A Reflection on Debbie Stabenow’s career

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I’m sorry that Debbie Stabenow is retiring, she’s been a wonderful Senator for Michigan over the last couple decades.

She’s also a good example of the power of perseverance. My general observation in politics over the years has been that you can come back from losing an election. But it’s hard to come back from losing two elections. You take on sort of a loser label that makes it harder for you to get taken seriously in the future.

Well in 1994 Senator Stabenow lost two elections in one year. She ran for Governor and lost the primary. Then she got asked to join the ticket as Lieutenant Governor for the general election and she and her running mate lost…by 23 points!

This sort of put her at a fork in the road in terms of her political career. But let’s consider what she had already done at this point. She got elected Ingham County Commissioner when she was a 24 year old student at MSU, not something a lot of 24 year old women were doing in 1974. Four years later she decided she wanted to move up to the legislature and she didn’t wait her turn, at 28 she just took out the incumbent in the primary. She took on a leadership role during her 12 years in the State House, then did a term in the State Senate, and when she had her two losses in 1994 it was the first time she was out of office in 20 years.

So given all that background it should perhaps come as no surprise that she didn’t shrink away after her dual disappointments in 1994. Instead she ran for federal office for the first time in 1996, taking on an incumbent Republican Congressman in what had been one of the most competitive districts in the country. It wasn’t competitive that time, she kicked his butt. And she easily won re-election in 1998.

In 2000 she decided that it was time for another Republican, Senator Spencer Abraham, to go. The campaign against her was extremely nasty and for me at 16 honestly a bit of an early education in how low Republican campaigns are. I will never forget how much energy they spent pushing a ‘Liberal Debbie’ theme against her which was really an attempt to mock her for her weight more than for her politics, it was completely disgusting.

And it worked for a while. A late September New York Times article functioned as almost a pre obituary for the Stabenow campaign, arguing that while the race had been viewed as highly competitive early in the year Abraham had amassed a double digit lead as the attacks took their toll.

I don’t know if that was crap polling or Senator Stabenow just mounted a furious comeback in the last month of the campaign or a little of both. I just know that she kept battling from that low point for the campaign and pulled out a 50-48 win (winning Monroe County but losing Oakland County, the world has sure changed since then!)

That was the last really competitive campaign she had. Michiganders saw that she was a hard working, diligent Senator with the right values and never had much interest in voting for her opponents again. She won her first re-election in 2006 by 16 points. She won her next one in 2012 by 21 points. Even in 2018 after the country became completely polarized in the Trump era and crossover voting basically died she still won by 7 points in a generally 50-50 state. She emerged from that challenging 1994 as a juggernaut.

I‘m sorry she’s moving on but I’m glad she’s doing it on her terms and at a time where I hope she’ll be able to actually enjoy her retirement rather than these Senators who hang on until they drop! We’ve been awfully lucky to have her in public service in Michigan for 48 of the last 50 years…and lucky she had the strength during that two year exception to decide she was going to keep on trucking and write one hell of a second act-

Tom Jensen

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