Susan J. Demas: Trump, Snyder Could Drag Down GOP in 2018

Michigan Republicans are facing some ugly political winds in 2018.

Recent polling shows that Gov. Rick Snyder’s numbers remain dismal — and only look good in comparison to those of President Donald Trump.

In fact, EPIC-MRA found in its Aug. 27-Sept. 1 poll that 53 percent of likely ‘18 voters worry about Trump having access to the nuclear launch codes and 43 percent believe he’s a “mentally unstable person.”

And NBC/Marist had in its Aug. 13-17 survey that 62 percent said the new president “embarrassed” them and 59 percent said Trump’s decisions have “weakened the global image of the United States.”

Those are some jaw-dropping numbers for the GOP to contend with in ‘18, especially as every election cycle since 2006 has been dominated by national, top-of-the-ticket concerns.

We’re still more than a year away from the election. As we saw in 2016, the political landscape can change dramatically and conventional wisdom can be proved a farce. And Republicans have some key advantages in Michigan: a deep bench, generally good economy, favorable legislative maps for down-ballot races, and strong fundraising, aided by ever-laxer campaign finance laws.

Still, the fundamental question for any political party before an election is: Would you rather be us or them?

Right now, Democrats have some big positives in election fundamentals with poll numbers, an ignited liberal activist base, and voter fatigue after almost eight years of Republican rule in Michigan — and now they have total control in Washington.

Let’s drill down into some recent statewide surveys. Michigan has been a source of endless national fascination after giving Trump a narrow win last year, which helped put him over the top in the Electoral College. That was after Democratic nominees, win or lose, had won Michigan every cycle since 1988. Former President Obama’s margins of victory were 16 points in 2008 and almost 10 points in 2012.

So Trump’s 2016 victory in the Mitten State appeared to be a sea change.

But in poll after poll, indicates that Michigan’s infatuation with Trump was short-lived. His job approval sat at 62 percent negative in the EPIC-MRA survey. And when asked who was a more effective leader as president, 56 percent said Obama and only 32 percent answered Trump.

NBC/Marist had the new president with a 55 percent negative job approval rating. They also polled the other two Rust Belt states that flipped to Trump, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, where his job approval was at 56 percent and 54 percent negative, respectively.

Snyder’s job approval was 57 percent negative in the EPIC-MRA poll. He’s the fifth most unpopular governor in the country, according to a July roundup from Morning Consult.

His numbers have been in the dumps since the Flint water crisis made international headlines in late 2015, but the governor has languished in negative territory for much of his tenure. Snyder managed to win re-election in 2014 anyway.

So if Snyder and Trump continue to post brutal numbers next year, Republicans can always hope that even some demoralized and disgusted voters will mark their ballots for them in 2018, just as they’ve done in years past.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.

Susan J. Demas: Schuette Wants To Be the Change Michigan Believes in

If I didn’t know any better, I would have thought Barack Obama was still president based on Attorney General Bill Schuette’s speech this week announcing his 2018 gubernatorial campaign.

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And if I really wasn’t paying attention, I may have assumed that Jennifer Granholm was still the governor of Michigan, even though she left the Romney Building in 2010.

Schuette mentioned both Democrats no less than eight times apiece in his roughly 20-minute oratory delivered in his hometown of Midland, a picturesque mid-Michigan hamlet he lovingly wrote about in his 2015 book, Big Lessons from a Small Town.

As I noted back in March, Obama was the perfect foil for Schuette. The Republican AG cast himself as a “rule of law” conservative, frequently joining lawsuits against the administration’s “overreaching” agenda, including overtime rules, the contraception mandate and Obamacare.

And so when Schuette came under fire for his right-wing positions, like taking Michigan’s fight against same-sex marriage to the U.S. Supreme Court (and losing), he claimed he was just doing his duty to defend the Constitution.

It was a two-fold strategy. Schuette was able to make the case that he was a rock-solid man of principle, even when he took positions outside the political mainstream. And going after a Democratic president’s priorities thrilled the GOP base, although Schuette never made his attacks personal, even as the birther movement raged.

That’s just not who he is. Schuette carries himself as an old-school, George H.W. Bush Republican who prefers glad-handing in parades and the rubber-chicken circuit over dissolving into long-winded rants savaging his political enemies.

