A few hours after the polls closed on primary election night in 1992, Pete Hoekstra’s phone started ringing, and it didn’t stop. On the line was a cadre of local journalists scrambling to find out where Hoekstra, then a little-known candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, was holding his Election Night party.
The journalists had not bothered to ask before because they had assumed he would lose. He had only raised $45,000, $30,000 of which was his own money. He had no political experience and was running against Guy Vander Jagt, a 26-year incumbent who chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee.
“It was probably the one year that I could have won — someone with no money, getting on a bicycle, running against a 26-year incumbent,” Hoekstra recalled in an interview last week. “It was perfect timing.”
Two decades after his five-point victory over Vander Jagt, 18 of which he spent in Congress before a failed gubernatorial run in 2010, Hoekstra is again challenging an entrenched incumbent, U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D–Mich.).
Despite polls showing Stabenow holding a large double-digit lead, the race between the candidates has been one of the most heated in the state.
For Hoekstra, the fierceness of the contest has offered a new reality of campaigning. He has not ridden his bike to meet voters across the state, as he did to defeat Vander Jagt in 1992, in subsequent House elections, and in his run for the governorship in 2010.
Instead, he has consistently criticized Stabenow for her policies, often targeting what he views as her record of reckless spending and neglect of the economy. After emerging from a crowded field of candidates in the Republican primary election, he has referred to his opponent as “Debbie Spend-It-Now,” and himself as “Pete Spend-It-Not.”
He also launched a recent effort to name Stabenow Michigan’s “worst senator ever,” building a website that points to her support for the Affordable Care Act, “wasteful spending” and failure to create jobs as reasons why he thinks she should be replaced.
As he sipped hot chocolate in an interview at Sweetwater’s Café on E. Washington St. last week, Hoekstra compared Stabenow to Vander Jagt by deeming her lost in politics.
“I thought that the current representative, or in this case the current senator, was part of the problem, not part of the solution,” he said of Stabenow. “I think D.C.’s a mess, I think Debbie’s part of the problem, I think my background and my experience says that I could help fix things, and I think I can beat her in an election.”
A poll released on Wednesday by the Detroit Free Press and WXYZ-TV showed Stabenow leading Hoekstra 54 percent to 33 percent. All 13 polls in the last two months have showed Stabenow leading, and in 10 of them she had a double-digit lead, according to the Detroit Free Press.
In an interview this week, Stabenow said she is not surprised by Hoekstra’s aggressiveness in the last few weeks given his position in the polls and the increase of partisanship in Congress — a phenomenon she attributed to the influx of Tea Party congressmen in 2010.
She called Hoekstra an “extreme” candidate, citing the fact that he co-founded the Congressional Tea Party caucus along with U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R–Minn.).
Stabenow has campaigned on her support for President Obama’s healthcare reforms, her support for higher education and her record on agriculture while in Congress. She serves as the chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.
She said she heavily opposed the doubling of interesting rates on student loans this year, and noted legislation enacted protecting the Great Lakes as her proudest achievement during her time in the Senate.
She said the issue of higher education was personal for her, recalling that she needed student loans to attend Michigan State University. She went on to serve in the Michigan House of Representatives and Senate, and the U.S. House before defeating U.S. Sen. Spencer Abraham (R–Mich.) in 2000.
For his part, Hoekstra, who graduated from the University’s Business School in 1977 and worked for 15 years as vice president of marketing for a Fortune 500 furniture company before challenging Vander Jagt, said he is not worried about the polls.
He cited the endorsements of various Michigan Republicans, including Republican Gov. Rick Snyder as evidence of his contention in the race.
“I can read about this horse race every day,” he said. “Every phone call is about, ‘How’s the horse race? How’s the horse race?’ The bottom line is, we’ve got a plan, we’re executing it — that’s the most important thing. And we think that the plan gets us over the top at 8 p.m. on Nov. 6.”