Can Romney Win the Mitten State?
September 21, 2012
With only weeks left and a new round of TV ads hitting airwaves in Michigan touting his agenda, the question remains whether GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney has the right stuff to win Michigan in his bid to unseat Barack Obama.
It’s about bragging rights as Romney, born in Detroit’s Harper Hospital 65 years ago, would love to have Michigan vote GOP in this presidential contest –something that hasn’t happened since 1988.
For Romney, it’s personal.
He and wife, Ann, also born in Detroit, spent their childhoods here. Romney’s late father, George, served as a two-term governor in the 1960s. The elder Romney ran American Motors and was also a GOP presidential candidate.
The former Massachusetts Governor moved away decades ago but he and his wife have tons of family and friends in Michigan hitting the campaign trail.
It’s part of the attempt to shake off the dust from four years ago when Obama won Michigan resoundingly over GOP contender John McCain after the Arizona senator bailed from the state with weeks left in the race amid shrinking resources.
McCain’s hasty exodus left Michigan a toothless tiger in the race for the White House.
Things are different this time.
Among the issues Romney will face, depleted resources won’t be one of them.
That’s because the former Bain Capital CEO has savvy political fundraisers like David Fischer, Chair and CEO of the Suburban Collection and also Romney’s state finance chair, and Ann Arbor businessman Ron Weiser, former U.S. Ambassador to Slovakia, who is finance chair for the Republican National Committee.
“Our mission at the RNC was to be sure we didn’t lose because of money,” said Weiser, adding the RNC was up $62 million over the DNC at the end of July.
With the money field more even, Michigan is back in play as a battleground state after a fresh infusion of PAC money for TV ads.
The pro-Romney super PAC, Restore Our Future, is running a new round of television ads in Detroit, Grand Rapids, Flint and Lansing to remind voters about the $16 trillion debt.
Charlie Spies, treasurer of the PAC, explained, “Barack Obama’s economic policies have pushed America backwards and forced eight million Americans to leave the workforce on his watch.”
Karl Rove also gave the nod to the Mitten State when he said, “Michigan is absolutely among the battleground states.”
Other states that rank in Rove’s influential playbook to win the White House –Ohio, Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida.
Rove dodged questions on what his American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS PAC’s plans were for Michigan, but insiders said a media buy was likely.
Having Rove–a powerbroker who helped put George W. Bush in the White House–reinforce Michigan’s importance resonates.
“We’ve always expected the race in Michigan between President Obama and Mitt Romney to be close, and that it will continue to be competitive right up until Election Day,” said Mark Brewer, chairman of Michigan’s Democratic Party.
“We’re going to remain vigilant because in the world of super PACs and unregulated outside money, anything can happen, and you can’t let your guard down,” Brewer added.
Bill Ballenger, editor of Inside Michigan Politics, said Romney has a chance of winning Michigan but added he could also take the White House without gaining its 16 electoral votes.
On the other hand, Obama needs Michigan to get to the necessary 270 electoral votes.
“Romney stands a chance,” Ballenger said. “He could also lose Michigan and still win the presidency –George W. Bush did it twice. On the other hand, it will be next-to-impossible for Barack Obama to win the presidency without winning Michigan.”
“I expect it to be close, more like 2004 (Bush/Kerry) than 2008. We’ll see –there’s a long way to go,” Ballenger added.
Not since Gerald Ford has Michigan had someone in the White House, a fact that may sway some.
“Mitt is seen as a Michigander having been raised in southeast Michigan,” said former Rep. Pete Hoekstra, who is running against U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow.
“Michigan has seen the benefits of having a native in the White House with President Ford. Mitt also has a strong message and background on the issue that Michigan families care about the most: the economy,” Hoekstra added.
There are those who point to the 2010 election when Republicans won the governor’s mansion and control of both state chambers as signs the electorate may be ready to change the hue of its ‘Blue’ state status.
Recent polls in Michigan have Obama slightly ahead and one or two showing them in a statistical dead heat. A new national Gallup poll had Obama with 47 percent and Romney with 46 percent.
When it comes to polls, however, some raised a caution flag.
“They are only a snapshot in time,” said former Michigan Gov. James Blanchard who was burnt by complacency when polls showed him ahead in his bid for re-election against GOP long-shot John Engler in 1990.
“The constant drumbeat of polls indicating that I was way ahead, caused a great deal of complacency on the part of Democrats . Turnout became a huge problem and pollsters have a hard time measuring turnout. We had a terrible turnout,” Blanchard added.
Blanchard lost to Engler.
“This election will be closer than the polls show and we have to fight complacency,” added Blanchard, who is working to help Team Obama.
No doubt the biggest calling card for Obama in the state that put the world on wheels is his bailout of the auto industry.
He offered loans and government induced bankruptcies of two of Detroit’s Three.
They quickly emerged from bankruptcy and sales rose.
Obama’s decisive actions simply resonated with many.
