MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. — For most of recent history, Michigan has sent Democrats to the U.S. Senate and Republicans to the governor’s office in Lansing.
Republican Terri Lynn Land and Democrat Mark Schauer have one — maybe only one — thing in common: They are vowing to change that this year. But based on what happened at the state’s major annual leadership conference last week, the tradition seems likely to hold.
Mr. Schauer, the Democratic candidate for governor, looked weak and irrelevant. The appearance by Ms. Land, the GOP’s anointed candidate for the Senate, was such a disaster that state Republican Party officials didn’t even try to defend her against scathing media criticism.
On paper, Mr. Schauer, the Democrats’ only candidate in the August gubernatorial primary, has the harder task. His campaign admits it will have far less money than incumbent Gov. Rick Snyder. And polls show that Mr. Schauer, a former state lawmaker and one-term U.S. representative, is still not widely known.
Last year Mr. Schauer surprised some people by showing up at the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce’s annual conference at the island’s legendary Grand Hotel, an event attended by the state’s business elite, politicians, and media. The Democrat pressed the flesh, made his case, and impressed a few people with his pluck.
This year he came to the island, but not to the hotel. He challenged the governor to four debates, plus one between Lt. Gov. Brian Calley and the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, Lisa Brown.
When I asked Mr. Snyder about this challenge, he said: “I’m busy being governor, and I’m going to stay busy being governor.”
His message, in so many words, was that he is hard at work saving the state and has no time for petty politics. The entire conference was something of a lovefest for the governor.
Those who pay to attend the conference are overwhelmingly Republican. The Detroit Chamber of Commerce and the influential Business Leaders for Michigan had endorsed Mr. Snyder’s re-election before the three-day meeting was through. Polls showed that Mr. Schauer has fallen as much as 10 points behind Mr. Snyder.
Yet if the conference slightly hurt Mr. Schauer, it was a disaster for Ms. Land. Michigan has a rare political opportunity this year: An open U.S. Senate seat, because Democrat Carl Levin is retiring.
Both parties settled on their nominees months ago: U.S. Rep. Gary Peters for the Democrats; Ms. Land for the GOP.
Theoretically, Ms. Land should have a lot going for her. She was twice elected Michigan secretary of state.
Mr. Peters, a three-term lawmaker from the Detroit suburbs, narrowly lost his only statewide race, for attorney general in 2002.
But when the two candidates addressed a roomful of business executives and media, the contrast was shocking. Mr. Peters spoke without notes, was funny and warm, and clearly knew the issues. He cheerfully took questions, answering some in mind-numbing policy detail.
Ms. Land’s performance was appalling for a candidate for a major office. After avoiding most media interviews for months, she read a statement that was little more than a collection of wooden slogans.
Asked questions by the audience, she seemed unfamiliar with major issues. She did not understand the issue of “net neutrality,” which is about whether rich corporations should be allowed to dominate cyberspace. She refused to say whether she would have supported the 2009 government bailout that saved General Motors and Chrysler.
Worst of all, surrounded by reporters afterward, Ms. Land seemed to panic. She said: “I can’t do this — I talk with my hands.” Her advisers and handlers hustled her off.
Commentary on her performance was scathing. Senior GOP figures did nothing to defend her, or even claim media bias.
Although Ms. Land’s meltdown was not televised, its importance is likely to be magnified for one big reason: Out-of-state money. Republicans are trying hard to win control of the U.S. Senate this fall.
Ms. Land was already trailing in polls. Her flop on the island could be enough to convince some big conservative political action committees that they’d be better off concentrating their resources in other states.
Things could change in both Michigan races. But for now, Mr. Schauer and Ms. Land are underdogs — with their momentum moving in the wrong direction.
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.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org