Over the last half-century, whenever an incumbent Michigan governor has run for re-election, the opposing party has almost always chosen an opponent in a difficult and expensive primary.
Those battles have used up most of their cash, and given the opposition plenty of ammunition. Partly as a result, every incumbent governor running for a second term has been reelected.
New Democratic state chair Lon Johnson says it is time to learn from this. He's helped persuade his party to come together around statewide candidates more than a year before the election. Things can always change, but as of now Democrats have settled on former Battle Creek congressman Mark Schauer for governor. It would be difficult to exaggerate how much Democrats would like to beat Rick Snyder. They intensely dislike most of what he has done or tried to do, from taxing pensions to attacking unions.
They’re especially bitter over the governor's sudden support for the right to work legislation rammed through in a single day last December. Polls show that did hurt Snyder's popularity. One recent survey showed Mark Schauer with a four-point lead over the governor if the election were to be held today.
But the same poll showed almost two thirds of the voters didn't really know who Schauer was. Last week, I had a long conversation with the candidate. I asked him if he did win, what his first priority would be. He said building bridges with the legislature, and then concentrating on education.
He thinks education at all levels is the key to Michigan's future. He does applaud the governor's efforts to boost pre-kindergarten education. But he would extend that to every at-risk four year old in the state, and restore something like the Michigan promise grant for college-bound students.
Ironically, both Schauer and Snyder call Battle Creek home, though Snyder left the city when he grew up and Schauer, a Howell native, didn't arrive till he was twenty-five. The son of a high school science teacher, Schauer first became an urban planner and community organizer before getting into city politics.
He went on to serve the maximum possible fourteen years in both houses of the legislature, something he thinks would make him a more effective governor than either Snyder or Jennifer Granholm, neither of whom spent a single day in the legislative branch.
After that, Schauer beat incumbent congressman Tim Walberg, but was in turn unseated by him in the Republican landslide of 2010.
Now, he is going after a statewide audience. What Schauer has to do is persuade voters that he would represent their interests better than Snyder. He knows that winning will take “multimillions,” and expects to be heavily outspent. Yet he thinks he can connect with people if he can raise enough cash to make himself heard.
A PR consultant might say he has some work to do. The 51-year-old Schauer doesn't speak in slogans, and often talks more like a policy analyst than a politician.
That is good in theory, but bad for a TV sound bite. But Schauer has few personal or political negatives, and has won almost every election he's been in. If Democrats can make the election a referendum on Rick Snyder, Mark Schauer may have a real chance.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management, or the station licensee, the University of Michigan.