History would seem to indicate Gov. Rick Snyder should have a fairly easy romp to re-election this fall.
For one thing, no Michigan governor has failed to win a second term since the current state constitution was adopted more than half a century ago. For another, history also suggests that this should be a good year for the governor’s Republican Party.
This will be the second “off-year” election since President Obama took office. He is, of course, a Democrat, and incumbent presidents normally see their parties lose badly in their sixth year.
But precedents are made to be broken - and this governor has taken some steps and made some blunders that seem certain to hurt him at the polls. The only question is: How much?
Though the administration stubbornly refuses to admit it, the governor made a howling public relations blunder last month when several hundred thousand residents lost power at Christmas.
Other governors might have appeared on TV, shown up at warming centers, called for more crews to be brought in from other states. Snyder did none of that. Spokesmen refused for “security reasons” during the crisis to say where he was or if he had lost power. (Later, they said the governor, a computer business millionaire, had gone to one of his homes, north of Kalamazoo, and that he had in fact been without power for a couple days.)
Last week, after I discussed this in this column, Dave Murray, a spokesman, called and wrote me to say he was surprised by comments that the governor was invisible during the storm. “He put out a couple of press releases,” he said.
That may be so, but it isn’t likely that they had the impact the governor’s appearance in person and on TV, might have had.
After all, his fellow Republicans, Mayor Rudy Giuliani in New York and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie showed up at the disaster scene on Sept. 11 and Hurricane Sandy, respectively.
The Christmas power outage certainly did not compare with those disasters. And the governor was lucky in one way; former Congressman Mark Schauer, his evident Democratic opponent next November, could have made political hay over the governor’s seeming insensitivity. But he also failed to show up.
But it may have added to a growing sense that Snyder is out of touch with the people. This followed his sudden reversal on right-to-work, when, after saying it “was not on my agenda,” he reversed course and help ram it through the Legislature in a day.
Last year Snyder also attempted to severely limit Michigan’s now-unlimited personal protection coverage for auto accident victims to $ 1 million, something that prompted cries of outrage even from many fellow Republicans. It was attacked as a scheme to just make rich insurance companies richer, and went nowhere in the Legislature.
That is likely to be an issue in the fall campaign. The 55-year-old governor also seems to have awakened deep-seated hostility with his decision to sign a new campaign finance bill that clearly breaks a campaign promise he made.
While running for office, he pledged that he would support making all campaign spending records open and transparent.
But when Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, herself a Republican, proposed requiring that, GOP legislators rushed through a bill that allows special interests to donate unlimited sums in often misleading “issue-oriented ads” to campaigns, without being forced to reveal the source of the funding. The governor then signed it during a holiday week, when the public tends not to pay attention to politics.
Later, he said, unconvincingly, that he had changed his mind because he was worried about free speech and said he feared special interests and millionaires might feel intimidated if they had to reveal how much money they were giving to influence elections.
That seems to have permanently lost him the support of the Detroit Free Press, Michigan’s largest newspaper, which four years ago strongly backed his effort to be elected. Stephen Henderson, the newspaper’s editorial page editor, wrote a blistering column: “Snyder’s broken promises have cost him our trust.”
“Snyder is no more trustworthy than any other politician I’ve dealt with,” the editor said, adding “given the hordes of political liars prowling this city - and this state - that’s quite a distinction.”
That seemed to lump the governor with former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, now serving a decades-long sentence in federal prison. The column went on to discuss the governor’s “sneaking around” with his secret “NERD” fund that collected millions in anonymous donations before it was exposed and shut down, and other cases where he was less than open with the voters. Calling the governor’s integrity “badly tarnished,” he added, “if Snyder so willingly trashes ideals he claimed for himself, he simply can’t be trusted.”
That doesn’t mean Snyder may not yet win another term. The election is ten months away. The Democratic challenger is not overwhelmingly known, nor especially charismatic.
Yet Rick Snyder seems to have lost many of the independents who supported him four years ago. This election is certain to largely be a referendum on this governor - and his ability to keep his word seems increasingly likely to be an issue.
Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst, an ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.