Michigan hewed to its history and bowed to today’s political winds in electing Democrat Gretchen Whitmer governor Tuesday.
Bill Schuette never really had a chance. And if he did, the Republican squandered it with a surprisingly inept campaign that even in the face of failure stubbornly stuck to a strategy that was not working.
But first, history. Never in the past six decades has Michigan replaced through the ballot box an outgoing governor with one of the same party. Michigan swings consistently red to blue and blue to red. That’s as true in periods of prosperity as it is in times of economic despair. Voters here value change.
Even without that curse, this was always going to be a tough year for Republicans, no matter the nominee.
President Donald Trump won Michigan by a slim margin in 2016, a year with a depressed Democratic turnout. Republican votes cast for Trump were about equal to those given to Mitt Romney and John McCain in the two prior presidential contests, and both lost the state. Trump’s election did not signal a fundamental shift in the Michigan electorate.
But it did wake up those who dozed through the 2016 contest.
Trump is more unpopular here than he is in any Midwestern state other than Illinois and Wisconsin, according to the Morning Consult poll. The rage his election inspired in women, minorities and left-leaners burned hotly in Michigan from even before Inauguration Day.
The president ignited an activist fervor in Michigan and elsewhere that has looked toward this midterm election for two years. Democrats recruited a platoon of attractive challengers for congressional and legislative seats throughout the state, and that helped drive their turnout.
The Trump factor can’t be overstated. Many voters, even some traditional Republicans, saw the midterm as an opportunity to express their dissatisfaction with the man in the White House, and by extension, his surrogates in statewide races.
In many ways this was an issueless campaign. The outcome hinged on personalities.
Schuette turned out to be the Hillary Clinton of this election. Many voters who may have been wary of returning a Democrat to the governor’s office backed Whitmer anyway because they just didn’t like the attorney general. I sat next to a businessman last week at the Detroit Economic Club luncheon where the two candidates made their final pitch. When Schuette finished, he whispered, “I’ve voted Republican all of my life, but I just can’t vote for him.”
Schuette’s effort to distance himself from the Snyder administration after the Flint water crisis by suing members of the governor’s team was a miscalculation. Voters saw the move as crassly political, fueling the perception that Schuette is solely motivated by personal political ambition.
Whitmer, whose candidacy many Democratic party bosses were skeptical of in the beginning, turned out to be the perfect choice for this campaign.
She’d been out of statewide politics long enough to qualify as a fresh face. Progressives may have wanted someone more liberal, but there was no way they were going to sit out this election. So Whitmer didn’t have to lurch left to keep the Democratic base.
Whitmer appeared reasonable and confident, and moderate. She ran a smart, optimistic campaign that positioned her as a safe and acceptable choice for those turned off by Schuette. She exploited Snyder’s refusal to endorse the Republican, exaggerating what she claimed was a collaborative relationship with the governor when she was minority leader of the Senate. Without the governor’s blessing, Schuette was limited in his ability to tout himself as heir to the forces that delivered the state’s comeback.
Instead, Schuette built his campaign on the conviction that Michigan voters still held a deep resentment toward former Gov. Jennifer Granholm. He believed the key to victory was morphing Whitmer into Granholm in the minds of voters who lived through the state’s Lost Decade.
It didn’t work. And yet Schuette never pivoted toward breaking through the true obstacle: his own likability. His relentless attacks barely moved Whitmer’s approval rating. And his own hardly rose. For someone who has won several elections in Michigan over the past 30 years, he campaigned as if he didn’t have a clue.
His strategy was particularly tone deaf in what turned out to be The Year of the Woman. Heavy-handed attacks on women candidates were no way to counter the Pink Wave.
Maybe there was nothing Bill Schuette could have done to win this election. But he did so little right that we’ll never know.