Dems see danger in Mich. primary fight

Michigan Democrats are growing nervous about the prospect of a contested Senate primary election between two of the state’s most influential players: Debbie Dingell, the wife of Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.); and one of the party’s rising stars, Rep. Gary Peters. 

Both are eyeing a run for retiring Sen. Carl Levin’s (D-Mich.) seat and have been maneuvering behind the scenes to gauge support for potential bids. 

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The fear among strategists both in Michigan and in Washington, D.C., is that an expensive and possibly testy primary could threaten Democrats’ chances of holding the seat in 2014.

“It’s everyone’s desire and everyone’s goal for there not to be a primary. Both Gary and Debbie are fantastic people, great leaders, and they know this race is about the people of Michigan and not them,” David Hecker, who heads the Michigan branch of the American Federation of Teachers, told The Hill. 

“There are discussions going on. The desire is for there not to be a primary, and we hope we can soon reach that point where we all rally behind one candidate.”

Michigan Democrats say the Peters-Dingell battle has been like a water polo match: Tranquil on the surface, but lots of turmoil just out of sight.

Peters declared his interest in running for Senate shortly after Levin’s retirement announcement last month. 

He’s spoken little about the race since then — his allies say in order not to antagonize Dingell — but he has been working behind the scenes to line up donors, organizers and future endorsements from state legislators.

Dingell has also been busy: She’s brought on longtime allies and Democratic strategists including former White House Communications Director Anita Dunn, former Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) Executive Director J.B. Poersch and top Democratic pollster Fred Yang to help plan a campaign.

Both potential candidates have met with the campaign committee, according to sources outside the DSCC. 

Dingell has also met with the deep-pocketed EMILY’s List. The group has commissioned a poll of the race that shows her with a slight lead over Peters in a hypothetical primary. 

If Dingell runs, the pro-abortion rights Democratic group is likely to back her.

Democrats appear to have the upper hand heading into the race. 

Michigan leans a bit Democratic even in non-presidential years, only one Republican has won a Senate race in the state in the last 40 years, and it’s unclear whether the GOP will be able to field a strong candidate for the race.

But Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) hasn’t ruled out a bid, and Democrats are nervous that — should he mount a Senate campaign — he could win statewide. 

A number of Democratic strategists who prefer Peters said both he and Dingell could win a competitive Senate race. 

But they expressed concern about Dingell’s ability to remain cool under fire. She was called both “thin-skinned” and “sharp-elbowed.” 

That description was echoed by a number of other Democrats in the state who don’t have any ties to Peters. None would speak on the record because of Dingell’s power within Michigan Democratic politics. Some said they feared retaliation. 

Dingell allies countered by accusing Peters of starting a whisper campaign against her — based in sexism — when she first began considering a Senate campaign. 

One source close to Dingell said Peters disrespected Levin by too quickly showing his interest in the race after Levin’s retirement announcement.

“Gary made some mistakes at the beginning. If he’d slowed down a little he wouldn’t have upset some people, and some people were upset,” the source said.

“People that immediately go ‘The only thing [Debbie Dingell] has ever done is marry John Dingell and she’s a b----’ … The person who has started that ‘sharp elbows’ rumor is doing some serious name-calling.”

The Dingell ally said Peters’s early moves had made her more likely to run, but that may change now that the congressman is now trying to avoid confrontation. 

“We’re going slow,” the source said, adding that people who know Dingell well are “comfortable with the ambiguity” surrounding her deliberations about a Senate campaign.  

Supporters of both potential candidates say they want to avoid a primary — but they also believe it will be the other one who will back down.

Sources close to Peters say he’s a near-lock to run, though his office wouldn’t comment on assumptions about his plans. 

Dingell is less certain to run — a source close to her described her as “firmly undecided.”

The big question is what the unions, which remain the center of power in Michigan Democratic politics, decide to do. 

If they coalesce behind one candidate, the move would likely force the other candidate to stop considering a bid.

Dingell, a former General Motors executive whose husband has close ties to the industry, has decades-old relationships with labor groups in the state. 

But the unions have also been strongly supportive of Peters’s campaigns for Congress, including his 2010 primary win over fellow Democrat Rep. Hansen Clark.

“[Dingell] would love to have the party bow down to her and say ‘the nomination’s yours’ without competition, but that’s not going to happen. She’s having to sort out whether or not to go through with this,” said Bill Ballenger, a former GOP state lawmaker who runs a nonpartisan political newsletter and has known Dingell for decades. 

“I don’t think Gary will shy away from what it takes to win a primary if he finds himself in it.”

But Ballenger said he didn’t think it would come to that.

“If you asked me to bet on if there’ll be a primary, I’d bet against it,” he said.