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New ad buy reveals Senate Republicans’ Michigan problem

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The Michigan Senate race is becoming more of a headache than Republicans had hoped.

Big names in the GOP from former President Donald Trump to Senate campaign chief Steve Daines have united behind Mike Rogers as their preferred pick in the state’s open Senate race. They hoped to clear the primary to save resources and focus on the general election.

It’s turning into an expensive contest anyway.

Sandy Pensler, a wealthy investor, is going up on TV on Wednesday with an ad attacking Rep. Elissa Slotkin, the likely Democratic nominee. He plans to remain on air for the vast majority of the time until the Aug. 6 primary. And he has a seven-figure ad buy in the works — future spots that will take aim at Rogers directly.

Pensler’s net worth is upwards of $80 million, meaning he has the resources to mount a real threat. And a fierce TV war will disadvantage Republicans, who will have to regroup quickly to take on Slotkin, a prolific fundraiser.

The Senate GOP campaign arm has sought — largely successfully — to avoid messy primary battles this cycle by elevating their preferred candidates in key races. (One notable exception was Ohio, which hosted an increasingly nasty primary in March.)

Senate Republicans drafted a slew of wealthy candidates to help them keep pace with well-funded Democrats in states like Montana and Wisconsin. But Pensler was not one of them. Instead, the National Republican Senatorial Committee recruited Rogers, a GOP moderate who served in Congress for 14 years and chaired the House Intelligence Committee.

The Michigan Senate GOP field has narrowed considerably. Former Rep. Peter Meijer, another potential self-funder, withdrew his candidacy last week. Former Detroit Police Chief James Craig also dropped out of the race. Former Rep. Justin Amash, however, is still in.

Republicans have not won a Senate race in Michigan since 1994. Incumbent Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) is retiring, and Slotkin faces little opposition for the Democratic nomination.

Pensler’s latest spot, timed to coincide with Trump’s Michigan rally, knocks Slotkin for refusing to condemn Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) for comments she made on the Israel-Hamas war. The ad will run on cable statewide, backed by a six-figure buy.

“Rashida and Elissa, you have no moral compass,” Pensler says in the direct-to-camera spot. “You’re an embarrassment to Michigan and America.”

Some early polling shows Rogers with a lead. But he ended March with only $1.6 million in the bank. The Great Lakes Conservative Fund, a pro-Rogers super PAC, reported only having only $120,000 on hand at the end of March. It had already spent nearly $2.5 million.

Pensler last ran for Senate in 2018, losing the nomination to John James. James ran ads attacking Pensler for trashing Trump “behind closed doors.”

Pensler has spent more than $600,000 on TV ads already, according to the media firm AdImpact, but he stopped in early April and reduced his buy after Trump endorsed Rogers. Now he’s back — a sign he’ll stay in, and keep fighting, to the chagrin of the Republicans who had hoped for a quiet primary.