After being first elected to Congress in the Ronald Reagan era, Schuette has adapted to the changing tenor and priorities of the GOP during his long career as a state senator, Michigan Agriculture director, judge and finally AG. He’s ingratiated himself with the business-driven establishment, religious right and Tea Party, now pivoting to the Trumpists.

And yet, President Donald Trump — the first Republican to win Michigan since 1988 — didn’t even warrant a mention in Schuette’s speech (even Reagan popped up once). Now it’s true that Trump’s bombastic, tweet-driven style clashes with the AG’s deliberate, genial image. And the president’s sinking poll numbers in Michigan are making Republicans sweat.

But Trump remains popular with the GOP base and Schuette does have a partisan primary to win. Given the fact that he’s not naïve — indeed, Schuette is, hands down, the most gifted politician in the state — there’s clearly a strategy at work here.

It would seem that Schuette likes his chances enough in the primary enough not to give Trump a bear hug right now. Since his main competition is expected to be Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, who yanked his Trump endorsement after the “Access Hollywood” tape, Schuette may be making a smart bet that he’ll carry the president’s supporters next year, even if mainly by default.

And Schuette has weaved some Trump populism into his messaging, declaring, “For Michigan to reach higher, we need a governor who won’t accept the fate assigned to us by liberal elites who look down on manufacturing and the plumbers, electricians and builders — and head potato boys — the skilled trades that built our country and are needed to rebuild our infrastructure.”

But Schuette mainly chose to prove his conservative mettle by jabbing Obama and Granholm (which is much more comfortable territory for him). Raising the specter of the state’s first female governor helps him draw parallels to his most likely general election opponent, former Sen. Gretchen Whitmer (D-East Lansing), with Schuette not-so-subtly warning that “Granholm’s lieutenants want to take back control of our state in 2018.”

In his speech, Schuette marveled that “it’s amazing we’re still standing” after eight years of Obama and Granholm. His press release had the headline, “We Need to Cop an Attitude. Because We're Michigan, and it's Time to Win Again,” followed by the subhead: “My one goal: to make Michigan a growth state, a paycheck state, a jobs state.”

That’s a bit curious, since we’ve had a GOP governor for almost seven years, who presumably could have done something about growth, paychecks and jobs. If you check in with Rick Snyder — who did get one brief mention in Schuette’s remarks — he’ll tell a very different story about Michigan’s economy.

Of course, Snyder is of little use to Schuette right now. He’s one of the most unpopular governors in the country and can be expected to back his LG in the primary. Snyder and Schuette also have chafed on a variety of issues, like Detroit pensions, but the AG’s decision to charge key administration figures in his Flint water crisis probe has brought tensions to a boil.

Indeed, after listening to Schuette in Midland, you just might forget that Republicans have controlled all three branches of Michigan government since 2011 and that the party now enjoys the same status in Washington.

And you just might believe that a Republican candidate for governor would be the change agent Michigan desperately needs right now.

We’ll see if Schuette’s gamble works.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.

Susan J. Demas: Macomb County Hit by Hurricane Karen

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The Michigan Legislature has suffered a series of black eyes in the last few years, thanks to its members.

One was expelled: Rep. Cindy Gamrat (R-Plainwell), who was accused of abusing her office. Her partner-in-crime, Rep. Todd Courser (R-Lapeer), resigned before suffering the same fate.

Two have resigned as a result of plea bargains: Rep. Brian Banks (D-Harper Woods), an eight-time felon who was charged with more financial felonies, and Sen. Virgil Smith (D-Detroit), who was convicted of a felony for shooting a semi-automatic weapon at his ex-wife’s car.

Sen. Bert Johnson (D-Highland Park) has been indicted by a grand jury on charges of conspiracy and theft from a federal program. And it looks like the House will have another member who’s a convicted felon after the special election in November, as Harper Woods School Board Member Tenisha Yancey is the Democratic nominee in Banks’ old seat, which is heavily Democratic.

As embarrassing as this is for Michigan, there’s actually a more troubling scandal afoot in Macomb County. That’s because none of these state legislators had the power to inflict the damage that the top official in charge of elections and vital records can in a key Michigan county.

