Michigan GOP Gov. Rick Snyder Has Created an Opening for His Opponent

The self-proclaimed nerdy governor of Michigan has made some mistakes in the past few months that have turned his re-election race into a dead heat.
by | September 23, 2014

To get a sense of how different this fall election may turn out compared to the state-level sweep the GOP enjoyed in 2010, look at Michigan.

Republican Rick Snyder won that year's gubernatorial election by nearly 20 points. He won't enjoy anything like that kind of result this time around. A series of missteps and the state's continuing economic difficulties have tightened the race considerably. At this point, most polls suggest a dead heat.

That doesn't mean Mark Schauer, Snyder's Democratic opponent, is going to win. But he might. "I'd say it's a jump ball, but one of the guys is slightly taller than the others," said Mark Grebner, a Lansing-based consultant. "I'm a Democrat, but my guess is Snyder is more likely to win."

As Grebner pointed out, Michigan has become a more Democratic state over the past decade, yet Republicans control everything in state government. Schauer's strong showing is in part a reaction to that.

When voters elected Snyder, they were weary not only of the Obama administration but Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who had presided over a dreary economy. Snyder prevailed in the 2010 GOP primary over more conservative candidates and presented himself to voters as a pragmatist. (His nickname -- and Twitter handle -- is "One Tough Nerd.")

But Snyder has signed bills presented to him by a fairly conservative legislature that have eroded his support among Democrats and independents. Best known is the state's 2012 right-to-work law, but Snyder has also taken heat for ending tax exemptions for certain types of pension income, meaning some seniors have to pay. "Snyder is left not managing government as a pragmatist, but as a person trying to keep the legislature from pulling things over too far to the right," said Whitt Kilburn, a political scientist at Grand Valley State University.

Snyder has had some other problems, too. He failed to convince the legislature to spend as much money as he'd hoped on the state's winter-battered roads. A top aide was caught in a tax flap, while the head of the state housing authority was forced out after running up exorbitant charges on his expense account. On top of that, Snyder's administration has been criticized for its oversight of a prison contractor.

None of these situations is fatal, but they've added up to a drip-drip of scandal that has pulled the governor's poll ratings down. Democrats have certainly tried to make the most of these stories, anyway. "Mark Schauer has been helped quite a bit by outside spending by the Democratic Governors Association," said Susan Demas, editor and publisher of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics. "They were really beating up on the governor, while the governor was not on the air and was not answering back."

Snyder didn't help his own cause much with an ad he did air recently. The key issue in this campaign, as in so many others, is the economy. Snyder can certainly claim that the state is better off than when he took office, with nearly 300,000 jobs created on his watch. But many of those jobs pay poorly and the state's unemployment rate is still higher than that of the nation as a whole. "We're on the road to recovery for every Michigander," Snyder said in a recent ad. "You might not feel it yet, but you will soon."

That didn't seem like a stirring message. As The New York Times noted earlier this month, "No state has seen stronger gains in employment since the recession, but the recovery has proved to be something of an abstraction to voters."

All of this has made a Schauer victory seem more likely than most political observers would have bet at the beginning of the year. Schauer has castigated the governor for cutting education while offering tax cuts to businesses. The two sides have traded shots about the accuracy of such complaints, but Schauer's message has had some resonance. "The thing we've always maintained is that for a universally known Republican incumbent to have approval ratings stuck in the low to mid-40s for the better part of two years shows that that Republican is in trouble," said Zack Pohl, spokesman for the Schauer campaign.

Schauer's problem is that he's not all that well known. He's held leadership roles in both the state House and Senate, but his biggest political job was serving as a one-term congressman. Schauer is good at retail politics, but it's a hard task for him to introduce himself around in a state of 10 million people. As is true for Democrats elsewhere, turning out the young and minority voters who helped President Obama carry Michigan twice is a struggle in a midterm election. "Snyder benefits from the fact that the electorate that shows up in November nationwide is skewed toward his base," Kilburn said.

If Schauer can turn out women and keep eroding Snyder's support among independents, he could pull off one of the year's biggest upsets. But with Snyder more engaged on the campaign trail and on the airwaves for the closing weeks of the campaign, he may be able to get his numbers heading back in the right direction following his summer swoon.

"At this stage in the game, I don't think that Gov. Snyder is going to lose," said T.J. Bucholz, a Democratic consultant. But "because of some missteps or some inability to have a coherent message, it will cost him personally and will cost his campaign millions more than it should have."