DETROIT (AP) — Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow rode a message of moderate bipartisanship to a third term Tuesday, proving again that she's tough to beat after more than three decades in Michigan politics.
Stabenow easily defeated former Republican Rep. Pete Hoekstra after running unopposed in the Democratic primary and building a fundraising advantage that allowed her to lock up commercial air time, which proved even more valuable after the candidates failed to agree on debates.
"It certainly is always helpful to not have a primary so that you can focus your efforts and resources on the general election," Stabenow said in a Tuesday night telephone interview with The Associated Press. "My work in the Senate getting concrete things done, though, was probably most important such as the bipartisan coalition I put together on the farm bill when nothing was getting done bipartisan."
Stabenow's campaign relied heavily on her role as chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and touted how she won Senate approval of a five-year food and farm bill with a provision making growers of specialty crops such as Michigan cherries eligible for federal crop insurance.
Hoekstra had questioned her cooperation and leadership abilities after the farm bill got hung up in the Republican-controlled House. But the Michigan Farm Bureau, which usually leans toward the GOP, gave her a prized endorsement.
Domination of the air waves became crucial when the two campaigns couldn't agree on televised debates. Stabenow insisted on two debates to be shown on public television and Hoekstra argued for as many as six running on network TV. The campaigns pointed fingers at each other when negotiations broke down.
Stabenow enjoyed a huge advantage among women voters Tuesday, but also was supported by a majority of men, according to preliminary results of an exit poll conducted for AP and television networks.
Her support was particularly strong among voters under age 40 but she carried every age group except those over 65, who were evenly divided.
"I voted for her before," said Rodney Allen, a 41-year-old information technology engineer from Wayne County's Canton Township. "She's done a good job."
Hoekstra drew criticism early in the campaign for a pre-Super Bowl commercial that featured a young Asian woman talking in broken English about China taking away American jobs, which even some Republicans said was racially insensitive. Hoekstra later failed to gain traction with a series of Web ads labeling Stabenow "the worst senator."
"I am proud that we stuck with our positive message about what we've gotten done for Michigan," Stabenow said Tuesday.
Hoekstra's ads had accused Stabenow of supporting higher taxes and blamed her for Michigan job losses. He sought to link Stabenow to President Barack Obama in hopes of capitalizing on voter frustration with the economy, labeling her the "follower-in-chief."
Stabenow didn't run from the president, trumpeting his administration's financial assistance that helped the auto industry stave off bankruptcy — assistance that also helped propel Obama to a win in Michigan on his way to a second term.
Hoekstra, of Holland, turned his sights on the Senate after running unsuccessfully for governor in 2010. He won the primary in a landslide after successfully deflecting claims by charter schools founder Clark Durant, who had tea party backing, that he was too moderate. But he faced a different challenge for the general election, needing support from beyond the conservative Republican base.
"Although we were not successful (Tuesday), we must not let up as the challenges that face Michigan families remain real," Hoekstra said in a statement. "I congratulate Senator Stabenow on her third term in the U.S. Senate and hope that she will listen to the ideas from the other side of the aisle to form policies that will get the job done for the people of Michigan."
He was the runaway winner Tuesday among self-described conservatives, but they made up only about one-third of the voters, the exit poll showed. Stabenow won easily among liberals and moderates. A majority of independents and even one in 10 Republicans went with Stabenow.
"I know she tries to do good," said Kimber Lawrence, 51, who voted for Stabenow in Lansing while also supporting Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
In 2006, Stabenow received the most votes of any individual candidate in the Michigan with 2,151,087 — or 56.9 percent of the votes cast in her race — to win easily over Republican challenger Mike Bouchard. In 2000, she defeated then-incumbent Republican Sen. Spence Abraham by a little more than 1 percentage point.
Stabenow was elected to the state House in 1978, the state Senate in 1990 and the U.S. House in 1996. She failed to get the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1994, but ran as nominee Howard Wolpe's running mate.
Since then, she's won every race. Will she shoot for a fourth term in 2018?
"Let me get through the third," she said with a chuckle. "But I do feel great and I'm looking forward to continuing to get things done for our great state."