Karen Spranger, a local gadfly best known for donning a tinfoil suit at government meetings to protest smart meters, got swept into the clerk’s office last fall as part of the Donald Trump GOP wave crashing through Macomb.

She replaced retiring Clerk Carmella Sabaugh, who was known for running one of the most innovative and efficient offices in Michigan. All Spranger really had to do was keep key staff in place, sit back and collect her sizeable $108,880 annual salary.

But Spranger had other plans. The Detroit Free Press summarized her tenure well in the lead of its story last month:

“In her first seven months as the Macomb County Clerk/Register of Deeds, Karen Spranger got kicked off her county computer for allowing noncounty workers on it; fired her two top appointed deputies; sued the county over a litany of issues, and was named as a defendant in three other lawsuits, including a whistle-blower complaint in federal court filed by her former top aides.

“She was fined $100 for a county ethics violation; totaled her county car in a crash; filed a criminal complaint about the news media harassing her; was caught on video pushing storage bins to a construction area before an office move she opposed, and is under investigation for allegedly lying on her affidavit to run for office.”

The article also notes that the Freep “wasn’t able to find any evidence that Spranger had held a regular job since graduating from high school.”

A St. Clair County judge is overseeing a case that could result in Spranger’s removal from office. But even if she gets the boot, it could take years for the county to recover from Hurricane Karen.

If Spranger were a state lawmaker, she could make some goofy floor speeches, introduce bills that would go nowhere and cast questionable votes. But she would be one of 110 members in the House or 38 occupants of the Senate. Her constituents could suffer from poor representation, but the overall destruction she could cause to the Legislature as an institution would be limited.

Unfortunately, Spranger is in a position to hobble critical functions in a large Michigan county as clerk.

And it’s the kind of stuff people notice. She’s in charge of a host of records, including birth, divorce, death, deeds, mortgages, liens and business registration. The office handles the filing of new civil, domestic and criminal cases and maintains all of the existing case files for the 16th Circuit Court. And Spranger is also charged with running elections.

Her office appears to be completely dysfunctional, as almost one-third of her “80-plus-member staff was unfilled or on medical leave at one point” in July, according to the Freep. Court e-filings were behind and Spranger missed the deadline to submit her budget.

Macomb County is home to almost 1 million people (including many members of my family). At this point, who has confidence that their vital records are being accurately recorded and safeguarded? Who believes Spranger can oversee a big election next year?

Sure, Macomb is a pretty colorful place, known for rough-and-tumble politics and some corrupt officials. But it’s also home to two highly popular figures, County Executive Mark Hackel, a Democrat, and Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller, a GOP former congresswoman. They’ve had plenty of experience righting the ship in government.

But cleaning up the mess in the clerk’s office could end up being the biggest challenge for the county yet.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.

Susan J. Demas: Can Michigan Democrats Rebound as Trump Abandons Economic Populism?

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump often told adoring crowds that the “system is rigged” and “I alone can fix it.”

He stumped as a different kind of Republican, with a blend of nativism and populism that helped him crack the Upper Midwest code and win the presidency. Afterward, Stephen Moore, a once-staunch economic conservative who founded the Club for Growth, shocked many by declaring that the GOP is a “populist worker-class party now.”

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn), who warned early on that Trump could win Michigan, told Inside Michigan Politics that he tapped into working-class fears about free trade and spiraling retirement costs. She spends countless hours at town halls and community events in her district — which spans Dearborn, Ann Arbor and Downriver — and says the anger and anxiety is still there.

“The American people are worried about their lives. They’re worried about their jobs. They’re worried about the safety of their neighborhoods, about whether they can go to the doctor,” she said in an interview last month.

Since becoming president, Trump has gone all-in on the nativist part of the equation. He’s tried to institute his “Muslim ban,” proposed severe limits for legal immigration, threatened to shut down the government this month if he doesn’t get money for his wall with Mexico, and has been widely criticized for failing to condemn white supremacist violence.

But Trump has offered precious little economic populism — which is what many pundits would at least like to believe is how he won Rust Belt states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

Instead of kicking off his agenda with a big infrastructure package — which probably would have attracted Democratic support — Trump went all-in on repealing Obamacare. And House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) cut Dems out of the process, seeking a complete GOP victory.

