Commentary: Democrats MIA in the race for governor

Apr 11, 2013

Regardless of your politics, it may not have escaped your notice that Governor Rick Snyder is not universally popular.

He angered many voters by first taxing their pensions, then agreeing to throw thousands of children off welfare. Business taxes were lowered; spending for education at first slashed.

But the reaction to all that was mild compared to what happened last December, when the governor reversed his course and supported ramming right to work through the legislature in a day, without the courtesy of a single committee hearing.

Since then, his popularity has plummeted. His job performance ratings show more negatives than positives, and some polls show he would lose to just about any Democratic challenger.

What’s most curious about this is that you might think that with a track record like that, Democrats would be swarming all over themselves to run for governor. But here’s the reality: They don’t have a candidate.

There is not a single Democrat out there running for governor. I can never remember a situation like this in my lifetime. Yes, the election is a year and a half away. But at this time 20 years ago, when John Engler was running for his second term, there were already several strong Democratic candidates nosing about. This year, nobody.

No matter how much anyone dislikes Snyder, it is going to be very hard to beat somebody with nobody. As of now, the two Democrats most often mentioned are Mark Schauer, a one-term congressman from Battle Creek who almost nobody outside of his district ever heard of, and Bart Stupak, a retired long-time congressman from the Upper Peninsula.

Stupak, a former state trooper, was a solid, if not flashy member of both Congress and the Michigan legislature who I always thought deserved more respect. But if he were to run statewide, he has two handicaps. First, almost nobody south of Charlevoix ever heard of him. Second, he is anti-abortion, which tends, perhaps unfairly, to be the kiss of death in a Democratic primary.

Perhaps the most baffling thing in this equation is Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer. She is young, beautiful, charismatic, experienced, a brilliant attorney, and financially well off. She’s also been virtually the Democrats’ only key spokesperson on major issues. She’s been the one spearheading most initiatives, such as the Michigan 2020 college tuition plan, an excellent idea which, since she is a Democrat, has slightly less chance of becoming law than I did of being elected Pope.

But Whitmer took herself out of the race very early on, saying she needed to spend more time being a mom. Nothing wrong with that in principle, but in this case it is slightly baffling, since the job of senate minority leader is not exactly undemanding. She talks and acts like she wants a statewide political career, and it is hard to believe she intends to disappear into her kitchen in a year and a half. Candidates have been known to reconsider, and maybe she should.

You can’t exactly go find a candidate for governor on Craigslist. Michigan voters, especially now, deserve a choice of philosophies, and a credible contest, for leadership of this state next year.    

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.