Hail Mary in Michigan

Terri Lynn Land shoots cornhole, shakes hands

Campaign photo of Land at a tailgate

GRAND RAPIDS, MI—There are thousands of people in the parking lot and red foliage on the trees. The rain that blanketed west Michigan all week has let up. It’s a perfect backdrop for a campaign event as long as you ignore the drunk couple fighting in front of the port-a-potties.

Michigan Senate nominee Terri Lynn Land has to do something to turn out her base, and shooting cornhole and shaking hands at the Grand Valley State University-Wayne State football tailgate may be her best bet to overcome her double-digit deficit to Democrat Gary Peters.

The Michigan race, once seen as a potential GOP pick-up in 2013, is slipping away. President Obama may have won the state by 10 points in 2012, but his approval rating has been underwater for 16 months. Land climbed 8 points in the polls to take a 2-point lead between October and December 2013 as voters witnessed the disastrous rollout of Obamacare.

A deluge of negative ads from Senate majority leader Harry Reid’s Super PAC and billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, though, flipped the race over the summer. Land’s performance at a June Chamber of Commerce event and silent treatment of the press hasn’t helped. Peters’ two-point lead in August exploded into about 10 points in October. The National Republican Senate Committee cancelled more than $1 million in ads on October 7. Democrats are so confident in their lead that they’ve allowed Peters to associate with the Obama administration. Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden have all visited the state. President Obama, snubbed by every other Democrat in competitive races, is scheduled to make a trip on the eve of the election.

Sagging poll numbers and dwindling confidence from Washington have a way of emboldening candidates. Long accused of dodging debate, Land is now challenging Peters to square off before media interrogators, rather than the less confrontational townhall he is proposing. Months after fleeing a press scrum saying, "I can’t do this," Land now begs reporters to attend unscripted events. The Dutch reform Christian is even willing to suffer through the debauchery of a tailgate if it can help her connect with voters in western Michigan.

Land arrives at the Grand Valley State campus just before twilight. She ignores the bacchanal around her and focuses on the handful of GVSU College Republicans who assembled to touch the hem of her garment. The young women are the only coeds not sporting painted-on leggings, while the baby-faced, perfectly coifed men awkwardly smoke $2 cigars. Land listens to them describe their majors and CPAC stories and offers advice about studies and networking. The small talk comes easy, and after 10 minutes of adulation she has the confidence to depart from the clean cut CRs and head into the abyss, where she will bypass shady man-children and under-dressed girls to commiserate with and receive kudos from middle-aged alums with wife and children in tow, pose for photos with insistent stoners who throw up the shocker as the camera flashes, and hole two bags in cornhole.

She began the day rallying the downhome, church-going bloc of the GOP in the small town of Coopersville, whose welcome sign informs visitors that it is, "Rich in tradition and invested in the future." She disembarked from the family-owned RV that serves as her campaign bus and bears the sharpied signatures of hundreds of supporters. More than 50 volunteers—men in puffy autumn vests and Carhart jackets, mothers in blue jeans towing along tikes in work boots—were busy stuffing 10,000 voter guides into plastic bags. Land stepped onto the equipment trailer serving as a temporary podium.

"Washington is broken and now it’s trying to break Michigan," she said before listing the ills of Washington Democrats, everything from the job-killing, anti-farmer EPA to immigration, and the president’s weak leadership in the fight against ISIS. It is an aggressive speech, but noticeably free of any mention of Gary Peters. She said his name just once in the speech and only by way of association, reminding voters of the "dark days of [former Gov.] Jennifer Granholm and the policies of Gary Peters." The Land camp’s hope is that antipathy for the Obama administration and Harry Reid will be enough to carry the day.

"With Harry Reid as leader in the Senate, people are frustrated [because] they want to see government work," she said in an interview back on the bus. Her main criticism of Peters is that "he’s been on both sides of every issue," pointing to his Obamacare vote and the fact that he pays female staffers far less than men. But on the major issues of the day, she is more prone to slam Reid or Obama than her actual opponent.

Overseas turmoil has made that easier in recent weeks. Land sees the rise of ISIS and the spread of terrorism as a reflection of Obama’s "lead from behind" approach to foreign policy and his "failure to do a status of forces agreement needed to make sure [Iraqis] could secure their borders." A Senate devoid of Gary Peters and free from Reid’s control, Land said, would be a Senate that forces Obama to "listen to his military advisers."

