Rep. Fred Upton, who has held southwestern Michigan's congressional seat for 30 years, took more steps toward a Senate run at the GOP's biennial leadership conference this weekend on Mackinac Island. His "Let's Win Michigan" signs showing a map of the entire state were hard to miss. And while he has yet to make a final decision — "soon," he said — numerous Republicans expect him to join the race.
"Bottom line for me, we've got to end the dysfunction in Washington. I've always been a bipartisan guy, getting things done," Upton said. "As people think about electing different folks, they don't care if you have necessarily an 'R' or a 'D' next to your name. They want the job done. Well I've done that."
Another likely candidate, Grosse Pointe businessman Sandy Penser, said he is "pretty confident" he can bring something to the contest, is prepared to spend a lot his own money and will decide within a month.
Former state Supreme Court Justice Bob Young and Iraq War veteran and business executive John James have already committed to running.
The third-term Stabenow has twice cruised to re-election and the GOP has rarely had a Senate seat in Michigan. But Republicans are more optimistic after Donald Trump's Michigan victory and they note that this time, Stabenow won't benefit from sharing the ballot with incumbents such as President Barack Obama and Gov. Jennifer Granholm. On the other hand, Trump's low approval ratings loom large, as does the typically rough sledding for the president's party in midterm elections.
The four men angling to face Stabenow had events on the island and, in interviews, offered contrasting reasons why they can defeat her.
"Debbie has had the benefit of her opponents so far," said Young, the lone contender who has run statewide previously and who contends government regulations, over-taxation and the federal health law have hurt businesses. "I'm a different kind of candidate. I am not a Washington politician stewing in the sewer of the swamp there. I've been in public life but not as a politician. I don't think we can win by just running another Washington insider against a Washington insider."
Stabenow defeated another congressman from western Michigan, Pete Hoekstra, by 21 percentage points in 2012.
James, a 36-year-old newcomer, called himself an outsider who could "carry forward conservative values for the next 30 years" in the Senate. His priorities include confirming conservative justices to the Supreme Court and protecting religious and economic freedoms. He touted his experience flying combat helicopters in the Iraq War and working as an executive in his family's Detroit-based logistics business.
"You don't beat a 40-year politician with a 30-year politician," James said. "And if you want results, you need to send a leader to Washington — someone who gets results, not more lawyers. (Voters) don't want more of the same. They want something different but they also want competence."
Upton is a moderate who did not endorse Trump against Hillary Clinton, which is sure to be an issue in the primary. He played a pivotal role this year in the House's approval of health care legislation, only voting yes after winning an amendment aimed at helping seriously ill people pay expensive premiums. The Michigan Democratic Party, which calls Upton the "architect" of the House plan, said if the Senate revives its own imperiled proposal this week, "Michigan has Fred Upton to thank for his role in keeping health care cuts alive."
Former state GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis said Upton would be in a strong position entering the primary due to his base of support in Republican-friendly western Michigan and his proven fundraising prowess.
"He has been challenged on the right several times," he said. "So he's used to not being the quote-unquote conservative candidate running in a primary. He's knows how to run those races and win those races."
Pensler, whose buyout firm owns four manufacturing plants, said he understands the economy and how to turn around and grow companies, and could help reform ineffective government entitlement programs. He decided to seriously consider running because of his 13-year-old daughter, who was listening to him gripe at the dinner table about Stabenow's opposition to Trump's proposed deficit-reducing spending cuts.
"She looks at me and goes, 'So Dad, what are you going to do about it?'" Pensler said. "And I went, 'You know what? I'm there.' I'm frustrated with the direction (of the country). I don't want to be a bystander. It's time to try to do something."