Peters to challenge Knollenberg

Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-Mich.) survived the Democratic wave last year in one of the most unexpectedly close House races in the country. Now he’s got a big-name challenger with the enthusiastic backing of national Democrats.

Michigan Lottery Commissioner Gary PetersGary Charles PetersBipartisan supply chain bill likely punted to next Congress, McCaskill says Overnight Defense: GOP senators rip Saudi prince after CIA briefing | Top general says Afghan war at a stalemate | Mattis extends border mission through January | Pompeo gives Russia deadline on nuclear arms treaty Afghanistan war at a stalemate, top general tells lawmakers MORE announced Tuesday that he will run for the Democratic nomination to face Knollenberg in 2008, filling a hole in one of the Democrats’ top-targeted districts and giving them a well-known candidate with plenty of election experience.
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Peters had been heavily recruited by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), which set its eyes upon Knollenberg almost instantly after he beat a relatively unknown challenger, Democrat Nancy Skinner, by only 5 points.

Peters is a former state senator and Navy reservist who narrowly lost an attorney general race in 2002. He was appointed to his current post by Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) but will leave it Friday to accept a part-time position as a professor at Central Michigan University.

He said Monday that he still plans to take the position at Central Michigan while running for Congress, but that he knows the congressional race will be consuming.

“If you’re going to run a race, you need to put an awful lot of effort into it,” Peters said. “You want to make sure that the race is something that is winnable; there’s no question that this district is competitive.”

Bill Ballenger, editor and publisher of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter, said the district is indeed growing more Democratic and that it can be considered only “marginally Republican” today.

Knollenberg has held the seat since 1992 and endured some modest and well-funded challenges, but last year marked his poorest performance. He took just 52 percent of the vote in a district that in 2004 voted 51-49 for President Bush.

Ballenger said Peters is “about as good a candidate as Democrats could field.” He noted that Peters’s state Senate seat was in the heart of Knollenberg’s congressional district and said his tenure as lottery commissioner has, by all accounts, been considered a success.

“He’s got really good name ID, and he should know how to raise some money,” Ballenger said. “He has some connections in the financial community.”

Peters lost the attorney general race to Republican Mike Cox by exactly 1,500 votes out of more than 3 million ballots cast in 2002. Prior to that, he had dropped out of a crowded Democratic field for governor.

He served as a state senator from 1995 to 2002.

He said he was perfectly ready to go into academia, but that Knollenberg and President Bush lured him back into politics.

“I’ve become growingly frustrated with the Bush-Knollenberg mismanagement of the Iraq war, outsourcing of jobs and the lack of healthcare for increasing numbers of people in this country,” Peters said.

Knollenberg, meanwhile, has taken notice of the giant target the DCCC has placed on his seat and acted accordingly, said campaign manager Mike Brownfield.

In the first six months of this year, Knollenberg raised more than $700,000 for the 2008 race.

Brownfield emphasized that Knollenberg has spoken out against Bush and told him “every day” that he’s wrong on automotive industry issues.

“Joe Knollenberg’s putting Oakland County first,” Brownfield said. “What’s Gary Peters going to do? Is he going to toe the line with [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi [D-Calif.] and the liberals in California and on the East Coast that want to impose CAFE standards that are going to kill the auto industry?”

Julie Shutley, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said Knollenberg has “a great record in the district for being an independent voice, and we definitely think he’ll be successful next year no matter who the candidate is.”

Peters might not have a clear primary path ahead of him. Skinner has indicated she will soon announce whether she will run again in 2008, and she recently resigned her position as chief of staff to Granholm’s husband. Yet the former radio host, who was outspent about 7 to 1 last cycle and ran for Senate in Illinois in 2004, has not been in touch with national Democrats about the race.

Andy Levin, the son of Rep. Sandy Levin (D) and nephew of Sen. Carl Levin (D), has also been mentioned as a potential candidate. But he told the Detroit News last week that he had “no plans to run.”

DCCC spokesman Ryan Rudominer called Peters “a strong, principled leader with a proven record of fighting for change who will stand up for his fellow veterans, bring fiscal accountability to Congress, and will fix the failed economic policies of President Bush and Congressman Knollenberg.”