It's Just Politics

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Today on It’s Just Politics, it’s all about the politics of wildlife. Or, wildlife management that is. Okay, might sound slightly boring so, how about this: “shooting wolves.” That tends to get people worked up.

In fact, groups are worked up. So worked up that they're gathering signatures right now to put a referendum on next year’s ballot to try and reverse the new state law that could clear the way for a wolf hunting season in the Upper Peninsula. We should point out this does not create a wolf-hunting season. Instead, it makes the wolf a game mammal, and allows the Michigan Natural Resources Commission to declare a wolf-hunting season if it sees a need.

Opponents say it’s too soon for a wolf-hunt, that the gray wolf just came off the endangered species list last year. But there have been some problems with wolves moving into "people territory," chasing pets, getting into trash… you know, being all wolfish. Eight wolves were shot last year in Iron Mountain by wildlife officials.

Photo courtesy of the Snyder administration

Governor Rick Snyder delivered his third State of the State address this past Wednesday; the annual ritual when governors defend what they’ve done over the past 12 months and lay out their vision for the coming year. It’s a night for official Lansing to step out. Some people actually buy new clothes for it. There are receptions and parties afterward, which goes largely unseen by the public, who just tune in for the speech and opposition response. That is, of course, if they tune it at all.

The State of the State speech – and, nationally, the State of the Union address – is a challenge: it’s long. It’s a laundry list of policy and wonky, political-speak. It’s hard to keep people’s attention. And, we’re not just talking the TV or radio audience. It’s hard to sometimes even keep the attention of the people in the House chamber where the Governor delivers the speech.

In order to try and spice things up a bit this year, Governor Snyder literally took it down a level. He delivered his address from the clerk’s perch on the dais of the state House of Representatives instead of from higher-up where the state House Speaker presides over the session. Snyder wanted to do it standing on the floor of the House, walking around with a wireless headset. No notes. Very Silicon Valley, tech company, CEO style.

The 97th Legislature of the state of Michigan began this week, having still not shaken off the hangover of last year, as Republicans forced through controversial issues like right-to-work during last month’s lame duck session. And, it’s probably fair to say that this is more than a double-aspirin hangover.

There are however, some efforts toward mending some of the very hard feelings leftover. “This past year has strained relationships,” state House Speaker Jase Bolger said on the House floor, “however, we can and should leave that past behind us.” Of course, that’s easy to say when you’re not the one still spitting the sand out of your mouth. But, Democrats and Republicans did negotiate for a peaceful opening day.

Yet, Democrats and unions have made it plain that forgive and forget is not in the cards.  They want the last two years, especially everything that happened in December, to be the main topic of conversation in Michigan politics for the next two years. And it certainly seemed like another thumb in their eye when the Michigan Economic Development Corporation paid for an ad in the Wall Street Journal touting Michigan as the nation’s newest right-to-work state under the banner of the very successful and super popular Pure Michigan brand. Democrats say it’s politicizing the brand and some marketing experts are even saying it might not have been the wisest choice.

Matthileo / Flickr

It’s the first It’s Just Politics of the new year and we took advantage of our sabbatical to ponder what might be the big political news in 2013. We say “might” because, well, really, who would have thought at the beginning of 2012 that our biggest political story would be Michigan becoming a right-to-work state? The biggest story out of a year already filled with intrigue, political gossip and bombshells.

Right-to-work consequences

Certainly, there’s already intrigue afoot over how Democrats and labor are going to respond to the passage of right-to-work. It can be argued that the escalation really began in 2011. That’s when the Michigan Education Association, in particular, responded to some Republican anti-union legislation by launching a recall effort. They succeeded in recalling state Representative Paul Scott, then-chair of the state House Education Committee.

Skip ahead to November 2012 and Proposal Two. Prop Two failed, and, then, voila!, Michigan the country’s 24th right-to-work state. Now, that’s just a simple version of what’s a much more complex tale. But, it does give one a sense of how politics is played here in Michigan… kinda reminds us of Sean Connery’s line in “The Untouchables."

Connery: He pulls a knife. You pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital. You send one of his to the morgue.

When talking about Michigan politics, Newton had it right, “to every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction.”

Retaliation

Unions and progressives could try to challenge what happened in the lame duck session on the November 2014 ballot; not just challenging right-to-work but the new emergency manager law, too. The new EM law is a rewrite of the 2011 law that voters rejected via referendum in November. The organizers of that ballot drive are now crying foul, saying the new EM law is similar to the one that voters already said "no" to.

Meanwhile, Governor Snyder and legislative Republicans made it impossible for voters to repeal this new EM law. We’ve talked about this often on It’s Just Politics: lawmakers can make it impossible for voters to repeal a law by adding money – appropriations – into the measure. Voters cannot repeal legislation with money in it. So, lawmakers added appropriations to the emergency manager and the right-to-work laws.

But, that doesn’t mean opponents still can’t go to the ballot.

Snyder Administration

Governor Rick Snyder held a year-end roundtable with reporters today.  That’s on top of the public bill-signings and one-on-one interviews and meet-ups he’s held with various reporters and editorial boards in the past few weeks. These meetings are a December staple of the Lansing political-journalism culture. But, today’s additional roundtable with reporters raises the question: after hours and hours already spent being interviewed, why is the Governor holding yet another meeting with the press?

A likely answer: The governor wants to reset the conversation, at least a little, and shift some attention from controversies like Michigan’s new right-to-work law and his veto of concealed weapons legislation to some good news stories – or, at least, what he calls good news stories.

Stateside: It's just a year of politics

Dec 20, 2012
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It's Just Politics with Zoe Clark and Rick Pluta

As the year concludes, we're looking back at the momentous events that made 2012’s headlines.

Here are the following stories Michigan Radio's Zoe Clark and Rick Pluta of Michigan Public Radio Network discussed today:

Right-to-work

Speaker of the House Jase Bolger

Matthileo / Flickr

This week we saw the wrap-up of the Legislature’s lame duck session. It was big and messy and there’s still a lot to sort out.  But clearly the biggest news, history-making, really, was that Michigan will become the nation’s 24th right-to-work state. Right-to-work is a loaded issue with passionate supporters and
opponents. Thousands and thousands of protesters turned out to try and make their voices heard. This will be an issue that resonates for a long time. It has huge cultural consequences. But, as always, on It’s Just Politics, we want to focus on the inside mechanics, the down-and-dirty politics.

