Local observers note that Peters isn’t exactly Mr. Charisma, but Land’s missteps have given him an easy time. “If you asked both of these candidates what time it was, Peters would give you a half-hour lecture on watchmaking,” said Jack Lessenberry, a political analyst for Michigan Radio. “Terri Lynn Land would stare at the wall for a while and then tentatively say, ‘Daytime?’”
Though Peters, a self-described centrist who is pro-business and socially liberal, has campaigned tirelessly, even top Democrats do not attribute his lead to his political skills. “A better Republican candidate could have won that race,” John Dingell, the longtime Detroit congressman, told me. Land, he said, “has an enormous amount of money, but as my dad used to say, she only takes her foot out of her mouth long enough to put the other foot in.”
Republicans, too, are publicly critical of Land’s campaign. L. Brooks Patterson, the longtime executive of suburban Oakland County and Michigan Republican power broker, told me he’d been “disappointed” by the race she’s run and said he had privately urged her to sharpen her “weak” stump speech. “She just doesn’t have the killer instinct,” Patterson said. “It didn’t have to be this way. At one point in time, it was neck and neck.” Peters’s positions on issues like health care and the environment are far to the left of most Michigan voters, he contended. But “some of her early ads were insipid, and I think people looked at that and said, ‘That’s the best we got?’”
Land held some campaign events when I visited last week, but they were not announced to the press or the public in advance. When I spoke to her—by phone as she prepared to depart for a donors’ retreat in Texas—she insisted she’s been available: “Obviously, I’m talking to you!” She refused to say whether she thought, in retrospect, that the “Really?” ad had been a mistake. “I am a woman. I have children. I care about good-paying jobs and health care for my kids,” she said, after I put the question to her more than once and she tried to change the subject. “I get that every day. To say that I don’t is ridiculous.”
First-time candidates, nervous and coached by their consultants to avoid gaffes at all costs, often come across as cautious and robotic. What’s mystifying about Land’s performance is that she’s far from a first-timer; in her previous campaigns, she was even known for her grassroots touch.
In our interview, I found Land to be well-stocked with talking points but evasive when it came to explaining herself. She wouldn’t say why she opposes embryonic stem-cell research, only that she supports adult stem-cell research. She wouldn’t take a position on the Senate’s Paycheck Fairness Act, instead repeating that she supports “equal pay for equal work” and pivoting to attack Peters for paying his women staffers less than the men in his office. She framed the contest as a referendum on Democratic control, with the potential to “change the majority of the Senate,” but wouldn’t commit to voting for Mitch McConnell for Republican leader. “Mitch is a great guy. He’s in a race, too. We’re both focused on our races,” she said.