As of now, health care repeal is dead and the president remains livid, periodically tweeting slams of McConnell.

Trump is now trying to pivot to his tax plan, which he announced at Missouri campaign-style rally this week (interesting timing, as Hurricane Harvey continues to batter Texas).

His rhetoric may still be populist, but his plan — at least what we know about — looks awfully similar to what Republicans have been proposing for the last 30 years. Trump wants to cut the corporate tax rate and the rate for the top income bracket.

And many working-class families would see a tax increase, as Trump wants to end the head-of-household deduction for single parents. That sounds a lot more like religious right-inspired social engineering than blue-collar economic populism.

Trump’s abandonment of populism and dismal approval ratings could create an opening in 2018 for Democrats, if fissures between the far-left Bernie Sanders faction and mainstream Dems don’t doom the party, as they did in 2016.

As for Dingell, she believes Democrats also have to “take control of the trade issue,” which is particularly important for Michigan, home of the domestic auto industry. She’s not sure what will come out of Trump’s promises to renegotiate NAFTA.

“I said to him from the very beginning: ‘Mr. President, if there’s something that will help the working men and women in my district, I’ll work with you. And if you’re going to do anything to hurt ‘em, I’m going to fight you tooth and nail,’” Dingell told IMP.

So far, Trump hasn’t offered much to help working-class folks in Dingell’s district or any other and polling shows their patience is wearing thin. It would certainly be ironic if the very voters who pushed Trump over the top in ‘16 ended up costing Republicans big-time in 2018.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.

Susan J. Demas: Epstein Dishes It Out — But Can She Take It?

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Lena Epstein hasn’t been afraid to throw some sharp elbows since embarking on her first run for office.

So it’s been interesting to watch the 36-year-old businesswoman, who’s Jewish, navigate her first controversy, allegedly “liking” a former Klan leader David Duke tweet. Epstein has insisted her account was hacked and aggressively fought her critics, particularly Democratic Party Chair Brandon Dillon.

Epstein was now-President Donald Trump’s Michigan campaign co-chair, best known for frequently spinning for him on TV. Now she’s hoping to take on three-term U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) — but first, Epstein will have to slay a competitive — and possibly growing — GOP primary field.

To separate herself from the pack and play to the Trump faithful, Epstein hasn’t shied away from taking the fight to her Republican opponents.

After dominating much of the early coverage, Epstein has found herself overshadowed by Kid Rock, the Macomb County native who’s been hinting about joining the esteemed company of the World’s Most Deliberative Body. The rock/rap star has led some polls, providing an irresistible story for the Washington press corps.

In an interview last month on Kid Rock’s candidacy, Epstein insisted that the general public “is not taking this seriously.” Then she released an choppy, face-to-the-camera YouTube video titled, “Lena Epstein Welcomes Kid Rock 2 the Party,” which has to be one of the most awkward 55 seconds ever to be (willingly) posted online.

Epstein begins by talking about her Senate candidacy as a rock-guitar version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” blares in the background. Then she announces to her celeb competition, “I might have to kick your butt in a primary first,” followed by an awkward, Sarah Palin-style wink and an invitation to “team up” on the campaign trail.

Kid Rock would likely cannibalize the Trump support Epstein needs to win in August 2018, so it makes sense that she wouldn’t go full throttle. She’s saved her best barbs for former Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bob Young, who’s been endorsed by former Gov. John Engler and enjoys some establishment backing.

Even before Young jumped in, Epstein was on the attack, announcing her “unapologetic” support for Trump’s wall with Mexico and his policy to punish “sanctuary cities.” She also bought an online ad challenging Young to “clarify where he stands on these critical issues.”

After Young declared, Epstein lumped him in with Stabenow and slammed their combined almost 60 years in elective office, in contrast to her outsider credentials.

Her campaign launched BobYoung.com, where he’s blasted as “The Insider’s Choice” and she bizarrely told the Detroit News that “the reality of the situation is he was recruited by a couple of party insiders that are essentially trying to gerrymander a primary.” (There’s no clarification about what she meant, but it is, of course, impossible to gerrymander a statewide race).