“President Obama will win Michigan because he understands the values and work ethic of Michiganders,” said Detroit Mayor Dave Bing. “He knows that Michigan is home to the middle class and he recognizes his role in supporting its continued growth. Every day in my city, I know that Detroiters work hard for their families and their future and President Obama knows this as well. I know that we will continue to move forward with President Obama as this country’s leader.”
Dennis Archer, former mayor of Detroit and a key player in Democratic National Committee circles, said “A lot of outstanding, hard working citizens who were in the middle class lost their jobs prior to the president coming into office and those job losses continued for several months.”
“The auto bailout helped stop the bleeding,” Archer added.
The saga inspired Romney, whose dad engineered a turnaround of AMC a generation, to pen an opinion piece for the New York Times in 2009 that carried the toxic headline “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.”
“President Obama saved Michigan’s auto industry while Mitt Romney said he’d let us go bankrupt,” said U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow.
That New York Times headline, written by the paper’s staff, resonated, but Romney and his supporters have charged foul and said it did not match what Romney actually said and wrote.
“He never said to let Detroit or the auto makers go bankrupt,” said one frustrated GOP insider who added, “People only saw the headline and never bothered to read what he wrote.”
Obama ended up taking a page from what Romney wrote as the government did step in with managed bankruptcies.
The Democrats, meanwhile, are taking Romney to the woodshed over other issues.
“Mitt Romney is advocating going back to the same failed policies that caused our economic problems in the first place,” said Matt McGrath, communications director for Obama in Michigan. “He would cut taxes for the wealthiest and pay for it by raising taxes on the hard-working Americans.”
Certainly the environment Obama finds himself in is quite different.
Four years ago, the U.S. Senator from Illinois captured the imagination and support of young people. Today, many of those young people are looking for jobs and their parents are out of work or under employed.
With a struggling economy and national unemployment topping eight percent and job approval ratings below 50 percent, the idea of re-election would seem far fetched.
But, there is precedent, at least in Michigan.
Some have drawn comparisons between this presidential contest and the state’s 2006 gubernatorial race when Dick DeVos–former Amway CEO and GOP candidate–lost to charismatic Democratic former Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
Like Obama, Granholm was in charge of a dreadful economy in a state bleeding jobs at an ungodly rate that led the nation.
But she managed to beat her well-funded GOP challenger.
“I think Obama would like to turn this into a popularity contest just as Granholm did,” said DeVos.
“America doesn’t need a popularity contest. We need someone who is effective. The president has demonstrated he doesn’t have any better understanding of the economic issues we are facing as a nation than Granholm did in 2006.”
“I don’t think America can afford four more years of Barack Obama,” DeVos said. “We made that mistake in Michigan with Granholm and it cost us thousands upon thousands of jobs.”
DeVos, who hails from the west side of the state, is optimistic about Romney’s chances.
“Michigan looks like it is in play and could be won by a Republican for the first time in a long while,” he added.
Since the GOP contest began in January, Romney has shown his mettle as a comeback candidate as he faced GOP contenders like Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum.
Each had their moment, but Romney prevailed.
Some point to his skills as a CEO, having turned around the troubled Olympics in Utah as the kind of president and leader he would be.
“His business background means a lot to me,” said Rob Tiede, a Detroit businessman who is part of a Maverick PAC, an organization of young conservatives.
Tiede is working with George P. Bush, son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, in setting up a Michigan chapter.
Romney last visited Michigan in August with Rep. Paul Ryan, his vice presidential pick, in Commerce Township where nearly 10,000 showed and waited for hours despite the hot, steamy weather.
Obama last visited Michigan in April for two fundraisers.
But Vice President Joe Biden has been something of a regular in Detroit, including Labor Day, while Obama spent that holiday in nearby Toledo, Ohio, another critical battleground.
Neither camp would say when or if their candidate would visit Michigan.
But both teams agreed the ground game would be crucial.
“Delivering Michigan for Mitt Romney is top of mind for everybody,” said Michigan GOP Chairman Bobby Schostak. “If we turn the vote out in Michigan, we deny Barack Obama a second term.”
No one is underestimating the importance of the three presidential debates to be held in October where quotes like “you didn’t build that” or “47 percent of Americans don’t pay taxes and are dependent on the government” will be vetted and dissected.
Those are things that can change the trajectory of either campaign.
Some believe the “47-percent comment” Romney made in a behind closed door meeting with wealthy supporters that made its way to mainstream media, will drag down his campaign.
Others say it will only sharpen the debate whether the U.S. can afford the entitlement it has promised and continues to pay for many citizens. Central to the conversation: where does personal responsibility stop and government assistance begin?
When the final chapter in this billion-dollar battle for the White House is written, it will be those kinds of questions that will shape the outcome.
But perhaps the most important question for Michiganders in the voting both: which candidate is the best person to steer the struggling economy back on track?
“Given our poor economic condition, reverse coattails from House and Congressional campaigns, this will be a close election,” said former Michigan GOP Chair Saul Anuzis.