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Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

Democratic Angst

November 3, 2017

DETROIT – Every historical and national trend indicates that 2018 should be a huge year for Michigan Democrats.

But there are indications party leaders are worried.

Nobody wants to say anything on the record. But there are concerns that their candidate for governor may not be strong enough– and that Democrats’ habit of insisting on an “ethnically balanced” ticket could once again backfire.

The reasons for thinking Democrats should do well are easy enough to see. Nationally, the party holding the White House traditionally loses governorships, legislative seats, and seats in Congress in midterm elections.

Add the polls show that President Donald Trump is far more unpopular than most first-term presidents have been.

And when it comes to their governors, Michigan voters have traditionally changed parties every eight years.

This year, Democrats have an added bonus in that Gov. Rick Snyder, whose appointees poisoned the water supply of the city of Flint, is hugely unpopular.

Republicans also have held both houses of the legislature since 2010, and cannot credibly blame the Democrats for failure to fix the state’s infrastructure.

On paper, Democrats ought to be able to sweep the governor’s race and the other major statewide offices.

But here’s why that may not happen:

Governor’s race:  Former Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, 46, of East Lansing, is the clear front-runner. She is smart, warm, and an excellent speaker.

Most establishment Democrats have endorsed her, especially after U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) and Mark Bernstein, a University of Michigan trustee and the scion of a famous legal family in Detroit decided not to run.

Her main remaining opponents are Abdul El-Sayed, a charismatic 32-year-old Arab-American who has raised more than $1.6 million and drawn considerable national notice as possibly the nation’s first Muslim governor, and Shri Thanedar, an eccentric but unknown businessman who has dumped more than $5 million of his own money into the race.

Polls show that Whitmer leads these candidates, and a couple other unknowns, by huge margins. But the likely Republican nominee, 64-year-old Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, is a smart and ruthless politician who has wanted to be governor for years.

Schuette has signaled he plans to portray Whitmer as a cross between the state’s last governor, the ineffective Jennifer Granholm, and Hillary Clinton, the only Democratic presidental candidate to lose Michigan since 1988.

Schuette has his own weak points; he has been appealing primarily to the hard right, and hurt himself with women’s groups during a ham-handed and failed attempt to prevent two gay nurses from adopting three special-needs infants.

But he is relentless, and in an effort to separate himself from Snyder, he has been aggressively prosecuting some of the governor’s appointees in the Flint crisis, and has even hinted the governor himself may not be immune.

Despite recent efforts, and endorsements by several African-American leaders, Whitmer remains a largely unknown quantity in Metropolitan Detroit, where huge and enthusiastic turnouts are essential for any Democrat.

Nor, despite some union endorsements, does she have close ties to the blue-collar workers who were once reliably Democratic and who gave Trump his upset victory last year.

That doesn’t mean she can’t build them, but as one key aide said privately, “She needs to define herself before Schuette defines her, and she hasn’t done that yet.”

As an indication that some Democrats are worried, Andy Levin, the son of longtime Congressman Sander Levin, has been considering getting into the governor’s race.

Now an executive running his own clean energy company, the younger Levin said “politics is really about a question of who the right candidate is at the right moment,” and indicated he was trying to determine whether Whitmer could win.

Whoever is nominated next August will select a candidate for lieutenant governor; if it is Whitmer, a male running mate from somewhere like Macomb County would be essential.

Michigan Attorney General: Democrats used to own this office; Frank Kelley, known as the “eternal general,” held it for 37 years. But Republicans have held it since 2002.

Dana Nessel, a skilled attorney with a long record of looking out for the downtrodden, wants the job. She also spent years successfully prosecuting bad guys as an assistant Wayne County Prosecutor, and ran rings around Schuette’s lieutenants in the same-sex adoption case.

However, some are worried lest there may be “too many women” on the ticket, and Democratic Party orthodoxy stipulates the statewide ticket has to include an African-American. Accordingly, the eventual nominee may be Pat Miles, the former U.S. District attorney for western Michigan. Some progressives, however, worry that he has too many corporate ties, and question his abilities as a speaker.

Secretary of State:  This is perhaps the brightest spot for Democrats. Their all-but-certain nominee, former Wayne State Law School Dean Jocelyn Benson has formidable qualifications and fund-raising ability; so far, the only GOP names mentioned are third-tier politicians at best.

Naturally, things can, and probably will change dramatically over the next few months.

But as of now, Democrats are worried that Trump fatigue may not automatically translate into victory for them.


Silly Statement of the Week: Joe DiSano, a paid consultant for various Democratic candidates, proclaimed last month that it was too late for anyone else to get into the race for governor, a race where voting is still a year away.

“The field is set,” he told the Gongwer news service.

Well, maybe. But a year is a long time, and it may be worth noting that at this time eight years ago, almost nobody had heard of a venture capitalist named Rick Snyder, who wouldn’t get in the race for another three months. When he finally did, experts said he didn’t have a chance.

Jack Lessenberry is the head of journalism at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

November 2, 2017 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry

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