to the Wire
October 25, 2000 -- A recent survey shows health care is the number one issue for voters in Michigan. That's why Democratic challenger Rep. Debbie Stabenow and incumbent Republican Senator Spencer Abraham have made it the hot topic in their close contest for the Michigan Senate seat.
Both candidates have hit the airwaves hard, touting their plans to provide prescription drug coverage for seniors and blasting their opponent's approach to patients' rights. The airwaves are also filled with so-called 'issue ads' paid for by interested parties like the Sierra Club, pharmaceutical companies, and the Democratic and Republican Party national committees.
As the election approaches, the race has become more negative, with each candidate launching harsh personal attacks on the other through, a technique known to be effective in distributing a message while frustrating voters. Driven in part by this advertising, the Abraham-Stabenow race has been the most expensive Congressional campaign in Michigan's history.
Abraham, a freshman Senator, has raised over $10 million --more money than any incumbent senator in this election cycle, the Detroit Free Press reports. He is fourth overall in campaign fundraising behind the giants from New York state -- First Lady Hillary Clinton (D) and U.S. Rep. Rick Lazio (R) -- and former Goldman Sachs chairman Jon Corzine (D) of New Jersey.
In 1994, Abraham was the first Republican elected to the Senate from Michigan in more than 20 years. A non-practicing attorney, Abraham had spent most of his career working for other Republicans as the state GOP chair, a top aide for Vice President Dan Quayle and co-chairman of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee. In the Senate, he is known for his efforts to increase the number of visas available to skilled foreign workers and for helping author presidential candidate Bob Dole's tax cut.
Debbie Stabenow has held elected political positions for most of her adult life. In 1978, at the age of 28, she was elected to the Michigan state House of Representatives. After 2 terms, she was elected to the state Senate in 1990. In 1996, after an unsuccessful bid for governor, she was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. During her legislative career, she has consistently voted for tax relief for small businesses and for family law and child abuse issues. In Michigan politics, she successfully lobbied the governor to lose the state's high property taxes and adopt sales taxes.
Stabenow has not been able to match Abraham's $10 million coffer by a long shot, (she raised about $6.3 million as of Oct. 23), but captured voter sympathy immediately by focusing on health care reform and a prescription drug plan. A traditionally Democratic issue, Abraham was immediately at a disadvantage on the topic that Michigan voters said was their number one priority.
In June 2000 however, Abraham fired back by putting his name on a Republican Senate proposal for prescription drug coverage. The plan relies on private insurers to offer discounted coverage to seniors in exchange for a $35 annual fee. There would be no immediate benefits for prescription drugs, but low-income seniors (under $16,699) would get coverage after spending $1,200 on prescriptions. Seniors earning up to $33,399 would pay up to $2,500 before getting the rest of their prescriptions for free, and those earning up to $100,000 would pay up to $5,000.
The bill Stabenow supports would cost seniors $25 a month in premiums and would kick in after $2,000. The government would pay half of the costs between $2,000 and $4,000 and all of the costs after $4,000.
One ad touting Stabenow's support for a patients' bill of rights has created a stir among voters and the polls. The ad, released on Oct. 2, features a family whose daughter died fighting with their HMO. The ad says Abraham cast a deciding vote to block a bill that would have protected them. "My vote will be to protect patients and hold HMOs accountable. Sen. Abraham was the one vote that blocked those protections," Stabenow says in the ad. "As a senator, I'll be the one vote for Jessica and for you."
The ad has gotten extra mileage because the family says they called Abraham's office several times while their daughter was sick but never received an answer. Abraham said his office has no record of the calls.
Abraham has been just as hard on Stabenow, in some ads calling her prescription drug coverage plan a "prescription for disaster." Stabenow has made several highly publicized bus trips with seniors into Canada to highlight the need for prescription drug coverage in Medicare. During one of those trips, Abraham had a "truth truck" drive alongside the bus with a sign saying Stabenow backs a "$600 a year tax on seniors and worse health care for everyone." The $600 refers to the maximum annual premium seniors would probably end up paying under the prescription drug plan proposed by Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore.
Abraham kicked off his reelection campaign touting education as his number one issue, but later changed his emphasis to health care proposals -- a traditionally Democratic issue. He is also known as a champion of immigration visas for high-skilled workers. The high-tech industry is at his side and has contributed heavily to his campaign. He is therefore considered to be pro-immigration, an unusual stance for a Republican.
When Stabenow was encouraged to run against Abraham and try to win the seat back, not all leaders were supportive. The House's top Democrat, Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, urged her not to give up her House seat just when Democrats were hoping to regain control of the House. But Stabenow threw her hat in the ring for the Senate seat, saying that state Senator Dianne Byrum of Onondaga could take over her position in the U.S. House. But that race, in which Byrum faces Republican state Senator Mike Rogers, seems as tight as the race for the senate.
Though Abraham has led in the polls for several months, an Oct. 22 poll shows the race narrowing in the final weeks to a statistical dead heat. The independent poll, conducted for a Michigan television station, put Abraham at 48 percent of the vote and Stabenow at 44 percent, within the 4-point margin of error.