BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : APRIL 24, 2000 ISSUE
GOVERNMENT

High-Tech Hero, Rust-Belt Race
Championing Silicon Valley won't necessarily get you reelected

These days, wags say, Washington politicians come in one of two varieties: Rust Belt or Tech Belt. But when it comes to Senator Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.), geography is definitely not destiny. Although he is a social conservative from the heartland, his interests range far beyond grain and auto parts. In just four years on the job, the soft-spoken senator--a onetime chief of staff for former Vice-President Dan Quayle and state GOP party chairman in Michigan--has vigorously championed the cause of the New Economy. ''He had the intellectual reach to grasp this stuff before anyone else,'' says Rhett Dawson, president of the Information Technology Industry Council, a trade group in Washington.

Abraham has sponsored bills that would increase the number of visas for foreign workers, allow broader use of electronic signatures, and protect companies from cybersquatters who acquire Internet addresses to resell them at big profits.

KUDOS. But Abraham's fondness for the New Economy may be playing better in Silicon Valley than in Saginaw. ''I think the guy really believes in this stuff,'' says Bill Ballinger, editor of Inside Michigan Politics. ''But I just don't think any of it is going to cut it as an issue.''

While he has generated kudos and lots of money from tech companies, Abraham is one of the GOP's most endangered incumbents. ''He can't break 45%,'' says Ed Sarpolus, a pollster at EPIC/MRA in Lansing. And Abraham faces a tough Democratic challenger, Representative Debbie Stabenow, herself a tech-savvy centrist who is well connected to labor.

Abraham insists the New Economy is as important in Michigan as anywhere else: ''You can't walk onto an assembly-line floor of any auto company or parts manufacturer and not encounter people working with high-tech skills.'' Still, even he sounds uncertain about whether his tech image will catch on at home: ''I'm not sure how it plays politically,'' he says.

One issue--immigration--may even be hurting him. The grandson of Lebanese immigrants, Abraham has been a longtime backer of more open borders. But Sarpolus figures that Abraham's push to increase the number of visas available for tech workers costs him 10 percentage points of support. ''He's already getting the votes of people who are excited about high tech,'' Sarpolus says. ''But he has to worry about young, blue-collar males who are worried about their jobs.''

Neutralizing the issue will cost money. And that's something Abraham should have plenty of, thanks in large part to the technology lobby. In 1999, communications and electronics companies gave him nearly $250,000, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. That has helped him raise more than $4.7 million. By November, he is expected to pull in nearly $12 million; Stabenow will be lucky to get $6 million.

Abraham embraced the New Economy long before even tech companies realized how important Washington was going to be to them. Among tech execs and their lobbyists, he is a hero. But unless he can talk more Michigan voters into caring, he may be just another unemployed visionary come January.

By Howard Gleckman in Washington

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