And, some of the politics during lame-duck sure was down and dirty. One of the final actions of the Republican-controlled Legislature was to make it much harder to recall elected officials. Recalls are among the retributions being plotted by labor in the face of right-to-work. This could be a bit of a game changer before that’s even started. That should have state Senator Partrick Colbeck, a Republican from a swing district in western Wayne County, breathing a little easier. Colbeck was a big backer of right-to-work and is now considering a top recall target by Democrats.

Republicans also made sure their work won’t be the target of a referendum campaign by putting an expenditure in it. GOP lawmakers also did this when they passed a new emergency manager law this week. We’ve talked about this before on It’s Just Politics: how Republicans in this session have used this provision in the Michigan Constitution that’s meant to protect the state’s ability to pay its bills. But, it’s being used, time and again, to shield laws from the threat of voter-reversal through a referendum.

This week, after months – years, really – of saying right-to-work wasn’t something he wanted, that it was too divisive of an issue, Governor Snyder signed the legislation into law. To many, it seemed almost like it was forced on him. Particularly after One Tough Nerd had been a Hamlet on the question, “to be right-to-work or not to be right-to-work…?” This has many political observers wondering: was this just a Kabuki  dance all along? Was there always a plan to “do” right-to-work?

Meanwhile, compare the Governor’s apprehension with Republican Speaker of the House Jase Bolger. Bolger, who just might be Lansing’s most-powerful politician right now, was *never* coy about the issue. No doubt about it: he wanted, pushed for, worked for right-to-work. And, how interesting it is that it was just a little over a month ago that Bolger was teetering on the edge of humiliation. House Republicans had mismanaged a couple of controversies (think the Roy Schmidt party-changing episode and “Vagina-gate”) and Bolger came close to becoming the first House Speaker in 20 years to lose his seat. But, he came back to Lansing after the election, seemingly unharmed,  and waged the battle over right-to-work.

What a week it was.

Shouting and chanting filled the halls and rotunda of the State Capitol building on Thursday as Right to Work bills made their way into the state House and Senate. And, more protests are likely this week as the Legislature will take what are likely the final votes to send this so-called “right to work”-  or “freedom to work” bills as they’re known to some supporters and “right to work for less” if you’re on the union side – to the governor’s desk.

And Snyder will almost certainly sign them. This week, within the space of 72 hours, right-to-work went from “not on my agenda” to “on THE agenda” to Governor Snyder embracing the issue… even after months – years, really – of saying he didn’t want to take up such a divisive issue.

Here at It’s Just Politics, we’re wondering if it’s about time that the phrase “not on my agenda” has to be retired. The Governor has used the “not on my agenda” phrase before – over the issue of repealing the motorcycle helmet law and domestic partner benefits – and, yet, when these issues actually reach his desk: he signs them.

So, the question this week is: what changed in the Governor’s mind? What made him give-in? Was it simply a matter of inevitability? Right-to-work had just kind of taken on a life of its own after voters knocked down Proposal Two and a lot of interest groups were arguing that that could be interpreted as a referendum on “right-to-work” by Michigan voters; some Republican lawmakers took it as a sign that now was the time to try and introduce the issue. Maybe the governor just had to make the best deal he could once it became clear he was getting a right-to-work bill no matter what.

It certainly makes his life less complicated vis a vis a potential Republican primary in 2014. But it does complicate his general election prospects when this will almost certainly be used against him.

Michigan Municipal League / Flickr

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Well, for political junkies, the best time is still Election Day. But, the lame duck legislative season sure ain’t that bad either for Capitol-watchers. And, this year’s lame duck sure is serving up plenty of plots and intrigue; almost all of it revolving around right to work, an issue that’s not even officially on the agenda. In fact, there’s no bill yet. Nothing in writing. But just the prospect, the very possibility of right to work, is sapping up Lansing’s energy; every lobbyist, every legislator is paying attention to it.

And that’s become a problem for Governor Rick Snyder. “It’s a divisive issue. And you just look at all the activity and there are a lot of things we are talking about otherwise and it just kind of takes the oxygen out of the room, so hopefully this is something that can get some closure relatively quickly,” Snyder said this week at the state Capitol.

The issue is hanging over and holding up school reforms, a tax rollback for manufacturers and other businesses, overhauling Blue Cross-Blue Shield… the list goes on and on. There’s a small subset of issues where Democrats in their minority wilderness in Lansing can try to pull a power play – and they’re threatening to without some assurances that right to work is off the table in the lame duck session. The tension is palpable. A platoon of State Police troopers was called to the Capitol as a preemptive measure on Thursday against a Wisconsin-style state Capitol takeover in case right to work does come up.

It would seem that Governor Rick Snyder could settle the uncertainty. But, instead, he says “On any of this, I’ve been very clear for the past 2 or 3 years – right to work is not on my agenda and that’s what I’m going to say on this topic and that’s it.” So, it raises the question: why won’t Governor Snyder put this to rest? Why doesn’t he make it go away by saying, “I will veto this if it reaches my desk”? Well, there’s a bunch of reasons. First and foremost, it wouldn’t make his troubles go away. It would only trade one set of problems for another. That’s because debating and certainly signing right to work would launch a war with labor. Recalls are already being threatened. Governor Snyder has aspirations to be a two-term governor. Vetoing or promising to veto right to work pretty much guarantees him a credible Republican primary challenge.

Welcome to the post-Thanksgiving tryptophan edition of “It’s Just Politics,” and we are humbled by your support. Yes, “humbled,” we say. The word “humble,” it’s become a standard part of the election night victory speech. And it does appear to be a sincere acknowledgement that a candidate didn’t get elected on their own; there was campaign staff, volunteers, donors and, of course, voters.

