History says Michigan will re-elect Snyder, but . . .

Jack Lessenberry
Jack Lessenberry

DETROIT — History would seem to indicate that Gov. Rick Snyder should have a fairly easy road to re-election this fall.

No Michigan governor has failed to win a second term since the current state constitution was adopted more than half a century ago. History also suggests that this should be a good year for the governor’s party, the GOP.

This will be the second off-year election since President Obama, a Democrat, took office. Incumbent presidents normally see their parties lose badly in their sixth year.

But precedents are made to be broken — and this governor has taken some steps and made some blunders that seem certain to hurt him at the polls. The only question is: How much?

Though his administration stubbornly refuses to admit it, Governor Snyder made a howling public relations blunder last month, when several hundred thousand Michigan residents lost power at Christmas.

Other governors might have appeared on TV, shown up at warming centers, or called for more crews to be brought in from other states. Governor Snyder did none of that. During the crisis, his spokesmen refused for “security reasons” to say where he was or whether he had lost power.

Later, they said Mr. Snyder, a computer business millionaire, had gone to one of his homes north of Kalamazoo and that he had been without power for a couple of days.

Last week, after I discussed the matter in this column, Dave Murray, a spokesman for the governor, called and wrote me to say he was surprised by comments that the governor was invisible during the storm. “He put out a couple of press releases,” the spokesman said. (Mr. Murray is no relation to the managing editor of The Blade, who has the same name.)

That may be so, but it isn’t likely that a couple of press releases had the impact that the governor’s appearance in person and on TV might have had.

Two fellow Republicans, Mayor Rudy Giuliani in New York and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, showed up at the disaster scene on Sept. 11, 2001, and after Hurricane Sandy, respectively. The Christmas power outage did not compare with those disasters.

Mr. Snyder was lucky in one way: Former U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer, his evident Democratic challenger next November, could have made political hay over the governor’s seeming insensitivity. But he also failed to show up.

This absence may have added to a growing sense that Mr. Snyder is out of touch with the public. It followed his sudden reversal on right-to-work legislation. After saying it “was not on my agenda,” he reversed course and help ram it through the Legislature in a day.

Last year, Mr. Snyder also attempted to limit severely Michigan’s now-unlimited personal protection coverage for auto accident victims to $1 million, something that prompted cries of outrage even from many fellow Republicans. The plan was attacked as a scheme to make rich insurance companies richer and went nowhere in the Legislature.

That is likely to be an issue in the fall campaign. The 55-year-old governor also seems to have awakened deep-seated hostility with his decision to sign a new campaign finance law that clearly breaks a campaign promise he made.

While he was running for office, Mr. Snyder pledged that he would support making all campaign spending records open.

But when Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, a fellow Republican, proposed requiring such disclosure, state GOP lawmakers rushed through a bill that allows special interests to donate unlimited sums in the form of often misleading “issue-oriented ads” to campaigns, without being forced to reveal the funding source. Governor Snyder signed it during a holiday week, when the public tends not to pay attention to politics.

Later, he said unconvincingly that he had changed his mind because he was worried about free speech. He said he feared special interests and millionaires might feel intimidated if they had to reveal how much money they were giving to influence elections.

That seems to have lost him the support of the Detroit Free Press, Michigan’s largest newspaper, which four years ago strongly backed Mr. Snyder’s effort to be elected. Stephen Henderson, the newspaper’s editorial page editor, wrote a blistering column headlined: “Snyder’s broken promises have cost him our trust.”

“Snyder is no more trustworthy than any other politician I’ve dealt with,” the editor said. He added: “Given the hordes of political liars prowling this city — and this state — that’s quite a distinction.”

That seemed to lump the governor with former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, now serving a decades-long sentence in federal prison. The column cited the governor’s “sneaking around” with his secret New Energy to Reinvest and Diversify (NERD) fund, which collected millions of dollars in anonymous donations before it was exposed and shut down.

Calling the governor’s integrity “badly tarnished,” Mr. Henderson added: “If Snyder so willingly trashes ideals he claimed for himself, he simply can’t be trusted.”

That doesn’t mean the governor may not yet win another term. The election is 10 months away. Mr. Schauer, the expected Democratic challenger, is not overwhelmingly known nor especially charismatic.

Yet Mr. Snyder seems to have lost many of the independents who supported him four years ago. This election is certain to be largely a referendum on this governor. His ability to keep his word seems increasingly likely to be an issue.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

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