Saving Private Abraham

Last spring, Spencer Abraham of Michigan was widely considered to be the most vulnerable incumbent in the U.S. Senate--"a guy," says one veteran politico, "who could only have been elected in 1994." Like many Gingrichians, Abraham was known less as a politician than as an ideological enthusiast, with few legislative accomplishments and spectacularly low polls in his own state.

Yet now, running against a perfectly plausible opponent, it looks like Spencer Abraham is about to win a second term. And therein lies a tale.

It begins in the trenches of the Michigan Republican Party, when Abraham graduated from Harvard Law School in 1979. Around the same time, a Michigan businessman named Peter Secchia and a young legislator named John Engler were planning what they called a revival of the moribund state party. In truth, what they had in mind was a harbinger of the Reagan Revolution: replacing the urbane, liberal Republicanism of former governors George Romney and Bill Milliken with the conservative Republicanism that would soon come to dominate national politics. Abraham himself was relatively unknown but indubitably a true believer. A disciple of conservative eminence Russell Kirk, Abraham had helped to launch both The Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy (a right-wing version of the law review) and the Federalist Society (a group of conservative legal activists and intellectuals that would later have enormous influence in the Reagan Revolution). Abraham's parents, moreover, were active in local Republican circles and had helped elect Secchia to the Republican National Committee (RNC). In 1982, when Secchia and Engler decided to run a candidate for chair of the Michigan Republican Party, they settled on Abraham.

"Abraham's got a very difficult problem," Secchia used to joke. "The Arabs think he's Jewish, the Jews think he's Arab--and so both groups hate him." Abraham, who is of Christian Lebanese extraction, won anyway, defeating Milliken's handpicked candidate and becoming the country's youngest state party chair. The next year, a raft of Engler-backed conservative Republicans ran against Democratic Governor Jim Blanchard and his tax increase (and those Republican moderates who had supported it) and captured a majority in the state senate. With Engler as majority leader, Secchia as RNC committeeman, and Abraham running the state party, the three men came to dominate Michigan politics, paving the way for Engler's first gubernatorial victory in 1990.

Shortly after, the up-and-coming Abraham decamped to Washington. There, he served as Vice President Dan Quayle's deputy chief of staff under William Kristol and as a co-chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), became a board member of the Washington Legal Foundation (a prominent conservative litigation outfit), and was briefly a contender to succeed Haley Barbour as chairman of the RNC. In 1993, at the dawn of the Clinton years, Abraham returned to Michigan to run for the Senate.

It was not to be a cakewalk. Though deeply ambitious, Abraham was a diffident, almost shy public speaker, blessed with neither the rhetorical bombast nor the campaign-trail zeal of the other Gingrichians. He was "a classic staff guy, detail-oriented, you know, always making lists," says Kristol. "He's not a classic glad-hander and mixer with people." He barely eked out a primary victory over radio-show host Ronna Romney, and he looked to be in for a tough fight. But luckily for Abraham, the stars seemed to come into alignment: Donald W. Riegle, Jr., the three-term Democratic incumbent, decided to retire; his replacement, former congressman Bob Carr, was tarred by his association with Bill Clinton (then at the nadir of his unpopularity); Engler was on his way to a landslide gubernatorial victory; and anyway, this was 1994.

Though Abraham won for reasons largely not of his own making, once in office, he was extraordinarily well-positioned to thrive. The most ideologically fervent congressional majority in modern U.S. history respected his ties to the right's emergent intelligentsia and heartily approved of his efforts to evict moderates from the Michigan state party. His friend and former boss Kristol would soon launch The Weekly Standard, the new movement's standard bearer. (The magazine's former deputy publisher, Jim Pitts, is in fact now Abraham's chief of staff.) Such were Abraham's intellectual credentials that in 1996, when Bob Dole went looking for a way reinvigorate his presidential campaign--to say nothing of his conservative bona fides--it was Abraham's proposal for a 15 percent across-the-board tax cut that Dole decided to adopt as his own

There was just one problem: Two years into Abraham's term of office, three-quarters of Michigan voters either had never heard of their junior senator or, worse, simply had no opinion of him, according to a poll by the Michigan firm EPIC/MRA. And it wasn't just because Abraham had never before held elective office. The problem, says EPIC/MRA pollster Ed Sarpolous, was "a lack of activity in the state. You know, coming back to the state, constituent services, meeting with editorial boards, returning phone calls. I could go down the list."