But, it’s election night. The candidate has vanquished their opponent, people are screaming and cheering for the winner, and what that candidate decides to announce at that moment, what their feeling is “humbled?”

With that in mind, we’ve decided it’s back-to-school time with the “It’s Just Politics” Lexicon of Political Euphemism, Evasion, and Parenthetical Honesty. Our translator, Rick Pluta, has been covering Michigan politics for twenty-five years and has come to recognize the nuances of the political dialect. Like, when Governor Rick Snyder says “not on my agenda,” that actually means “ain’t sayin’ no.” Now, we’ve all done this, right? When you say this, you really mean that. Your teenager says, “I’ll be home by 10.” That really means tomorrow by sunrise.

To launch our lexicon, you will find a commonly used political phrase in Italics followed by its common meaning – outside of the environs populated by political types – in Bold. Feel free to play along and see how many translations you can come up with!

This is above politics = This is all about politics

I’m willing to listen = I’ve made up my mind

We need to set aside politics = They need to set aside their politics

Before we get down to pure-politics this week, we want to first take a moment to remember former Michigan First Lady Helen Milliken, who just passed away. She was married to Michigan’s longest-serving governor, Bill Milliken, thus, making Ms. Milliken the state’s longest serving first lady. She was not a woman content to simply stand in the shadow of her husband’s accomplishments. She was part of that generation of first ladies, embodied also by Betty Ford, who made it clear that even though they were married to their husbands, they had their own opinions, their own causes, and their own accomplishments.

First Lady Milliken was an advocate for the arts, for environmental causes, feminism and abortion rights. She was an ardent enough activist in her own right that when Michigan environmentalists wanted to recognize environmental activism they named it the Helen and William Milliken Distinguished Service Award. She exerted some influence in making those Bill Milliken’s priorities, as well, even though at times it put both of them at odds with the more-conservative elements of the Republican Party.

And, interestingly enough, this brings us to the current Republican administration. There are some tensions between Snyder-Republicans and the right wing of the Republican Party, especially the Tea Party. The Tea Party continues to send the message that it is not planning on going away, that it’s going to continue to push Republicans in the most-conservative direction possible. And we’re really seeing this play out with two particular issues right now in Michigan: health insurance exchanges and right to work.

The politics of the Exchanges

The health insurance exchanges are the online marketplaces where people and small businesses will shop for health insurance under Obamacare. Like Orbitz or Travelocity, but for health insurance. Basically, Michigan has three options: a state-run exchange, a federally run exchange, or some type of hybrid. Governor Snyder and a lot of business groups wanted a state exchange. But, all year-long, state House Republicans kept saying, “No, not yet.”

First House Republicans wanted to wait for the U.S. Supreme Court decision on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. When that didn’t go the way they wanted, they said the state should wait for the November election and see who’s elected president, with the idea that if Governor Romney was elected, then Obamacare would be repealed and the health insurance exchanges would be a moot point. But, as we know, that didn’t go the way they wanted either. And, now, they’re still dragging their feet, saying they still have more questions.

It’s time for a post-mortem edition of It’s Just Politics and, as the saying goes, it’s time for political reporters to come down from the hills after the battle to bayonet the wounded. Are your blades sharpened?

All six of the state’s ballot questions were voted down with a majority of “no” votes. “No” was what the people who put Proposal One on the ballot wanted – voter rejection of the state’s super controversial emergency manager law. That was bad news for Governor Rick Snyder. Public Act Four was one of the first laws he signed as a big supporter of tough medicine for cities and school districts that find themselves in big financial trouble. The Governor’s chosen candidate for U.S. Senate, former West Michigan Congressman Pete Hoekstra, lost to incumbent Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow. His endorsement didn’t seem to do Mitt Romney much good in Michigan either. But still, he’s a happy guy… you can’t keep this nerd down.  

In fact, the Governor has five reasons to be happy: Proposals Two through Six went down in defeat, just as he wanted. It’s pretty interesting to note that after millions and millions of dollars were spent – on both sides of the proposals – that they all went down by pretty large margins. Proposal One made a race of it. But we just have to wonder if it didn’t get pulled down by the “just say ‘no’” campaign waged by Snyder, business groups, and many Republicans.

On the very top of the ticket, however, voters said “Yes” to Democrats. For the sixth time in a row, Michigan voted for the Democratic candidate for President. And, the Obama machine was just that – a machine. Data-driven, organized and relentless. Republicans thought they had a shot at Michigan – never happened. Meanwhile, as we mentioned, incumbent Senator Debbie Stabenow won a third term in the U.S. Senate. The GOP thought they had a shot at the seat. Never happened.  Pete Hoekstra never seemed to recover after the China Super Bowl ad debacle. He won the primary, true, but his campaign never picked up steam.

It’s so close, we can smell it: Election Day. Three days away. And, apparently, three was the magic number this week as three presidential polls in Michigan were released.

The Detroit News got political pundits talking with a Glengariff poll that showed Mitt Romney and President Obama locked in a battle for Michigan. The point spread was three points, inside the margin of error. This had Republicans saying, “It’s a race here in Michigan!” To which the Obama campaigned responded, “Not so much.”

“With all due respect, I don’t think The Detroit News poll reflects where this race is in Michigan, and everything we see, all the data we get suggests there is a wider gap there,” concluded Senior Advisor to President Obama, David Axelrod. In fact, Axelrod is so confident of a Michigan-win for the President that he says he’ll shave off his mustache if Democrats don’t take the state’s 16 electoral votes. Republicans responded by dropping off a razor and shaving cream at the Obama headquarters in Lansing.

But, since then, two other polls seem to support that Michigan still leans Obama. EPIC MRA did a survey for The Detroit Free Press that showed President Obama with a slight lead – 48 to 42 percent, the same as earlier polls. But, that still means the president is below 50 percent.  Undecideds are still making a difference. Finally, a new Public Policy Polling survey showed the President with a commanding 53-45 lead in the state, although it does show Governor Romney’s position has improved slightly since the last PPP poll.

