DETROIT (AP) — Former U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra won Michigan's Republican nomination for U.S. Senate on Tuesday, beating back a challenge from two candidates who questioned his record as a conservative.
Hoekstra's victory over charter school foundation executive Clark Durant and former Kent County Judge Randy Hekman sets up a November matchup with two-term Democratic incumbent Debbie Stabenow.
Durant had mounted a furious challenge in the final weeks of the campaign, launching ads attacking Hoekstra's record during his 18 years in the House and labeling him and Stabenow "Washington insiders." An independent group called Prosperity for Michigan spent up to $500,000 on an anti-Hoekstra ad campaign to help Durant.
"I think Pete will do a very good job," Durant said at a Detroit-area campaign night get-together, adding that he expected Hoekstra will "be our next United States senator."
Durant, the self-proclaimed "rebel with a cause," was hoping he'd get the same kind of 11th-hour momentum that helped push tea party-backed candidates Ted Cruz of Texas and Richard Mourdock of Indiana past better known foes in their GOP Senate primaries.
But it didn't materialize.
Hoekstra tapped into the strong name recognition and grass-roots organization he built during his unsuccessful 2010 run for governor. And he fought back against the not-conservative-enough charge by boasting of a congressional resume that included high marks from the American Conservative Union, vocal support for less government intrusion and his role in co-founding the House Tea Party Caucus with Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann.
Hoekstra did some counter-punching, too, questioning Durant over the roughly $500,000 he was paid annually by the foundations that support Cornerstones Schools, a system of independent, nonprofit schools he helped found in Detroit. Durant said the foundations set his salary.
"We will take what we have learned and apply it to the next 13 weeks," Hoekstra told cheering supporters at a rally Tuesday night in the Detroit suburb of Pontiac.
Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer said Hoekstra's "out-of-the-mainstream ideology" may have worked with Republican voters, but it won't fly in November.
"He has a lot of explaining to do to the general electorate come the fall," Brewer told The Associated Press.
Still, Brewer said he considered Hoekstra to be "a serious candidate."
"This is a competitive, two-party state. You can never take any election for granted, and we certainly will not," he said.
First elected to Congress in 1992, Hoekstra was born in the Netherlands and moved to the U.S. when he was 3. He currently lives in the West Michigan city of Holland.
Hoekstra spent much of his time in Congress focused on intelligence issues, becoming chairman of the House Intelligence Committee in 2004, a post that gave him oversight of the CIA and exposure to the country's top secrets.
National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn congratulated Hoekstra for winning what he called a "spirited primary."
"This November, Michiganders will have a very clear choice between continuing down the path of more reckless government spending, higher taxes, failed job growth and a record debt, or electing a common-sense, fiscally-responsible and proven leader like Pete Hoekstra who will focus on jobs first and foremost," Cornyn said in a statement.
Hoekstra voted against President George W. Bush's landmark education law, No Child Left Behind, because he said it put public schools under Washington's thumb, but tea party groups criticized him for supporting the bailout of the financial industry.
Hoekstra opposes abortion and supports gun owner's rights.
His views were in line with his deeply conservative congressional district abutting Lake Michigan.
Now he'll have to ask for votes across the state to beat Stabenow, who upset GOP Sen. Spencer Abraham in 2000 and easily beat Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard in 2006.
Bouchard stood behind Hoekstra during his rally Tuesday night in Pontiac.
After finishing second to then-Ann Arbor businessman Rick Snyder in the 2010 Republican primary for governor, Hoekstra considered a run for Stabenow's seat but decided against it. He chose instead to become a senior adviser at Dickstein Shapiro LLP, a law and lobbying firm in Washington, D.C.
The lure of ousting Stabenow was too strong, though, and Hoekstra jumped into a field that at one point numbered eight Republicans. But several candidates failed to collect enough signatures to get on the ballot and a tea party favorite dropped his bid two weeks before Election Day.
That left only three choices.
Hoekstra held the fundraising lead, having raised $3.4 million through June 30, the latest reporting period, and still had half of it on hand after expenses. Durant, of Grosse Pointe, raised $2.2 million and had about $1.4 million remaining.
Hekman's longshot campaign raised nearly $170,000 and had about $12,000 left.
The GOP candidates' combined war chests were dwarfed by the $8.1 million Stabenow had raised and the $4.5 million she had left at the end of June. She already has purchased $3.3 million in ad time for October and November — money the she didn't have to spend on a grueling primary like the GOP candidates did.
Stabenow's re-election team wasted little time taking a jab at Hoekstra, sending out a fundraising letter Tuesday night that was critical of the newly minted nominee.
"Michigan Republicans have picked their nominee to take on Debbie in the fall," campaign manager Dan Farough wrote. "They went with an ex-congressman who created the Tea Party Caucus, works at a D.C. lobbying firm and has been pushing an agenda that would devastate middle-class families."
Republicans need just four seats to take the Senate majority, so they're expected to hit Stabenow hard, particularly if it appears presidential candidate Mitt Romney will do well in this battleground state where he grew up.
Stabenow lost her own bid for governor in the 1994 Democratic primary but has never lost to a Republican during her 16 years in the Michigan Legislature, four years in the U.S. House and 12 years in the U.S. Senate.
Clark Durant: http://www.clarkdurant.com
Randy Hekman: http://randyhekman2012.com
Pete Hoekstra: http://www.hoekstraforsenate.com
Debbie Stabenow: http://www.stabenowforsenate.com
Follow Mike Householder on Twitter: http://twitter.com/mikehouseholder