Abraham, too, read the polls. He began to ramp up his constituency service efforts. If not entirely successful, he was certainly innovative: After the death of Princess Diana in 1997, Abraham's regional offices transported a condolences book to schools, libraries, and community centers around the state, running Abraham-sponsored signing ceremonies for the good citizens of Michigan. ("There were lines around the block everywhere we went," says one Abraham staffer. "It was incredible.")

On the legislative front, he championed a ban on the date-rape drug Rohypnol, and this move won him some visibility among women voters without the risk of rousing anyone's opposition. (It's not like Michigan has a pro-date-rape-drug lobby.) He nominated Rosa Parks for the Congressional Gold Medal, to similar effect.

Still, for the most part, Abraham's priorities in the Senate seemed oddly divorced from those of his constituents. One of the issues for which he became best known--increasing the quota of H1-B visas for immigrant high-tech workers--was hardly high on the agenda of Michigan's struggling autoworkers and other old-economy refugees. H1-B visas were, however, near and dear to the U.S. high-tech industry--as were an Abraham bill outlawing "cybersquatting" and another granting electronic signatures the same validity as pen-and-ink signatures. Indeed, over time, Abraham's devotion to the concerns of the high-tech industry earned him the moniker "California's Third Senator."

All this provided an opening for Debbie Stabenow, a Democratic congresswoman set on becoming Michigan's Second Senator. Like Abraham, Stabenow had been involved in politics almost all of her adult life. Unlike Abraham, she had spent that time in public office, first as a state representative, then as a state senator, and finally as a U.S. representative. Ideologically, Stabenow was a centrist with a moderate voting record well-suited to Michigan's mixed electorate. And despite a failed bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1994, she was widely considered to be a folksy, energetic retail politicker and a formidable campaigner.

Governor Engler was the first to come to the rescue. In 1998 he appointed his old friend as chief spokesman for the state's "Clean Michigan" campaign, a $500-million bond initiative to fund brownfield cleanup, pollution control, and parks improvement. The initiative had no serious opposition in the state, but backers ran a $3.5-million ad campaign nonetheless. It featured Abraham, who has a meager 7 percent lifetime rating from the League of Conservation Voters (and earned 0 percent in 1999), hailing "clean water and better parks."

Soon after, a group called Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) blanketed Michigan with $1 million of ads praising Abraham for his support of that year's massive, Republican-sponsored tax cut legislation. ATR, of course, is headed by Grover Norquist, conservative guru and part-time Microsoft lobbyist. Norquist found much to appreciate not just in Abraham's enthusiasm for tax cuts, but also in his outspoken criticism of the Clinton administration's lawsuit against Microsoft and his work on H1-B visas--an effort that Norquist and a group of business-minded and libertarian conservatives had informally advised. (A former Abraham aide, Shawn Vassel, now works for Bill Gates's father's law firm, Preston, Gates, Ellis.)

But even after the ATR blitz, says Sarpolous, as many as one-quarter of Michigan voters had never heard of their junior senator, and considerably less than half of them said they would vote for him. Stabenow, meanwhile, had found a potent issue: prescription drug benefits for the elderly. Campaigning relentlessly on the high price of arthritis medications, she mounted prescription-buying bus expeditions to Canada and slowly drew even in the polls. And then, out of far-right field, a group called Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) suddenly launched a series of vicious ads against the senator. FAIR was paying Abraham back for his principled opposition to Republican-sponsored anti-immigration legislation in 1996. The ads claimed that he was "trying to make it easier for terrorists like Osama bin Laden to export their war of terror to any street in America."

So Trent Lott, according to Newsweek, summoned a group of high-tech lobbyists, railed against the attacks on his young protégé, and demanded that the lobbyists help pay for a series of counterattack ads supporting Abraham. Days later, an obscure organization known as Americans for Job Security (AJS) launched $448,411 worth of anti-FAIR ads, followed by a second, $255,000 burst in July. The ads not only defended Abraham against FAIR's smearing; while they were at it, they attacked Stabenow for not attacking FAIR. They even suggested, absurdly, that the FAIR ads were the work of Stabenow's allies. "Call Stabenow," was the message, and "ask her to stop the smear campaign."