Meanwhile, the Romney-affiliated Super PAC has ramped up its spending in Michigan, and the Obama campaign has bought ads in metro Detroit for the first time. But we’re still not seeing the levels of spending and attention that suggests Michigan is really a presidential battleground state. That's certainly not to say, however,  that we don’t still have some battlegrounds in the state...

Next week, with just a week and a half to go before Election Day, Governor Snyder will board a bus to tour the state. The purpose of the trip: to focus attention on the Emergency Manager Law referendum and the five proposed amendments to the state constitution that you’ll find on the November ballot.

The Governor says he’s going all out, “I’m in campaign mode, to be open with you. I’m not running for office, as you know, right now… I’m setting up a schedule to say this is a campaign, because this is a campaign for Michigan’s future.” The governor is calling for a “yes” vote on Proposal One and “no” on the rest. This election has been called a referendum that will determine the success of the rest of his first term.

So, for us political junkies, it raises the question: can a governor, particularly one “in campaign mode,” really push the results of a ballot campaign in one direction or another. Typically, the answer is “no.” It’s often tried but usually a politician’s appeal or popularity does not rub off onto ballot proposals. Though they can gather a bit of media attention at first, endorsements are one of the most overrated political activities. The fact is, campaigns win or lose on the strength of message and organization. So, then, why do politicians engage in endorsements? Well, because politicians work with what they’ve got. A governor still has a platform, and it’s easier to sow seeds of doubt than to sell a ballot question. That’s why the governor is already working on a Plan B for a re-vamped Emergency Manager Law after the election, in case the EM Law is overturned.

Immortalpoet / Flickr

This week on It’s Just Politics we take a look at Michigan’s Supreme Court races.

State Supreme Court candidates appear on the non-partisan part of the ballot with no hint of party-affiliation, except if a candidate is an incumbent. But these justices are initially nominated by political parties at conventions. It’s slightly bizarre. The idea was the political parties would do the initial vetting, but then the candidates – and the Supreme Court – would be independent of partisan influence. As a matter of fact, an incumbent Supreme Court justice can nominate himself or herself without having to win at a party convention. Justice Charles Levin used to do that that until he retired in 1996. However, this hasn’t happened since, largely because of money.

The Supreme Court nominees don’t get the benefit of straight-ticket voting. But they do get all the other benefits of major party nominations. The Republican and Democratic parties and their kindred interest groups spend millions of dollars to get their candidates elected to the Supreme Court. Those kindred interests are business groups, the insurance industry for Republicans; the trial bar for Democrats. The campaigns go largely unnoticed, but they’re fierce, even personal sometimes.

There was the “sleeping judge” ad in 2008 that depicted then-Chief Justice Cliff Taylor as someone who slept through arguments (which wasn’t true). The ad helped make Taylor the first sitting justice to lose his job in an election in something like a quarter century. One year, Republicans ran an ad against a Democrat that showed this shady character’s shifty eyes and said as a judge, he favored lenient treatment for all kinds of horrid criminals. And, just this year, Michigan Democratic Party Chair Mark Brewer said Republican Justice Stephen Markman would be sympathetic as a judge to Jerry Sandusky, the assistant Penn State coach charged with child molestation.

With just 25 days to go before the Presidential election, and a week since the first Presidential debate, a few pollsters and at least one analyst are putting Michigan into swing-state territory even though, as we’ve noted before, President Obama’s generally been given the edge in most polls in the state.

This week, Michigan enjoyed a round of visits from top flight presidential candidate surrogates starting with Republican Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan on Monday. And, just today, we saw Anne Romney stumping for her husband, Mitt Romney, in the couple’s native-state.

So, the question remains, after five presidential election cycles with Michigan falling into the Democratic column, is Michigan an actual battleground state in 2012?

The right-leaning website Real Clear Politics says so. A Detroit News/WDIV poll shows the Obama lead shrinking since last week’s debate and a Gravis Marketing poll also puts the race for Michigan’s 16 electoral votes much closer than it has been. President Obama still leads, according to these surveys, but the momentum is moving toward Mitt Romney.

And, as we’ve said before, Michigan seems like it should be attainable for the GOP. It’s not like a Republican can’t get elected here statewide. Just ask Governor Rick Snyder, Attorney General Bill Schuette or Secretary of State Ruth Johnson.

But, aside from the Real Clear Politics call, no one else is really putting Michigan into that list of eight or nine states that are the focus of the fiercest competition (states like Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, New Hampshire, Nevada and Iowa). And, we’re certainly not seeing a big re-allocation of resources by the campaigns that would suggest things are changing in the mitten state.

One question that gets bandied about is: if Michigan isn’t a battleground state, then why are high profile campaign surrogates making regular stops here? Well, there are lots of reasons why candidates and their surrogates visit a state – fundraising, a quick visit to make sure a safe state stays that way. But President Obama hasn’t been here since April; Romney since August. In fact, this was the first time in decades that neither presidential candidate themselves visited Michigan during the entire month of September. In 2004, George W. Bush made John Kerry work for Michigan, which maybe meant he wasn’t able to spend as much time and money in places like Ohio and Florida – true swing states with lots of electoral votes.

U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow
Studio08Denver / Flickr

This week we saw the debate showdown between President Obama and former Governor Mitt Romney. Political pundits are talking non-stop about how Romney pulled off a campaign reversal. Debates can be game changers. And, then, there are the Michigan debates, or lack thereof. We have a statewide race that pits incumbent Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow against former Republican Congressman Pete Hoekstra. They’ve both agreed to debates. They just haven’t agreed to the same debates.

It’s a debate… about debates

Hoekstra has the most to gain by debating. It’s why he’s pushing for more than just the two that he and Stabenow have agreed upon – at least in concept. One of those two debates, to take place at the Detroit Economic Club, isn’t really a debate but more of a joint appearance. As the incumbent with what appears to be a very comfortable lead,  Stabenow has the most to lose. Certainly we saw an example of that Wednesday night: the perils of a debate to a front-runner. So, it raises the question, if Stabenow has very little to gain from a Senatorial debate, why hasn’t Hoekstra agreed to dates for the two appearances both campaigns have accepted. Holding out certainly hasn’t seemed to help the Hoekstra campaign.

