conscience about these issues because they know their family history,” he says.

In recent weeks, Abraham has made a more direct effort to connect with Michigan voters. One recent ad has John McCain, who beat Bush in the state primary, extolling Abraham as a “workhorse” who snagged $300 million in federal funding for Michigan roads–an effective ad, but a strange one given that McCain, an anti-pork pol, voted against the bill. Abraham also was on center stage in July, when his bill to suspend gas taxes for 150 days came up for a vote. It lost, but Abraham reaped good press at a time when the Midwest saw fuel prices spike high above the national average. He’s been aggressive in criticizing Democratic prescription-drug plans, too.

This attention to the political concerns of ordinary Michigan voters may be the key to Abraham’s comeback. New polls show him inching away from Stabenow; on August 29, the Detroit News had him ahead, 43 percent to 34 percent. That’s still too many uncommitted voters for comfort, but the improvement in recent weeks has energized his supporters.

Win or lose, the lesson for conservatives is that it’s important to keep paying close attention to local matters, even when one is developing a national reputation as a party leader. In the meantime, Abraham can only hope his candidacy chugs forward, toward a slim margin of victory in the wee hours of November 8–which, finally, ought to bring his supporters to their feet.

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