ELK RAPIDS, Mich. — Republican U.S. Senate candidate Pete Hoekstra couldn't have asked for a friendlier audience than the workers of Traverse Bay Manufacturing Inc., who are fighting mad over what they consider unfair competition — not from China or India, but from their own government.
The textile company bid last spring for a $10 million contract to make trousers but finished second to the government corporation that employs federal prison inmates. Partly because of that, the company's workforce has dropped from about 60 to roughly three dozen.
Hoekstra, an outspoken critic of the prison industries enterprise while serving Michigan in the U.S. House, toured the factory this week.
"The people who run that program don't care about what happens to you," he told rows of workers sitting by their sewing machines, many of whom nodded in agreement. "Their job is to make money for the Justice Department and keep these prisoners occupied and if they're doing that they're fully satisfied."
Hoekstra's job, meanwhile, is to connect with voters statewide as effectively as he did with Traverse Bay Manufacturing's employees in his quest to unseat two-term Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow. Less than six weeks before the election, the former congressman acknowledges having a long way to go. Polls taken this month show him trailing, including a survey by Lansing-based EPIC-MRA that gave Stabenow an 11-point edge.
"We're the underdog, we're behind," Hoekstra said in an interview after his factory visit in the Lake Michigan town of Elk Rapids. "It's been a very sleepy race ... pretty much been frozen in place for the last eight, nine weeks. But we think that as people start to focus and as we're able to get our message out there, we can close that gap and we're going to win."
Lansing-based political analyst Tom Shields said Stabenow's support is soft and there's still time for Hoekstra to gain ground.
"People are willing to make that change, but he needs to convince them he's the change they're looking for," Shields said.
With the presidential race dominating voters' attention, Hoekstra is counting on television ads and debates to turn the tide. He said his team is still discussing when to go on the air. Meanwhile, Stabenow's better-financed campaign began running commercials 10 days ago, highlighting her opposition to unfair Chinese trade practices. She has purchased $3.3 million in ad time for October and November.
Campaign finance reports released in June showed Stabenow had raised $8.3 million, compared to $3.5 million for Hoekstra, who had to devote resources to winning the GOP primary while the incumbent had no Democratic opposition.
Seeking less-costly options, Hoekstra has tried to grab voter attention with web ads deriding Stabenow as "the worst senator." Spokesman Greg Van Woerkom said Thursday a 60-second version of the latest ad, portraying a barroom argument over the biggest reason why Stabenow supposedly deserves the label, would be released on television soon.
Pollster Bernie Porn of EPIC-MRA said Hoekstra's initial mission should be creating a positive image of himself instead of attacking Stabenow. Porn's survey showed that one-third of the electorate had an unfavorable opinion of Hoekstra — slightly more than viewed him favorably — and 12 percent didn't recognize his name.
"The further Hoekstra goes down in the polls, the more outlandish his attacks become," Stabenow spokesman Cullen Schwarz said.
Hoekstra said the ads were intended to hold Stabenow accountable for the struggling economy, which he blamed on President Barack Obama's stimulus bill, health care legislation and other initiatives.
"There's no doubt that she pretty much voted in lockstep with what the president wanted," Hoekstra said.
Schwarz said Hoekstra "wants to take us back to the same failed policies that created the economic meltdown in the first place."
Aside from tapping into widespread anxiety about the economy and national security, Hoekstra said he wants to make the race about finding bipartisan solutions in a time of sharp political division.
"You're looking for people who have shown an ability to get things done, who have shown leadership on really tough things," Hoekstra said.
Stabenow, chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, has touted the Senate's approval of a five-year, nearly $500 billion farm and food bill, which helped her win an endorsement from the GOP-leaning Michigan Farm Bureau. Similar legislation hasn't been brought to the House floor for a vote, which Democrats blame on the Republican leadership.
Hoekstra said if Stabenow were more adept, she'd have built relationships with House Republicans and guided the bill to enactment, as he did with other legislation as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
"I'm sure if she had passed it into law, she'd be standing there taking credit for it," he said. "I don't think she's got a record of accomplishment," he said.
Schwarz provided a list of comments from senators in both parties praising Stabenow's leadership on the farm bill.
A strong performance in televised debates is a key part of Hoekstra's strategy, but the two sides haven't agreed on a schedule. Hoekstra wants at least three that would be broadcast on major networks. The Stabenow camp favors two debates on public television.