So after relishing doing battle with her Republican competition, Epstein found herself on the defensive this week after Dillon circulated tweets she allegedly “liked,” including one by Duke praising the “alt-right” (which is just failed rebranding of white supremacy).

That came after Epstein had tweeted against the white power rally in Virginia: “Racially-motivated hatred & violence have no place in our society. I condemn white nationalists & pray for the victims of #Charlottesville.” But she also went on Fox News to defend Trump — who was widely criticized by Republicans for “both-sidesing” Nazis — declaring she supports “a president who has come off strongly against racism and bigotry and violence.”

Epstein said she was hacked and her private investigator backs her up. Now the Michigan State Police are investigating. I’ve been covering politics for awhile and I’ve never heard of a candidate’s social media account getting hacked only to “like” a few tweets, but we’ll have to see what the police uncover.

Regardless, Epstein’s combative, best-defense-is-a-good-offense approach to the mini-scandal is a window into how she’ll handle bigger challenges as a candidate.

She issued a statement reminding people of her Jewish identity, which is understandable — no doubt, she faced some tough questions from those who share her faith. But then Epstein declared she was “disgusted by Chairman Brandon Dillon and the Michigan Democrat Party for exploiting what is so obviously false. I am more committed than ever before- and will work tirelessly between now and November of 2018- to defeat Debbie Stabenow and demonstrate that the slander fueled by the opposition will not deter or intimidate me. The hateful rhetoric must stop now."

Complaining about “slander fueled by the opposition” doesn’t exactly come off as the Trumpian bravado that’s so enthralled the GOP base. It’s hard to imagine Kid Rock issuing such a statement. (He’d probably just do something like flip the bird to his haters and move on).

Most Michigan political observers don’t expect the rock star to really run. But Epstein’s over-the-top response to a minor scandal will probably make many Republicans wish he would.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.

Susan J. Demas: Republicans Root for a U.P. Upset

In November 2009, Republicans were on suicide watch, both nationally and in Michigan.

President Barack Obama had won the ‘08 election with an almost 10 million-vote margin and still enjoyed a healthy approval rating a year later. Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, including a 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority in the U.S. Senate. And the Dems had won several special congressional elections.

In Michigan, Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm had the help of a huge majority in the House (67-43) and the Dems had an 8-7 congressional advantage. The one bright spot for the GOP was the Senate, which they’d controlled for 25 years. With the ascension of Sen. Mark Schauer (D-Battle Creek) to Congress, the GOP had a 21-16 edge.

The special Nov. 3, 2009, election to fill Schauer’s slot wasn’t a terribly exciting affair, but it was a huge morale boost for once-dejected Republicans (yes, there was singing on the Senate floor the next day).

Former Rep. Mike Nofs (R-Battle Creek) decisively beating Rep. Marty Griffin (D-Jackson) became a bellwether for the 2010 election cycle. Not only did Griffin go on to lose his House seat, but the GOP ran the table, winning the governorship, a 9-5 advantage in Congress, a 63-47 majority in the House and a 26-12 supermajority in the Senate.

Republicans also flipped the U.S. House and came close in the upper chamber, effectively stalling Obama’s agenda. And the GOP scored big in other key states like Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and Virginia, which proved invaluable during the decennial redistricting process.

Eight years later, President Donald Trump has a GOP Congress and Republicans still control everything in Michigan. Now Democrats are hoping for history to repeat itself in 2018 with the president’s party getting pounded in the midterms. Having a Democratic governor going into the next redistricting is the ultimate prize in Michigan.

But Republicans see another scenario. And it starts with another special legislative election this November, one that’s largely been overlooked in the Upper Peninsula.

Many Republicans believe ‘16 was a sea change in our state, with Trump’s stunning victory finally pushing us to red (or at least reddish-purple) status. Michigan is getting older and is less educated than most states. We don’t have a significant, growing Latino population. All these demographic trends bode well for the GOP.

Republicans also have favorably gerrymandered legislative maps to fall back on. And they’ve also made big gains in key areas like the U.P., the northern lower peninsula and Macomb County, which should help them mitigate or even withstand even a powerful blue wave tearing through the legislative map.