Michiganders will also cast ballots in the governor’s race on Nov. 4. Republicans are hoping that Gov. Rick Snyder’s narrow lead can deliver Land to the Capitol. Whenever she’s discussing job creation and economic policy, she points to his record.

"Gov. Snyder has got us back on track, balancing the budget, while lowering taxes and regulations. I’ll bring those same policies to Washington," she said.

Land still refers to Michigan as the "hottest race in America." The NRSC’s decision to withdraw from the race doesn’t bother her, as GOP-aligned Ending Spending has pledged to increase its $1 million ad buy in the closing weeks of the election.

Rallying the base with ads from national groups, however, may not be enough. Land must also deal with ticket splitting. Many national groups, including former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s PAC, and some state GOP leaders have endorsed Snyder and Peters. Land has had to contend with criticism from local Republicans who griped about her lackluster performance as a candidate. The enthusiasm gap is evident on the immaculate lawns of west Michigan, where Snyder signs vastly outnumbered those of Land.

Her campaign has recruited a number of national and local Republican leaders, as well as Gov. Snyder, to appear at rallies and demonstrate party unity. New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney have all stumped in Michigan. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who is very popular in the state according to political insiders, plans to come out later this month. Land’s greatest champion, however, is local U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga.

"We know who Gary is going to vote for and he’s going to vote wrong … we need a check on this president," Huizenga says. "She’s a good grassroots campaigner and has travelled the state well. I tell you this was a slamdunk a year ago [for Democrats] and Gary Peters has gone from skipping at the Capitol to trudging over the past year. Terri’s got a very good shot."

Huizenga represents Ottawa County, the hotbed of conservative politics in Michigan. If Land has any shot at all, she must boost turnout in the region, especially the 1.2 million voters that reside in Grand Rapids metro region. This being Michigan on a Saturday, you can find most of them at a football game.

As Land and Huizenga make their way through the parking lot, they are careful to approach the middle-aged alums, the type generally more receptive to the Republican message. Land wanders over to a pair of couples enjoying martinis and Miller Lites as they watch a procession of GVSU players parade past the cheerleaders en route to the stadium. Not only are they master grillers—bacon wrapped peppers stuffed with cream cheese—they’re supporters, urging Land to "tell the people to stop picking on you on TV." Hands are shaken, food offered, cameras produced, smiles glued, campaign stickers affixed to lapels and sweatshirts, and "go get ‘em Terri"s bellowed. A woman sprints over to her with holding a cardboard cutout of a man.

"This is my husband. He’s in the hospital right now and he’s never missed a game, so I figured I’d bring him along. He’s a big fan of yours," she says breathlessly. She calls to tell him about the encounter, but he doesn’t pick up. He’ll have to settle for a texted picture of his cutout with the "next senator from Michigan."

Then there’s the younger set. Land’s ace in the hole is that she’s actually familiar with GVSU football. She knows they won back-to-back Division II national titles in 2005 and 2006, so when she spots a former student wearing the behemoth championship ring, she’s quick to tell him that her son’s an alum and she’d love to exchange her campaign sticker for one of his "Beat Wayne State" stickers.

"You’re just fine then," he says.

She encounters a number of other respectable college students along the way. Some even know who she is. "I had your autograph on my license," a fan wearing an Orioles hat explains, giving Land the opportunity to talk about how she spearheaded the modernization of the DMV during her two terms as secretary of state. A foursome gives her six shots on their cornhole game because she’s "that lady from TV." She lasers two in, earning cheers from the crowd. "My first time playing, thanks guys," she says.

She pretends not to notice that her campaign stickers are often plastered onto beer cans, hoodies, and flat-brimmed hats. She maintains a broad smile as a stoner tries to explain that he knows a guy who knew a guy who knew her son. She smiles as said stoner recruits her for a picture with his friends. She smiles as he throws up the shocker in the photo. She smiles as the stoner tells his friends they’d just taken a picture with the "next governor of America" and maybe they’ll be on her campaign website. Sacrifice is required when you’re down by double digits.

The politicians return to the safety of the RV and College Republicans. They put on coats and ready themselves to enter the stadium. It will be Huizenga’s second game of the day after watching his son’s Pop Warner game in the morning. Land asks him how it went.

"They lost at the last second. They had a chance to tie it and got sacked at the goal line. It was heartbreaking," he says.

"Well, that’s part of the learning experience," she replies.