Posted on August 29, 1994 in Washington Watch

E. Spencer Abraham won the Michigan Republican primary and will be his party’s candidate for the U.S. Senate in the November election.

Since Abraham is an Arab American, the contest has taken on national significance for the Arab American community. In several cities community leaders have organized fundraising events to support Abraham’s candidacy and a national “Arab Americans for Abraham” committee is now forming.

Should Abraham win in November he will be the only Arab American in the U.S. Senate – George Mitchell is retiring in November. Unlike Mitchell, however, Abraham strongly identifies as an Arab American and has worked to support Arab American political development and Arab American organizations during the past decade.

During his career as State Chair of the Michigan Republican Party, Deputy Chief of Staff for Vice President Dan Quayle and National Chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee Abraham has sought out fellow Arab Americans. He has hired Arab American Republicans, giving them political experience, and has encouraged them to run for office. Abraham is of course a partisan Republican leader and has on occasion opposed election efforts of some Arab American Democrats. Nevertheless, his record of service to the community is such that it has convinced many in the community to now eagerly support his Senate candidacy.

Winning the Republican primary was not easy. He faced a very popular radio celebrity, Ronna Romney, who at a point early in the race led Abraham by a 2 to 1 margin in the statewide polls. But Abraham’s long service to the Michigan Republican Party and his experience as a campaign professional served him well in the last weeks of the race. A statewide network of Republican grassroots leaders helped get out the vote for Abraham and a blitz of effective media campaigning put Romney on the defensive on several issues key to Michigan voters. On primary day, Abraham proved victorious, taking 52% of the vote to Romney’s 48%.

Abraham’s Democratic opposition is 8-term Congressman Bob Carr. Except for one two-year interruption, he has served the 8th District (which includes Lansing) since 1974. He held one of the most prestigious committee assignments in Congress, chairman of the Appropriations Transportation Subcommittee, when he decided to retire and run for the Senate.

On one level of issues, the election pits a strong conservative, Abraham, against a moderate Democrat. Abraham is running on a traditional Republican agenda: no new taxes, family and religious values and opposition to the health care reform plan advocated by the Clinton Administration. He supports targeted reforms, including a plan to allow individuals currently not covered to purchase health care through tax-free Medisave accounts.

Abraham supports tougher prison sentences for violent offenders (“three strikes and your in”), he said, because 65% of violent crimes are committed by 7% of the criminals. He supports a balanced budget amendment to cut the federal deficit and calls for an end to “the imperial Congress.” He would reduce Congressional pay by 10% each year Congress failed to balance the budget. He also has proposed a cap on entitlement (including social security) at 2% above inflation. Abraham has promised to serve no more than two terms in the Senate and believes that out of state campaign contributions should be limited to 25% of total campaign expenditures.

Carr is more to the left on some issues than Abraham. He supports a universal health care system and would contain costs through tort reform, streamlined procedures, and maintaining market incentives. He also supports a comprehensive benefits package that includes long-term care. But on some issues like crime, he differs little from Abraham’s views. Carr has offered legislation to impose life sentences on criminals convicted of two “serious violent” offenses and to require “truth in sentencing” whereby convicted felons serve almost all of the sentence they receive. He has supported increased funding for police and school programs that warn of the dangers of drugs. He would reduce the deficit by cutting spending and passing a balanced budget amendment and he introduced legislation to place caps on campaign spending across the board.

Abraham’s strong conservative views pose difficulties for some in the Michigan Arab American community who have traditionally been active in the Democratic Party. For example, Abraham resists social spending on programs that have benefited Arab immigrants. His political ally, Gov. John Engler, cut spending to organizations such as the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services.

However, Arab Americans will take comfort in the Abraham-Carr debate on Middle East issues. Carr opposed the use of force in the Gulf. He has a fairly strong pro-Israel record. He supported a House resolution calling Jerusalem the “undivided capital of Israel” and as a member of the House, he received the second highest level of pro-Israel PAC money among the Michigan delegation (close to $50,000). He has been reluctant to associate himself with any position that might be construed as pro-Palestinian or Arab.

Abraham meanwhile supports lifting the travel ban on Lebanon and economic assistance to that country. He endorses better relations with those Arab states that are U.S. allies and supports the peace process and economic assistance to Palestinians. He has not moved far from the position of the Bush administration in which he served. He endorses the U.S.-Gulf state security relations, and while not insensitive to Israel’s concerns, Abraham emphasizes the importance of stability of U.S. Arab allies to U.S. long-term interests in the region.

Abraham will benefit from the fact that his race is a national priority for the Republican Party this year and therefore he will be a major recipient of Republican support from around the country.

One other Arab American Republican will be on the ballot this November in a critical Congressional election. Ray LaHood won the Republican primary in Illinois for the 18th district in his state and will be battling to replace Republican Minority leader Bob Michel. LaHood had served as a State Representative in the Illinois General Assembly. He has extensive experience in national politics, first as Staff Director for Congressman Tom Railsback and most recently as Chief of Staff for Michel.

LaHood’s opponent, Doug Stephens, is an attorney who in 1982 and 1988 ran strong but losing campaigns against Congressman Michel. Stephens owns and operates two small businesses in addition to his law practice.

This will be a close race. Both LaHood and Stephens are considered professional political campaigners and the race will be toughly and competently contested. Lahood has pulled in big dollars thanks to help from Republicans like former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney who helped him raise $150,000 during one trip to the state. LaHood had raised close to $400,000 by June 30. Stephens, who had raised close to $200,000 by June 30, could benefit from the fact that two women Democrats are heading the ticket in Illinois, which could increase Democratic turnout in the general election.

Like Abraham, LaHood identifies with the Arab American community and is actively seeking their support for his campaign. Arab Americans in the state have already set up a fundraising event on his behalf in early October.

What is significant about both races is that both men identify as Arab Americans. Both are second generation and therefore come from a sector of the community that has in the past hesitated to spearhead political efforts as “Arab Americans.” It is also a sign of the growing maturity of the Arab American community that a national network to support such candidates now exists. Never before have Arab Americans had so many quality candidates willing to embrace the community in the belief that it will assist rather than hinder their political chances and help them win in November.

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