Foreign affairs

If you’re the Hoekstra campaign and you can’t get your opponent to debate and you’re looking for something that changes the conversation, pulls you out of a rut, what better than to take a few days to travel… to the Middle East; Israel to be exact. This past weekend Hoekstra flew to Tel Aviv in an effort to turn the conversation to a topic where he is taken seriously: foreign policy. When Hoekstra was in Congress he chaired the House Intelligence Committee and had a security clearance.

However, when Hoekstra returned from the trip and was asked about the officials with whom he met, he said he couldn’t say. He says this was because the trip was not State Department-approved and in order to get officials in Israel to speak with him, he had to promise them their anonymity.

Matthileo / Flickr

We are now a little more than 925 hours from when the polls open in Michigan on Election Day. But, for some voting has already started. Absentee ballots have been available for a week now. Soon, they’ll go in the mail to households that have requested them and people will begin mailing them back and dropping them off. Which means, it’s getting close to the end game: people are making their final decisions before November 6th. But, we’re not just talking about voters here, lobbyists and interest groups are making decisions about candidates, as well.

These are the interest groups that swirl around elections – we’ve seen a lot of attention paid to 527 groups and so-called educational committees that are not actually part of a campaign – but still put out ads and mailers in support of a particular candidate. And, here in Michigan, these interests are keeping a close eye on the state House - where all 110 seats are up for re-election.

Recently, there have been some polls that should give a modicum of hope to Democrats. They’re in the minority in Lansing, and they need to turn 10 seats to take control of the state House. The Detroit News published a poll last week that suggests Democrats have the advantage in a generic matchup against  Republicans; meaning these people who were polled expressed a preference for a no-name Democrat in a match-up with a no-name Republican in legislative races.

There's little doubt by now you've heard, because it sure seems like everybody’s heard, Mitt Romney’s now-famous – infamous – 47 percent comment. It set the political grapevine ablaze this week with discussion and speculation that this is the gaffe that’s sunk the Romney campaign with 46 days to go until Election Day. Much like John McCain’s “Michigan moment” in 2008 when he pulled his campaign out of the state and everyone just kind of declared, "game over."

But there are still 46 days to go and Romney and many of his fellow Republicans are saying: Whoa, not so fast...  It ain't over til it's over. “A lot of folks would just as soon have this election be done now… The fact is elections are held on one day, November sixth, and not before," State Attorney General Bill Schuette, Romney's Michigan campaign manager, said this week.  It's a variation on the classic, "the only poll that counts is the one on Election Day.”

Redirecting the Message

Political campaigns are really about three things: one is identifying your voters, another is making sure your voters get out on election day and the third - which is especially critical to getting out your voters as well as persuading the ones who are undecided - is “messaging.”  Because in politics, “messaging” is a verb. So, for the Romney campaign, the question is, how to pull off that pivot, how to change the subject. And the message of the moment is, "Hey, everybody makes mistakes."

“Well, I think Barak Obama has made a lot of mistakes, too. When he said the private sector is doing just fine. That’s nonsense. When a small businessperson is successful, he said that person didn’t build it. We know that’s not true," Schuette explained, trying to create an equivalency between the two candidates and the two campaigns. Those are things the president said that – taken out of context, certainly – but still were missteps that Republicans have now turned against him. Republicans have also reached back to 1998 when President Obama was still a state senator in Illinois to something he said, that he believes in wealth redistribution, ignoring that he also said he believes in free markets.

Photo courtesy of the Snyder Administration

This week on It's Just Politics it’s all about the Blues. Blue Cross Blue Shield, that is. BCBS is, by far, the state’s largest health insurance company. It’s also a state government creation; created by state law. It has its own law, separate from all other insurance companies because it is Michigan’s “insurer of last resort,” meaning that Blue Cross has to take everyone who applies. Its mission: to make sure everyone who wants or needs health insurance in Michigan can get it.

Immortal Poet / Flickr

It's official. There will be six questions on the state's November ballot: Five proposed amendments to the Michigan Constitution and one referendum on the state’s emergency manager law. And, we’re looking at some big battles here; we’ll certainly see a whole lot of money pouring into these efforts to change state law. In this week’s It’s Just Politics we take a look at how these ballot questions just might work as vote-drivers.

It’s a GOTV Kind of a Year

This year we have very few undecided voters – that group of anywhere from a third to even less than a quarter of the people that wait until the last minute to make up their minds. A lot of people don’t vote at all – in Michigan, about 40 percent of registered voters don’t actually make it to the polls. That’s referring, however, to the presidential race. In a presidential election year  that’s the biggest driver that gets people out to vote. There’s no doubt though that more people are still undecided about races and questions that are lower on the ballot. So, for many political strategists, the question becomes: what happens if you can somehow persuade some of those people to get out on Election Day?

Can Ballot Questions Get-Out-the-Vote?

Certainly, ballot questions are used to determine policy on issues. But they can also motivate people to get out and vote on issues they care about like same-sex marriage, affirmative action or abortion. This year, in Michigan, we have questions dealing with union rights and taxes. Democrats are pinning some of their electoral hopes on the Protect Our Jobs ballot question. The Protect Our Jobs proposal would guarantee bargaining rights, reverse a bunch of anti-union laws passed by the Legislature and Governor Snyder, and make sure there’s no way lawmakers could pass a right-to-work law in Michigan.

Newshour / Flickr

This week on It’s Just Politics we’re talking political spouses.

There’s a whole lot of politics behind the role of spouses in campaigns. Just this week we saw Ann Romney speak about her husband, Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, at the Republican National Convention. Over and over again we heard that her job was to “humanize” him. And, she got generally good reviews for the speech.

But this business of where spouses fit into campaigns and political strategies is a tricky game. Campaigns want to get a candidate’s significant other - presumably the person who knows the candidate like no one else - out there, in the public, making a case for their partner.

Double-edged Sword

But, spouses can also easily become involved in controversies. Opponents, for example, tried to use Michelle Bachmann’s husband and his counseling of gay people on how they can become straight as a campaign issue. And, just a few months ago, one of President Obama’s political advisors, Hilary Rosen, made a comment about how Ann Romney has never worked a, “day in her life.” That comment poked a serious hornet’s nest.  It would seem that there are just certain things you can say about a candidate that you cannot say about their spouse.

