In Mich. governor race, challenger lags in everything but optimism


LANSING — Days before he officially becomes Michigan’s Democratic nominee for governor, Mark Schauer is optimistic.

He cheerfully concedes he will be outspent. But he feels confident he will win.

“We’ll have enough money to get our message out,” he said during a long interview in his Lansing headquarters last week.

“You know, this will really be a referendum on Rick Snyder and his policies,” he said of the incumbent governor. “It’s going to be about Michigan and what Rick Snyder has done to the state of Michigan.”

“Democrats are motivated because they are angry,” the 52-year-old former congressman and state lawmaker added. “They realize that I am a candidate for the middle class and for fairness and equity. I’m one of them. My father was a high school teacher, my mother a nurse.”

The candidate grew up in deeply Republican Howell before he moved to Battle Creek in 1984 to be an urban planner.

He’s never been rich. He has a wife (Christine), three grown kids, and two dogs. He says he knows that a lot of folks like him voted Republican in 2010, “but the feeling I get is that [such] Democrats are disappointed.”

“Many Democrats voted for Snyder, and he didn’t turn out to be the type of governor they hoped he would be,” Mr. Schauer said.

That seems to be true. Mr. Snyder, 56, a computer industry and venture capital millionaire, was nearly a complete unknown when he started his campaign for governor in 2010. But he won a crowded primary, in part with the aid of many independents who saw him as a moderate.

That was one of the biggest Republican years in history, magnified in Michigan because of general disillusionment with Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

In the November, 2010, general election, Mr. Snyder swamped Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero. Turnout was half a million voters less than four years previously. Analysts think most of that drop-off consisted of unhappy Democrats who didn’t bother to vote.

Since then, some people who voted for Mr. Snyder have been stunned by his policies, which, as his challenger noted, have included “education cuts, a tax on retiree pensions, a property tax increase on business, all to provide a $1.8 billion tax cut that is not working.”

Mr. Schauer’s plan for victory, influenced by the new state Democratic Party chairman, Lon Johnson, looks like this: Motivate hundreds of thousands of Democrats who sat on their hands last time to get out and vote in November. Also, the plan is to keep the focus on Mr. Snyder’s record and present a credible alternative.

“By October,” Mr. Schauer said, “there will be a very, very clear contrast in voters’ minds between Snyder and myself.”

His strongest issue may be education. “We must recognize that teaching is the most important profession in our society,” he said, “and education is the single most important investment we can make in the Michigan economy.” Mr. Schauer wants to increase education funding and make higher education more affordable.

Where he may be weakest is on this year’s biggest hot-button issue: Fixing roads. Though he agrees massive investment is needed, he opposes a boost in the state gasoline tax and isn’t at all clear where he’d get the money.

In recent weeks, Democrats have become more optimistic about the governor’s race. Most polls have shown a lead for the incumbent, but by no more than three or four points.

What may be more troubling for Republicans is that no polls have shown Mr. Snyder above 50 percent. Undecided voters in such races traditionally break heavily for the challenger in the end.

Yet if Mr. Schauer were to win, could he get anything done? Democrats have no chance of winning the state Senate, and reaching a majority in the state House is a long shot. Wouldn’t that mean legislative gridlock?

Mr. Schauer noted that Michigan’s past two governors have had no legislative experience. “I learned how to build coalitions and get things done,” he said of his years in office. “You have to build different coalitions on every issue.”

But can Mr. Schauer persuade voters to give him the chance to do that? So far, Governor Snyder’s campaign has raised at least $9.3 million, about twice as much as Mr. Schauer’s has.

“This is going to be an election about the middle class, and the voters know I am one of them,” the Democrat says.

He has three months to prove he’s right.

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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