And Republicans are making noise about coming for three-term incumbent U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing), openly praying that hometown sensation Kid Rock is serious about running and not just trying to sell concert tickets and merch.

Michigan has a special place in Trump’s heart, as it’s one of the three Rust Belt states that flipped to put him in the White House. And Republican National Committee Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel, a Michigan native, can also be expected to spread the love in terms of money and surrogates.

So the GOP is somewhat optimistic that they’ll be insulated from the historic precedent of the president’s party taking a hit in off-year elections.

But to get things off on the right foot, they’d love to steal what looks like a safe Democratic seat. The 109th in the central U.P., which includes Marquette, Ishpeming and Manistique, has a 56.9% Democratic base, according to Inside Michigan Politics.

The seat is open because Rep. John Kivela (D-Marquette) tragically killed himself after being stopped for drunken driving. This week, Sara Cambensy, a former Marquette city commissioner, won the Dem special primary. She’ll face Republican Rick Rossway, president of the Marquette school board, in the Nov. 7 special general election.

GOP strategists are excited about Rossway, a 17-year veteran of the board with strong ties to the community. Interestingly, he’s adopting the tactic used by many a Democrat in red-trending or socially conservative areas (like Griffin did) and isn’t stressing his party label. Instead, Rossway has been playing up his bipartisan credentials and making the case that he’ll put the U.P.’s needs before partisan concerns.

Republicans also see an opening because the Cambensy barely pulled off a win on Aug. 8. Last year, she also primaried Kivela, who was a beloved figure, which left some Dems with a bad taste in their mouths.

If Rossway scores a Trump-like upset, that gives the GOP another vote in the state House. As the Dems are expected to maintain the 1st District seat in Detroit and Harper Woods on Nov. 7, that would bring the GOP to a bone-crushing 64-46 advantage.

But flipping the 109th is bigger than that. It’s about changing the narrative about 2018 in Michigan and demoralizing Democrats, who have seen an influx of new energy from both the Indivisible and Bernie Sanders “Our Revolution” groups.

Republican operatives, no doubt, are already auditioning clever soundbites about how the Dems should just pack it in for good in Michigan.

It’s a longshot for sure. But for Republicans, it doesn’t hurt to dream.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.

Susan J. Demas: Thanedar Tries To Shake Up ‘18

What does $3.2 million of your personal fortune get you in the 2018 gubernatorial race?

In the case of Democrat Shri Thanedar, it’s paid off in some good fundraising stories (sadly, his name had been axed from most headlines by the end of the news day after the shock wore off) and a within-the-margin-of-error polling performance.

Thanedar, who last year sold his company, Avomeen Analytical Services, “for a lot of money” (as he told the Detroit News), has a fascinating story to tell, something he heavy-handedly does on his campaign website: “My story is one of grit and determination, of the highs of success and the lessons of failure, of unwavering optimism in the face of harsh adversity. It is about pursuing the American dream and never giving up.”

Here’s the thumbnail version: Thanedar escaped poverty in India to earn a PhD in polymer chemistry in America. He settled in Missouri and bought a business, which ballooned and then went belly up. Thanedar remade himself in Michigan with a new company and has now decided he wants to be the state’s next CEO.

Meanwhile, frontrunner Gretchen Whitmer, a former state Senate minority leader known for her leadership on women’s issues and establishment support, raised $1.5 million the hard way. And former Detroit Health Department head Abdul El-Sayed, who’s captured the imagination of many Bernie Sanders supporters, posted an impressive $1 million.

Thanedar needs to make up ground quickly, as his name ID is nil. Though it’s unfair, his accent won’t help him tell his story with some voters in Michigan. Moreover, Democrats are wondering what the newcomer stands for, especially on issues he doesn’t touch on his website, like the Second Amendment and abortion rights.

If no one else jumps into the race, most expect Thanedar to play the role of footnote or spoiler, possibly splitting up the non-establishment vote.

In a February column, I noted that there was some hankering for nontraditional outsider gubernatorial candidates in both parties. Michigan Democrats traditionally have a smaller donor base than the GOP, so a self-funder is always attractive (it’s one reason why many were eager for well-known attorney and University of Michigan Regent Mark Bernstein to get in).

