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Special Primary Report: Michigan

By Robert Marshall Wells
CQ Staff Writer


A textbook "swing" state that is all but certain to be a key political battleground this year, Michigan features a high-profile Senate race and several House contests that could be among the most closely watched in the nation.

Three-term Democratic Sen. Carl Levin will face the winner of a raucous Republican primary on Tuesday between former radio talk show host Ronna Romney and wealthy chemical company executive Jim Nicholson.

One key House contest will likely be decided in the primary. Democratic Rep. Barbara-Rose Collins' stock has declined sharply in the face of several allegations of ethical misconduct. But her troubles have drawn in a bevy of primary challengers who are likely to subdivide the opposition vote.

In November, Michigan will be a major front in the parties' battle for control of the House. Freshman Republican Rep. Dick Chrysler and Democrats Dale E. Kildee, Sander M. Levin and Lynn Rivers all won narrowly in 1994 and are certain to have to fight for their seats this year. The state's highest-ranking House member, outspoken Minority Whip David E. Bonior, may also face a stiff challenge.

Even formidable 20-term Democratic Rep. John D. Dingell could be tested, although a challenge by probable Republican nominee James R. DeSana, the mayor of Wyandotte in suburban Detroit, currently appears to be a profound long shot. DeSana must also first get by three other Republicans who are competing in the primary.


Republicans will try to convince voters that Levin, who won reelection in 1990 with 57 percent of the vote, is a liberal voice from the past who is now out of touch with the electorate.

But first, Republicans must choose a nominee in a primary campaign that has become nasty even though both candidates hold nearly identical views on most issues.

Romney, who was previously married to a son of the late Republican Gov. George W. Romney (1963-69), is making her second run for a Senate seat. In 1994, she lost the Republican primary by 4 percentage points to the eventual general election winner, former Michigan GOP Chairman Spencer Abraham.

Nicholson, in his first run for public office, has invested nearly $1 million of his own money so far in an effort to boost his name recognition.

Nicholson and Romney, attempting to distinguish themselves from the other, have seized on abortion as the one major issue upon which they have distinct differences. Nicholson supports abortion rights for women, while Romney is opposed.

In an effort to undermine Romney's position, Nicholson has run media spots resuscitating an old rumor that Romney once told state leaders of the abortion rights movement that she secretly supported their cause but felt compelled to strike a strong stance against abortion for political reasons.

Romney has vehemently denied she ever made such a statement and insists she is incontrovertibly opposed to abortion rights and her position has not changed.

Though Michigan's influential Republican Gov. John Engler is staying neutral in the Senate fray, many members of the state Republican establishment are leaning to Nicholson as the more electable challenger to Levin. However, Romney's background as a conservative media figure may give her more populist appeal.

Levin, who formally announced in late May that he would seek re-election, has largely remained on the sidelines while Romney and Nicholson have been bruising each other.


8th District -- Central: Part of Lansing

Democrats are focusing on the competitive 8th District, currently held by Republican Chrysler.

The 8th, which reaches from Lansing to the outskirts of Flint and Ann Arbor, is a politically marginal district carried by Bill Clinton in 1992 and represented by veteran Democratic Rep. Bob Carr until he retired for what would be an unsuccessful Senate run against Abraham in 1994.

Democrats charge that Chrysler, an ardent supporter of the GOP "Contract With America" who won with a modest 52 percent of the vote in 1994, is too extreme for the district.

Specifically, Chrysler's critics cite votes to reduce funding for such federal agencies as the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration as an indication of an insensitivity to workers.

To take on Chrysler, Democrats have recruited former state Sen. Deborah Ann Stabenow, a fiscal conservative who unsuccessfully sought the party's gubernatorial nomination in 1994. Stabenow was eventually chosen as the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor but the ticket led by gubernatorial nominee Howard Wolpe was defeated by Engler.

Stabenow hopes to benefit from union support. Chrysler is one of about 75 House members whose district has been targeted for labor-issue campaigning by the AFL-CIO.

Chrysler has denounced big labor's political activities against him and insists that Republican priorities, such as cutting taxes, balancing the budget and easing federal regulations would benefit his constituents.

9th District -- East Central: Flint; Pontiac

The main House target for state Republicans is 9th District Democrat Kildee, a 10-term member who hung on with 51 percent of the vote in 1994.

Despite the close outcome of that race, two-time Republican nominee Megan O'Neill -- a former White House aide in the Bush administration -- was forced out of the GOP picture this year in favor of former state transportation official Patrick M. Nowak.

Nowak is likely to center his campaign on fiscal issues such as balancing the budget, reducing taxes and scaling back the federal government's scope.

Kildee, considered one of the top Democratic experts on education issues, is likely to highlight his efforts to revamp the nation's job training and vocational education programs to make them more responsive to economic uncertainties such as corporate layoffs and downsizings.

12th District -- Suburban Detroit: Warren; Sterling Heights

Seven-term Democratic Rep. Sander M. Levin (the senator's brother) survived the Republican tide of 1994 with a modest 52 percent of the vote. Republicans, who still believe Levin is vulnerable, are likely to send two-time nominee John Pappageorge up against the liberal Democrat for a rematch in the fall.

If Pappageorge, as expected, defeats long-shot candidate Kevin Wright in the primary, Levin will probably try to label him as a conservative ideologue who would favor big business over workers. Considering the district's large population of blue-collar auto workers, such a message could resonate with voters this year.

13th District -- Southeast: Ann Arbor; Westland; Ypsilanti

Freshman Democratic Rep. Lynn Rivers is likely to receive a strong challenge from retired businessman Joe Fitzsimmons in this Democratic-leaning district, which includes part of populous Wayne County in the Detroit suburbs.

Fitzsimmons, the former chairman of an Ann Arbor microfilms firm called UMI, is aiming to draw on his business connections to build a campaign treasury of around $1 million.

Major campaign issues are likely to include how to go about balancing the budget and reducing the size and scope of government.

15th District -- Parts of Detroit: Grosse Pointe; Hamtramck

Three-term Democratic Rep. Collins, who faces several allegations of ethical and financial misconduct, is extremely vulnerable in this heavily Democratic district.

Most recently, the Federal Elections Commission concluded that it has "reason to believe" Collins violated campaign contribution limits during her 1990 campaign by taking and misreporting two guaranteed loans that totaled $75,000. The FEC said it would not take action against Collins, but did turn the case over to the House Ethics Committee, where several other charges of impropriety are pending against her.

But despite Collins' shaky position, her high name recognition could allow her to slip through with a plurality against the large field of Democratic primary challengers. This would virtually ensure her re-election in this overwhelmingly Democratic, 70 percent black district.

Six Democrats filed for the right to challenge Collins, including state Sen. Henry Edward Stallings II; state Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick; funeral home executive Douglass J. Diggs (the son of former Democratic Rep. Charles C. Diggs Jr., who represented parts of the 15th District from 1955 to 1980); Detroit lawyer Godfrey Dillard; former judge Leon Jenkins; and long-shot candidate George Hart of Dearborn.

Two Republicans, political activist LaNell Buffington and newcomer Stephen Hume, have also filed for the race.

Copyright © 1996, Congressional Quarterly Inc. All rights reserved.

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