There was the infamous question from the 1988 presidential campaign when debate moderator Bernard Shaw asked Governor Michael Dukakis, “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”

Many argued that it was Governor Dukakis’ passionless answer to this controversial question about his wife that cost him the election.  But, others, to do this day, argue that the question was totally out of line.

In 1992, Bill Clinton went on the attack during a primary against critics of Hillary Clinton telling California Governor Jerry Brown, “I don’t care what you say about me. But, you ought to be ashamed of yourself for jumping on my wife.”

Johnson vs. Rendon

All of this, brings us to the race in the 103rd state House district in northern Michigan, where Democratic challenger Lon Johnson is trying to unseat first-term Republican incumbent Bruce Rendon. Representative Rendon sent out a fundraising letter that calls attention to the fact that Johnson’s wife is Julianna Smoot. Smoot is one of the people running President Obama’s reelection campaign, and a superstar of Democratic politics. The letter points out the connections the couple has to prominent national Democrats, including some wealthy donors, and devotes a couple of paragraphs to Smoot.

It's a "swing-state" edition of It's Just Politics this week. The big political question in the mitten-state currently seems to be "Is Michigan a true battleground - a swing state - in this year's presidential race?" You certainly would not be blamed for thinking so considering all of the campaign love that Michigan got this week.

Vice President Joe Biden was in Detroit on Wednesday, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was in West Michigan yesterday campaigning on behalf of fellow Republicans Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan and, just today, Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan visited Commerce Township.

Are we a (politically) fickle state?

This level of attention would seem to suggest that Michigan is a battleground state alongside  those perpetual swingers: Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and Colorado. There are certainly reasons to believe why this could be the case, even though Michigan has gone for the Democratic nominee in the last five presidential cycles. But, if you look back even further, the five cycles before that, Michigan voted for the Republican presidential candidate every time.

It would appear that we are a fickle state. Michigan may be blue, but it elects Republicans in statewide races all the time: Governor Rick Snyder, Attorney General Bill Schuette and Secretary of State Ruth Johnson – just to name a few. And, even while Democrat Jennifer Granholn was governor, Attorney General Mike Cox and Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land were both Republicans.

Interestingly enough, Michigan’s record tilts more heavily toward sending Democrats to Washington D.C.. Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow are, of course, Democrats. And, in this election cycle, Republican Senate nominee Pete Hoekstra hopes to alter that trend, like Spence Abraham did –albeit for just one term – in 1994.

What do the polls say?

In this year's race, President Obama’s generally been given the edge in most polls in the state, even though Mitt Romney was born in Michigan and his father was governor here. But, just because he can claim "native-son" status, the Romney name does not always equal ballot magic. Romney's brother, Scott Romney, lost his reelection bid to the Michigan State University and his mother Lenore Romney failed in her U.S. Senate bid back in 1970. A former sister in law, Ronna, who ran with the Romney name also lost a Senate race.

A poll was released this week by Foster McCollum White and Associates for the Fox TV station in Detroit that gave Romney a four point lead over President Obama; and a slight lead for Pete Hoesktra over Senator Debbie Stabenow.

But, then, another poll was released this week that put President Obama and Senator Stabenow in the lead. So, it begs the question - which poll is right? The reality is there’s no objective measure for regular folks to use to judge the credibility of a poll. The only reality to compare it to is… other polls.

Is Michigan a swinging state?

So, aside from the polls - the question remains: are we a swing state or not? It would seem if the presidential campaigns didn’t think Michigan was relevant to them in November then they wouldn't be spending so much time here. But, one can argue that there are a whole lot of other reasons why candidates visit a place. Certainly, persuading voters is a big one. Keeping the base energized is another - especially in a year like this when it seems like most people have made up their minds who they want, or who they don’t want in the White House.

Mitt Romney's presidential campaign is hoping a visit from VP candidate Paul Ryan will put pressure on the Obama campaign in Michigan.
Monkeyz_Unkle / Flickr

This week, it’s a trickle down edition of It’s Just Politics. Trickle down: as in how Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate will play down on the rest of the November ballot.

Wisconsin Republican Congressman Paul Ryan is best-known as the author of a controversial budget plan. And, it’s that plan that’s really been driving most political conversations this week which means Paul Ryan is not only Mitt Romney’s running mate, but is on the ticket with every Republican running this year, including Michigan lawmakers.

We’ve seen the Democratic messaging about how the Ryan plan will  end Medicare, "as we know it." In fact, even Romney has said the Ryan budget plan is not his budget plan, but every Republican is, at least, being asked where they stand on it. So, while it may create some problems for congressional candidates – say, a Republican like Dan Benishek in northern Michigan, where there are a lot of seniors, it also allows them to talk about the need for “entitlement reform.”

Speaking of Entitlement Reform…

This week a memo was obtained by the online news site Politico that outlines the new nomenclature that is to be used by Republican candidates when talking about the Ryan budget and federal spending. So, out with “entitlement reform,” “privatization,” and the phrase: “every option is on the table.” Instead, the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee suggests these words: “strengthen,” “secure,” “preserve,” “protect.”

Closer to Home

This messaging fits pretty snugly into the campaign narratives that we’ve seen already in Michigan. In congressional races, they’ll talk about Medicare, Social Security, and the nation's debt. In state House races, the issues will be on a parallel track, framed around the unpopular pension tax, funding for schools and roads and what Republicans in Lansing will say were tough, but responsible, decisions to get the state’s budget house in order.

Meanwhile, in the U.S. Senate race, Republicans have been trying for months to make an issue out of the fact that Senate Democrats – including incumbent Debbie Stabenow – still have not approved a permanent federal budget. GOP Senate nominee Pete Hoesktra is trying to hang her with the nickname “Debbie Spends-A-Lot.”

