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Romney's auto position haunts Michigan Senate race ahead of visit

Mitt Romney will visit Michigan on Thursday, where the Senate race has been dominated by the same auto fight that helped dash his presidential dreams.
Mitt Romney, left, and his wife Ann, center, are introduced by Gov. Rick Snyder, R-Mich. during a campaign stop at Bavarian Inn Lodge on June 19, 2012 in Frankenmuth, Mich.
Mitt Romney, left, and his wife Ann, center, are introduced by Gov. Rick Snyder, R-Mich. during a campaign stop at Bavarian Inn Lodge on June 19, 2012 in Frankenmuth, Mich.

Mitt Romney, who has recently boosted speculation that he might make another run for president in 2016, will visit his childhood state of Michigan on Wednesday to boost Republican Senate candidate Terri Lynn Land in her race against Democratic Rep. Gary Peters.

Romney’s last campaign may have ended in 2012, but echoes of one of the most prominent fights of his presidential bid have been raised anew in the Michigan’s Senate contest. His visit comes as the race is increasingly dominated by the same debate over the Bush and Obama administrations' decision to bail out the auto industry -- a decision Romney responded to in his infamous 2008 New York Times op-ed “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” 

The U.S. auto sector had largely rebounded by 2012 and Romney was never able to fully explain his position. He ended up losing Michigan to Obama by nearly 10 points.

That's why the Peters campaign has attacked Land for months -- specifically for once having said that she agreed with Romney’s position on the bailout.  

“I’m with him on that,” Land said at an August 2012 forum hosted by the Washington Times. She contrasted bailout recipient GM with Ford, which had been financially healthier heading into the economic crisis and was able to retool without federal loans.

“They call it ‘Government Motors,’ you know, that’s the reality of it,” she said at the time. “I think that was the position to have and, you know, Ford is doing great.”

Auto executives, including then-CEO of Ford Alan Mulally, labor leaders, and industry experts have all agreed the federal loans were absolutely necessary to save GM from liquidation since private capital was frozen by the 2008 financial collapse. One study by the Center for Automotive Research estimated that the bailout had saved over 1 million American jobs. GM rebounded as the economy recovered and the government sold off the last of its stock in 2013. 

"In my mind, I don't know how you can be running for the U.S. Senate and say you would not have supported the No. 1 industry in your state with hundreds of thousands of jobs," Peters told voters in an appearance last week, according to the Detroit News. 

In recent days, Land has sought to massage her position to make it more auto-friendly. After previously declining to address the matter this year, a spokeswoman told the Detroit Free Press that Land "would have voted for any plan that saved the auto industry over no plan,” including the Bush and Obama rescues. As the Free Press noted in its fact check of her bailout position, there is no evidence in her previous public statements to indicate she ever supported such a measure. 

Romney, during his campaign, argued he would not have let the auto-industry collapse, but instead would have found a way to rely on private funds to get the job done. He even claimed Obama “implemented my plan all along” by requiring GM go through bankruptcy, leaving out that the bankruptcy was made possible through tens of billions of dollars in federal aid. Like Peters today, Obama countered that no private solution existed and accused him of revising his position to claim credit for the program’s success.

Land’s counteroffensive on the auto issue has followed a similar script. In a new ad, her campaign hammers Peters for supporting $529 million in federal loans to Fisker, a car company that produced plug-in cars in Finland. The Department of Energy has said the funds went entirely to engineering work in America, not overseas, but the company went bankrupt in 2013 and left taxpayers on the hook for $139 million. Romney also attacked Obama over the Fisker loan in their presidential debates, arguing the government was making a mistake by picking specific companies to support. 

Romney won a tough race in Michigan over Rick Santorum during the GOP primaries only to lose the state in November. Polls this month have shown Peters holding a smaller, but persistent, single-digit lead over Land.