Thanedar, however, isn’t exactly in the mold of other wealthy Dems like Illinois gubernatorial hopeful J.B. Pritzker, a key Barack Obama fundraiser whose family owns the Hyatt hotel chain, or Tom Steyer, a hedge fund manager and climate change warrior who could run for California governor. Thanedar’s fortune isn’t as vast and he’s not ensconced in the party (he gave just $60 to the House Democratic Fund last year and $2,300 to Republican John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign).

The blueprint for a Thanedar victory is obvious: Our current governor, Rick Snyder. There’s no shortage of similarities. Both are Ann Arbor entrepreneurs who never ran for office before their self-funded outsider gubernatorial bids.

At this point, few would be surprised if Thanedar copied Snyder’s signature move, releasing a biographical Super Bowl ad next year (perhaps declaring himself to be the compassionate nerd Michigan needs right now).

In 2010, Snyder kicked in nearly $6 million of his own money to win a five-way GOP primary. That might explain why the buzz around Lansing is that the Thanedar plans to dump close to eight figures into the ‘18 primary alone, which could make some on his campaign team millionaires themselves. The former CEO could also make things interesting if he can tap into the national Indian-American donor base, as former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal skillfully did.

However, the governor was certainly better known around business and political circles when he embarked on his campaign than Thanedar is. Snyder has always had powerful connections with the more moderate corporate wing of the Republican party (which tolerates the social conservative platform in the name of tax breaks). He also served on the Michigan Economic Development Corp. board and supported the ‘08 embryonic stem cell amendment.  

Thanedar, the 2016 EY Entrepreneur of the Year, has tried to make up ground quickly and has met with dozens of reporters, lobbyists and GOP and Democratic strategists across the state. (Full disclosure: He met with my husband, Joe DiSano, who declined to work with him, and talked with me about writing his biography).

Thanedar has also courted the Small Business Association of Michigan (SBAM), which is smart, but this could ultimately end up costing him. President Rob Fowler told MIRS that Thanedar was initially questioning whether to run as a Republican or Democrat, which is not terribly helpful in winning a partisan primary (especially in these polarized times). While Thanedar has denied the conversation, Fowler is a Lansing institution and a straight shooter respected by both sides.

There’s certainly no shortage of fodder for Thanedar’s rivals if he starts edging up in the polls. But right now, that’s still a big “if.”

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.

Susan J. Demas: Republicans Hope Kid Rock Is for Real

 

Donald Trump is president. So of course, Kid Rock can be the next U.S. senator from Michigan.

That’s the argument pundits and Republicans are essentially making after the Macomb County rock star released a website teasing the prospect (with merch, natch). And it may be correct.

As I told the Washington Post earlier this month, I would have laughed at the idea of Senator Rock in 2015. But I got plenty wrong about Trump and the 2016 election and it’s always worth reconsidering data points and assumptions.

Of course, there’s also a danger in overlearning the lessons of the last election and assuming the next one will take place under identical circumstances (which never happens).

Anyway, here’s why Republicans (and the D.C. media) are so pumped about a Kid Rock candidacy for 2018.

The first reason is the breathless media coverage it would inspire (and already has). There’s nothing like a local-boy-made-good story and the “Cowboy” singer, who still has deep roots in the Mitten State, provides that in spades (even if he doesn’t have an inspiring rags-to-riches story, having grown up in what Politico describes as an “immense, 18-room, 5,628-square-foot estate”).

Sure, Trump frequently flings irascible tweets about certain reporters and the “failing New York Times.” And a new Economist poll shows 45 percent of Republicans favor the courts shutting down media outlets for “biased or inaccurate stories (buh-bye, First Amendment). But Republicans still crave positive mainstream media coverage for all their bluster. And thus far, there’s been plenty for Kid Rock.

Plus, the right-wing media is always happy to step in and provide a boost. As Daily Caller writer Scott Greer tweeted, “Let's face it: we all want Kid Rock to run for office.”

This calculation is undoubtedly correct. Suddenly, Michigan’s once-boring U.S. Senate race, where popular three-term incumbent Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) was expected to wipe the floor with any GOP challenger, will become The Most Interesting Race in the Country.