The Hoekstra campaign therefore was no doubt prepped and ready for that “adult conversation” about federal spending going into this week, when it was hit with a blast from the past. A Democratic operative made RollCall.com aware of an interview that Hoekstra had done on WAAM in Ann Arbor in which he comes out against the 17th Amendment – the direct popular election of U.S. Senators. “The direct election of U.S. Senators made the U.S. Senate act and behave like the House of Representatives.  The end result has led to an erosion of states’ rights,” Hokestra explains.

We are now three days out from Tuesday’s Primary where there was a lot of attention paid to the state’s Republican Senate primary and various U.S. Congressional races. So, we thought it was time to give state lawmakers and their races a little love.

Primarily Speaking

In just about two thirds of these local races the primary pretty much determined who the winner will be in November. Because of the way the lines are drawn, most districts are decidedly Republican or Democratic. So, the primary settles the question three months before the general election.

That leaves just about a third of the races left; races that are really fought between a Republican and a Democrat… where incumbency, the strength of the national and statewide tickets and fights over issues and policy matter.

Can Democrats Win Back the State House?

Control of the state House is in play this year. In 2010, largely on the strength of a surge nationwide for Republicans, the GOP took a commanding majority – 64 to 46 – in the state House.  Out of 110 seats, Democrats need to turn at least 10 of them to win back control. That’s a lot. But we’ve seen dramatic swings in recent House elections. So, Democrats see it as tough, but do-able.

In the Thumb, Democrats lost the Republican primary. That’s because incumbent Republican Kurt Damrow ran into some problems and he had become such a liability that his local Republican Party kicked him out. Former Democratic Representative Terry Brown won’t have as easy a time against Dan Grimshaw.

In Grand Rapids, Democrats won the Republican primary when the badly damaged Roy Schmidt barely won re-nomination over a write-in opponent, but only on the strength of absentee ballots cast before the scandal over how he switched parties and tried to rig his own re-election by recruiting a fake Democrat broke into the news. Political-newcomer Winnie Brinks is the Democrat on the ballot. And, Schmidt’s name is toxic. Candidates typically love high name identification, but not this kind.

Lower Community College / Flickr

Tuesday is Primary Day in Michigan and it’s probably fair to say that this could be called the summer of the write-in candidate. There’s an unusually high number of people trying to win various primary races across the state as write-in candidates.

These are the candidates that for one reason or another didn’t file for the primary ballot but are hoping to still win by having voters write in their names on the August 7th ballot.

Write-ins Galore

In West Michigan, a Democrat on the Muskegon City Commission wants to make sure Republican U.S. Congressman Bill Huizenga doesn’t go unchallenged in November. In the 76th state House District in Grand Rapids, Winnie Brinks is running to be the Democrat to fill an empty spot on the November ballot to face the winner of that district’s Republican primary. State Representative Roy Schmidt is the only Republican on the primary ballot after jumping parties and trying –with the help of state House Speaker Jase Bolger – to engineer a shady arrangement to avoid a serious November election challenge. But that scandal has compelled another Republican – Bing Goei to launch a write-in challenge.

A write-in candidate like Bing Goei has the challenge of getting voters to do something they’re not used to doing: Marking a box with a blank next to it and then filling in the name. And Goei has to get more Republicans to check that box and write his name than people who simply mark the ballot by Roy Schmidt’s name.

Democrat Winnie Brinks does not have that problem. She just has to get enough people to write her in to qualify for the November election – five percent of whatever the top of the ticket gets.

But that is a problem for Nancy Cassis, the former state Senator who is trying to notch a write-in victory in the 11th Congressional District Republican primary over tea party opponent Kerry Bentovolio, who is on the ballot.

This is the district – of course – from which Thaddeus McCotter resigned. Cassis has talked about handing out wristbands with her name on them for people to wear into the polls. Ostensibly so that they know HOW to actually spell her name.  But, there’s some question as to whether that would violate election laws on bringing campaign materials into a polling place.

Political Shenanigans

And, it seems, it wouldn’t be a primary without those good ole pre-Election Day shenanigans. You know how you get those annoying campaign calls – usually it seems right when you’re in the middle of dinner – Well, a call was sent out endorsing Republican Senate candidate Clark Durant. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like there’s anything too wrong with that; robo-calls are pretty normal in the current political environment. The problem however, with these calls was that they were made at midnight.

It’s probably safe to assume that if you’re a voter and you’re getting a political call at midnight you’re probably not too happy. In fact, it might just leave you with a negative impression of the candidate. Durant’s campaign says these calls endorsing Durant’s campaign were not from their super PAC, so the thought is that maybe a different campaign or, possibly, Democrats were up to no good.

In Ingham County there have been reports of anonymous push polls in a state House Democratic primary. Push-polls are phone calls where a voter is asked a question that isn’t really a question. Something like, “if you knew that candidate X kicked puppies, would that make you more likely or less likely to support him?” In this case, Democrat Walt Sorg says the push poll makes it sound like he wants to raise taxes to build electric car charging stations.

There was a continued drip, drip, drip of new details to emerge in the state Representative Roy Schmidt ballot scandal. The latest: a new set of text messages obtained by The Detroit Free Press and MLive.com from the Kent County prosecutor’s office.

"Dirty as hell"

One text is from Schmidt’s nephew to Matt Mozjak , the patsy who Schmidt recruited to appear on the ballot as a sham Democrat to ensure that he wouldn't have a real Democratic opponent once he made his jump to the Republican Party as a part of a scheme hatched with state House Speaker Jase Bolger.

In one of the texts, Schmidt’s nephew writes to Mozcak, “obviously my uncle is dirty as hell” and, “he’s got a lot of powerful [people] behind him.”

And it just keeps piling up on Schmidt.  The first state House Republican – Representative Ken Yonker, also from the Grand Rapids area – has endorsed a write-in opponent in the Republican primary. Schmidt has gone from a trophy for the House Republicans to a white elephant.

None of which, of course, is good news for House Speaker Jase Bolger, who continues to resist calls to step down as the top dog in the House. The pressure, however, has not reached anything close to critical mass.

