DETROIT — You might wonder why Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Republican from Midland, thinks he has much chance of being elected governor next year.
Normally, you would expect that Democrats could look forward to an easy win, for a number of reasons.
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announces his gubernatorial campaign Sept. 12 at the Midland County Fairgrounds in Midland, Mich.
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President Trump, who barely carried Michigan last fall, is deeply unpopular. Even if he wasn’t, people who show up for midterm elections traditionally vote against the party holding the White House. That helped Democrat Jennifer Granholm to two sizable victories when George W. Bush was president.
In turn, Republican Rick Snyder scored a landslide win against Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero in 2010, the year after President Barack Obama took office.
On top of that, Michigan voters have replaced outgoing governors from one party with successors from the other party in every election starting with 1982. If all that weren’t enough to dim GOP chances this year, add this: There has seldom been any governor as unpopular as term-limited Republican Rick Snyder.
Thanks to the poisoning of Flint’s water by his emergency manager appointees and his decision to tax pensions, his endorsement is unlikely to be of much value.
But despite all that, Mr. Schuette may have a good shot at being the state’s next governor. “This is a steep mountain, but I’m going to win this thing,” he told reporters when he formally announced his candidacy for the GOP nomination last week.
Naturally, candidates always express confidence when they jump into the ring. But there are reasons to think the 64-year-old Mr. Schuette may be a formidable candidate.
For one thing, he’s got far more name recognition than his most likely Democratic challenger, 46-year-old Gretchen Whitmer, the former minority leader in the state senate.
Mr. Schuette is also a clever and consummate campaigner. He has held more offices than nearly anyone. He did provoke some laughter when at his announcement party he told reporters “I’m not of the established group in Lansing.”
In fact, it is hard to imagine a more complete insider than the current attorney general. He served three terms in Congress; then was Department of Agriculture director, a state senator, and a judge on the Michigan Court of Appeals before being elected state attorney general in 2010 and re-elected four years later.
Only once did he overreach, giving up a safe seat in Congress to run against U.S. Sen. Carl Levin in 1990. That was the year Republican John Engler defeated Michigan Gov. James Blanchard in a stunning upset.
But voters that year weren’t impressed by Mr. Schuette, who went down in a landslide. So far, that’s been his only loss.
His biggest problem may be convincing voters he is not part of one establishment crowd — the Snyder administration.
He knows that if voters think he would be a “third Snyder term,” he won’t have a chance. Though they are both Republicans, the two men have never really been close. The attorney general angered the governor two years ago by publicly opposing his plan to raise the sales tax to fix the roads.
Things have gone downhill since then.
Mr. Schuette has gone after a number of Mr. Snyder’s appointees, indicting several in connection with Flint. When asked in June about Mr. Snyder’s role in the scandal, he would say only “we’re not filing charges at this time.”
Lt. Gov. Brian Calley is also hinting that he is going to run for his boss’ old seat, but he is likely to come into the race a distinct underdog to Mr. Schuette, who in reality has been raising money and planning his run for governor for years.
That’s not to say, however, that Mr. Schuette doesn’t have vulnerabilities. An EPIC-MRA poll earlier this month showed that he and Gretchen Whitmer are tied, with 37 percent each.
It also found that three times as many voters had an unfavorable impression of Mr. Schuette as Ms. Whitmer.
The attorney general also raised some eyebrows by what many felt was an overzealous attempt in federal court to prevent two gay nurses from adopting some special-needs foster children the state had given them to raise, a case that was later expanded to include same-sex marriage, which he also fiercely opposed.
What finally happens may depend on whether Republicans can define Ms. Whitmer as a weak caricature of Jennifer Granholm and Hillary Clinton before she succeeds in establishing her own image in the minds of the voters.
“It’s so left, and all they want to do is raise taxes and have more regulations,” the attorney general said of his opponent.
Democrats privately worry about that. On the other hand, the chaos in Washington, if it continues, could produce a national reaction against Republicans, who have controlled every branch of government in Michigan for the last seven years.
Don’t expect a clear trend in Michigan anytime soon.
Jack Lessenberry, the head 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.
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