Commentary: The Democrats' gamble

May 10, 2013

How much do you know about Mark Schauer? Well, unless you are from Battle Creek, the answer is: Probably not nearly as much as you are going to know a year and a half from now. That’s because he is going to be the Democrats’ nominee for governor next year. That may surprise you.

Most normal humans aren’t thinking about next year’s elections. They are thinking about finally getting their lawn furniture out now that they are finally convinced it isn’t going to snow anymore.

But the Democrats are thinking about those elections. This has been a terrible last two years for them. They hate much of what Governor Rick Snyder and the Republican legislature has done, most of all, making this a right-to-work state.

They also hate the fact that they are utterly irrelevant in Lansing. The battles going on in state government these days are mainly between the Republican governor and his fellow Republicans who control both houses of the legislature.

Democrats are so weak, especially in the state Senate, that they have essentially no influence. Now, normally there would be a spirited contest, and the nominees for governor and senator would have been settled in a primary election a year from August.

But Democrats decided they couldn’t afford to do that. The Republicans, they believe, will have all the campaign money they desire to try to reelect Snyder and make a major attempt to capture the U.S. Senate seat now held by the retiring Carl Levin.

So the Democrats have settled on their nominees early. Congressman Gary Peters from Oakland County will run for the Senate; Mark Schauer, for governor. Now lots of things could happen in the next 15 months, but barring a catastrophe, this is it.

The good news for Democrats is that Peters will be very hard to beat, and so far, Republicans don’t have a strong Senate candidate.

But governor is something else again. In the half-century since Michigan’s current constitution was adopted, no governor has ever been defeated for a second term. This time, however, Democrats hope it can be different, if only because of the radical and often deeply unpopular changes forced on Michigan residents.

The candidate they’ve chosen, Mr. Schauer, does know something about state government. He served six years in the state House and five in the Senate, before getting elected to congress in 2008. Two years later, he narrowly lost his seat to the man he had beaten, Tim Walberg.

After that, Republicans redistricted the Seventh District to remove Battle Creek, where Schauer lives.  Since then, he’s been working for organized labor. Interestingly, he wasn’t eager to run for governor, and had to be talked into it. Now, the other major potential candidates have bowed out and endorsed Schauer, who still hasn’t officially announced he’ll run.

What he has to do is find a way of connecting with voters and persuading them he can make their lives better. To do that, most agree Schauer needs to develop a more compelling TV presence. But though winning may be a long shot, it’s not impossible.

My guess is that we will be offered two very different visions of our state’s future in the year ahead.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.