Save me... from myself

So, what does a politician do when he's been caught in a political scandal? Well, how about introducing some legislation? House Republicans have drafted new election  reform bills. But Democrats are calling it hypocritical. “I find it fascinating that the speaker of the House is issuing press releases about election reforms because he’s the one who got caught," said Democratic state Representative Barb Byrum.

Election reform: The issue du jour

Now, Democrats have their own elections package and they say they’re coming up with more.  It appears the stage is set for a whole lot of election reform one-upsmanship in the state House. Bolger says only serious election reforms will be considered - he wants nothing that’s about scoring political points. But, Democrats say Republicans don’t have credibility on this issue.

State Representative Roy Schmidt was back in the headlines this week; tagged in a prosecutor’s report as a liar and a cheat – but not a lawbreaker – for his last-minute party switch from Democrat to Republican and scheme to pay a patsy to be the fake Democrat on the ballot against him. It was just two short months ago that Schmidt was welcomed to the House Republican caucus with cheers and applause when he announced his party-switch. State House Speaker Jase Bolger was credited with engineering the political coup of the year. In fact, it was the first party switch by a sitting Michigan lawmaker in two decades. But, as it turns out, it wasn’t such a well-planned operation.

A Damning Report

This week, Kent County Prosecutor William Forsyth issued an eight-page report outlining the plot between Bolger and Schmidt. The report shows not only a plot for Schmidt to switch parties so late in the game that Democrats would not have time to put one of their own on the ballot, but also to pay one Matt Mojzak, a 22-year-old Schmidt-family friend, to be his fake Democratic opponent. Mojzak’s fee was to be $450. It was then upped to a thousand dollars as he started to get cold feet. Checks were cut from Schmidt’s campaign fund, but never handed over as Mojzak said he wanted nothing more to do with Schmidt or the scheme.

The Republican prosecutor said Schmidt and Bolger tried to undermine the integrity of the election and that it was shameful but, not illegal. Apparently, paying someone to be on a ballot – to basically fix a political race – is not a crime in Michigan.

Embarrassing Texts (What Else is New?)

The scathing report was made possible because Forsyth was able to trace back the scheme to text messages that were sent between Bolger and Schmidt. Yes, folks, another text-message scandal. Political-observers from around the state have been making light of the texts between Bolger and Schmidt. Though they're certainly not as steamy as the infamous Kwame Kilpatrick-texts, they do seem to show a budding "bromance" between Schmidt and Bolger. You can hear a couple of the texts (yes, for your enjoyment, we did a reenactment) at the audio link above.

Ballotopia. Ballotmania. Ballotpalooza: These are all nicknames given to the situation that we’re seeing right now as various groups and organizations try to get Michigan voters, come November, to amend the state's constitution. On Election Day, we could see up to six ballot proposals and a referendum on the state’s  controversial Emergency Manager law. If all of these ballot proposals are, indeed, approved this would be the most statewide ballot questions on a single election day since 1982.

Grassroots campaigns? Not so much

It's nice to think that, in our democracy, these ballot campaigns are being led by grassroots groups - regular folks - trying to change their state's law. But, that's  not the case in this election cycle. Each  of these ballot initiatives have backers - some business groups, some union groups - with deep pockets. It costs a lot of money to organize these campaignsand to get people into the field to gather signatures. In fact, that’s why we saw some ballot campaigns fizzle this summer like the group trying to get a question about marijuana legalization on the ballot.

Just Say "No"

The deadline for these ballot campaigns to submit to the state enough valid signatures - more than 320,000 -  was Monday.  And, in the midst of the petition filings,  we saw some push back against "ballotmania. A "just-say-no" to every ballot question campaign has popped up. It's a coalition of businesses that thinks the easiest way to kill everything they don’t like, especially the ballot questions dealing with unionization – these have to deal with constitutionally protecting collective bargaining rights - and a mandate that the state increase the amount of energy it gets from alternative sources to 25 percent by 2025, is blanket opposition.

Be Careful What You Wish for...

At first glance, it seems like business groups would be in favor of some of these ballot questions, like the amendment that would require super-majorities in both the state House and Senate to raise taxes. Seems simple, right? Businesses tend to not like taxes, but there is some concern in the business community that a super-majority requirement for new taxes could actually make it harder to cut taxes. That's because, typically, when the Legislature cuts or eliminates a tax, it has to come up with some replacement for that lost revenue. Even something that’s considered a net tax cut – like last year's elimination of the Michigan Business Tax or this year's tax on industrial equipment  – required the state Legislature and Governor Snyder to replace some of that revenue. If lawmakers had had to meet a higher bar for other revenue – like last year’s  controversial tax on pension income – they couldn’t have touched the business or industrial equipment tax.

Photo courtesy of the Snyder administration

This week on It's Just Politics: It's all about relationships. Specifically, the relationship between Gov. Rick Snyder and his fellow Republicans in the Legislature. And, the status on this one just went from “in a relationship” to “it’s complicated.”

A Gubernatorial Veto

The Governor vetoed three bills this week – they were part of a Republican elections package, most of which he signed. The three vetoed bills would have required people applying to vote for the first time or for absentee ballots to check a box affirming they are U.S. citizens. Another would have required photo ID for an absentee ballot. And, the third would have required state training for people who want to register voters. The Governor said the bills that he vetoed were too confusing and might discourage people from voting when the should should be making it easy to vote.

Lansing Democrats, Republicans Shocked

By vetoing these bills, Snyder not only broke with legislative Republicans, but also with established Republican Party opinion on how elections should be conducted. It's a classic divide between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives versus liberals, and it reflects how each side thinks the other party games the system to pirate elections. Republicans are concerned with ballot security - making sure only people who are supposed to vote actually cast a ballot. Democrats are more concerned about ballot access - that as many people as possible are allowed to vote.

Breaking Up is Hard To Do

These recent vetoes have many political-watchers wondering: What does this mean for the relationship between Gov. Snyder and Republicans? Is the Governor standing on principle, or showing there is a price to be paid for blocking his plans for an international bridge, road funding, opposing him on immigration and health care. The joke around town used to be that when Governor Snyder said something was, "not on my agenda” that really meant: "I’ll sign it if you send it to me.” Not so much any more.

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