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New polls suggest we may have the closest governor’s race in 30 years

Sep 15, 2014

Six months ago, I was convinced Rick Snyder would be reelected in November -- not by the 18 point landslide he scored four years ago, but by a fairly comfortable margin.

Yes, I knew there was lingering anger over the pension tax and right to work, maybe other issues, but I figured that Snyder’s Republicans would have so much money they’d overwhelm Mark Schauer, his Democratic opponent, with broadcast commercials, the “air war” of modern politics.

Then too, Republicans have a built-in advantage over Democrats in midterm elections. Turnout is always smaller, and Republicans are better about showing up.

Plus, while Mark Schauer has a decent record as a legislator and congressman, he wasn’t well known statewide and does not have the kind of charismatic personality that fills a room.

The governor doesn’t either, but for more than half a century, Michigan voters have always given their governors a second term.

But in the last few weeks, things have changed.

The Snyder administration has been hit by scandal after scandal. His head of the state housing authority had to resign after he was shown to have charged a series of wildly exorbitant expenses to the state. That was followed by the news that another of the governor’s top aides was getting an improper personal property tax exemption. Plus, he was also registered to vote in both two states. The aide, who said it was merely an error, paid the taxes he owed but didn’t resign.

... two new polls show the Democrat actually ahead, though by no more than the margin of error. And suddenly, there's a torrent of Snyder criticism even from corners friendly to Republicans.

This all came after the many-faceted scandal involving Aramark, the company that provides privatized food service to the state’s prisons. Probably everyone remembers the maggots on the chow line and the Aramark employees who got in trouble for being “overfriendly” with the prisoners.

Many also remember that Aramark was fined for this -- $200,000 recently and another $98,000 earlier for contract violations.

Well, guess what. The state never really made them pay the first fine. Instead, it was quietly canceled after the governor’s chief of staff called up the director of corrections, and suggested they get together for a drink.

Meanwhile, the Snyder administration did nothing to correct the public impression that there’d been a fine.

When this was revealed last week, Schauer said the governor had “lied to the people” by not coming clean about this.

The governor’s spokesperson said this was a distortion, but it is clear that if the voters perceive this as a pattern, it could be devastating to Snyder’s chances.

Now, two new polls show the Democrat actually ahead, though by no more than the margin of error. And suddenly, there’s a torrent of Snyder criticism even from corners friendly to Republicans.

Detroit News editorial page editor Nolan Finley blasted the governor for coming across as dull in one ad as “a valiumed-up dental patient.” Of course, none of this means that the governor will lose. Schauer hasn’t established a clear identity.

We don’t know what he would do differently, or how, and Snyder indeed has far more campaign cash. Yet it begins to look like we may have the closest governor’s race in 30 years.

Which is one more reason it would be very nice if the candidates agreed to debate. 

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.