And that was just the beginning. Whereas Stabenow favored a fairly standard Gore-style prescription drug benefit plan as well as a patients' bill of rights, Abraham--who had opposed both in Congress--was one of the Senate's top recipients of drug- and insurance-industry dollars. Pharmaceutical companies were also the primary funders of Americans for Job Security. AJS, moreover, was only one of several misleadingly labeled health industry groups involved in the campaign. Citizens for Better Medicare (backed by pharmaceutical companies), the Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care (run by nursing-home operators), the Health Benefits Coalition (actually a coalition of big business coalitions, including the National Federation of Independent Business and the National Association of Manufacturers) all ran ads either attacking Stabenow or praising Abraham. Drug companies also pumped another $2 million of anti-Stabenow ads through the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Many of the ads, of course, deliberately distorted all or parts of Stabenow's health care platform--so much so, in the Chamber of Commerce's case, that two Michigan television stations pulled them off the air in October.

Fellow Republicans also lent Abraham a hand. John McCain--demonstrably popular among Michigan independents and eager, perhaps, to patch things up with the Republican Senate leadership--taped an ad heralding Abraham as "Michigan's workhorse." Mike Murphy, McCain's and Engler's ad consultant, also signed on. Murphy has lately emerged as a sort of Lee Atwater manqué, so perhaps the subsequent launch of an Abraham-sponsored "Liberal Debbie" Web site is no coincidence; the site comes close to self-parody in its smearing of one "Deborah Rodham Stabenow" as "too liberal for Michigan." (Another page borrowed from the McCain playbook: Abraham's summer bus tour of Michigan was dubbed the "Workhorse Express.")

Between February and early October, the Engler-controlled Michigan Republican Party and Michigan Republican State Committee dumped nearly $2.5 million of ads into the race. The Business Roundtable, whose individual corporate members have contributed more to the Abraham campaign than to any other senator in the country, spent nearly $400,000 on ads between December 1999 and August 2000. In August, according to The Wall Street Journal, Microsoft quietly re-entered the fray, handing $250,000 to the Michigan Chamber of Commerce for anti-Stabenow ads. Even the NRCC--a group that doesn't usually concern itself with Senate races--chipped in, spending $92,300 on ads to help their former chairman. "There's been a lot of distortion by the Republicans, to try and neutralize [the health care] issue," says Mark Brewer, chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party. "And we're trying to get our message across. But it's not easy, I'll acknowledge."

In recent weeks, Abraham has been widely praised in conservative circles for waging a successful health care-based offensive--proof, as one Weekly Standard writer argued recently, both that Republicans can win on the issue and that the party's business-supported plan is actually popular among voters. But the Stabenow-Abraham race has been less a war of ideas than a war of attrition. While Stabenow has also benefited from outside advertising and campaign donations, neither her fundraising (projected to be about $6 million) nor the total of pro-Stabenow/anti-Abraham independent expenditures ($6.3 million so far) comes close to Abraham's numbers (about $14 million and $9.9 million, respectively). Indeed, Abraham backers spent almost as much in pre-Olympics advertising as Stabenow's have spent, period. With relatively restricted funds, Stabenow's campaign was forced to hold off on major TV expenditures until the fall, leaving the barrage of negative ads unanswered for several months. And by pouring money into advertising, Abraham's friends and well-wishers shifted the battle from the campaign trail--where Stabenow had a clear advantage--to the airwaves, where the candidate with the most money inevitably dominates.

Since May, Stabenow's poll numbers have declined steadily, from 43 percent to an all-time low of 32 percent in September. Her unfavorable ratings, meanwhile, have spiked from 19 percent at the beginning of the summer to a full 27 percent in one late-September poll. This hasn't made Abraham more popular among his constituents--he's only once topped the 45 percent mark, appallingly low for an incumbent, throughout the campaign. But there are many routes to office. "He's a hack," says Inside Michigan Politics editor Bill Ballenger, "somebody who's spent his entire life as a back room, partisan political operative, until--fortuitously, all of a sudden--he won his first public office ever." Sometimes that's all it takes. ¤