Now many longtime Republicans have pointed out that other candidates running, like former Michigan Supreme Court Judge Bob Young and businessman John James, are far more qualified, so this lopsided coverage wouldn’t fair. That’s the same argument the 15 other presidential hopefuls made about Trump, however, which was also correct — but many in the media, especially ratings-driven cable TV executives, didn’t care.

That’s why most Republicans believe Kid Rock would be the odds-on favorite in a GOP primary — overpowering Young, James and former Michigan Trump campaign co-chair Lena Epstein (who was banking on the president’s support) — and make the general a nail-biter.

However, the superstar could always just be toying with a run to juice his long-declining album sales. And of course, should he actually take the plunge, he’ll appear as “Robert Ritchie” on the ballot, which means his campaign will have to spend time and money making his two monikers synonymous with voters.

The second reason why Republicans are urging Kid Rock to run is that they're eager to see if Trump’s politically incorrect celebrity schtick can work down-ballot.

Like the president, Kid Rock has had his share of personal drama, from his sex tape to divorcing Pamela Anderson (a former Playboy Playmate best known for hers), and a racking up a few assault charges along the way. But the theory is that if Trump’s crudeness didn’t cost him with voters, especially the once-uptight religious right, Kid Rock will glide by in his U.S. Senate race.

Relatedly, Republicans believe that Kid Rock will cause (white) blue-collar voters to swamp the polls like they would for a free concert. The idea is that this will eat away at Stabenow’s base, which is more rural than that of other Dems, thanks to her farming roots. And the GOP will duplicate Trump’s narrow 2016 win in Michigan. Of course, Trump's poll numbers in the state have slid since then.

This week, the White House said the quiet part out loud to the press and admitted Trump’s surprise tweets announcing a transgender ban in the military was all about politics. “This forces Democrats in Rust Belt states like Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin, to take complete ownership of this issue,” an official bragged to Axios. (Thus far, this doesn’t seem like a smashing success, as even staunch conservatives like U.S. Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) have criticized the move).

But the GOP knows that 2018 looks to be a Democratic year for two reasons: Their massively unpopular Trumpcare policy and the historic precedent of the party in the White House taking a hit in midterm elections.

The situation could be more dire in Michigan, as Republicans have controlled every branch of government since 2011 and voters start to get twitchy. Michigan also still trends blue in federal races and Stabenow is an excellent candidate, from her stellar fundraising to tireless time on the stump.

This all underscores something that’s been overlooked in all the Kid Rock ruckus. After Trump scored his shocking upset in Michigan last year, there was all sorts of chest-thumping from Republicans that we were a red state now and Stabenow was toast in ‘18.

But as Republicans revealed to Politico, Kid Rock represents a hail Mary pass, as  Stabenow has “devoured her last two challengers and will almost certainly make it three in a row if Republicans run another traditional campaign.”

So Kid Rock could be for real and there’s a shot he could win. But the enthusiasm for his candidacy belies some real fundamental weaknesses in Michigan for the GOP.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.

Susan J. Demas: What’s the Future of the Rust Belt?

“In so many once-thriving communities, young people have fled, and the residents who do remain have grown frustrated over diminished job prospects, and are anxious about the future. The very same anger and anxiety that found an outlet at the ballot box in 2016.” — John Austin

If you’re looking for a clear, just-the-facts-ma’am look at how the industrial Midwest is changing and how that gave us President Trump, you can’t go wrong with John Austin’s new piece, “A Tale of Two Rust Belts,” for the Brookings Institution.

No, it’s not one of those cloying columns national pundits have been churning out by the dozens after spending 10 minutes chatting up laid-off workers in Warren or Youngstown. It’s a well-researched, accessibly academic article by someone who actually lives here.

Austin is a fellow at the esteemed think tank. He also was recently ousted from a job he did exceedingly well — president of the state Board of Education (more on that in a bit).

I met with Austin a few weeks before this piece was published and much of our conversation revolved around Michigan’s evolutionary growing pains. He’s deeply concerned about what happens to areas with shrinking industrial bases, like Macomb County, Flint and Saginaw, as well as the largely rural northern swath of the state that Bridge Magazine has dubbed the new “Disability Belt.”

Austin notes that many of these areas voted for Trump in 2016. In contrast, cities with highly educated workforces (which usually have a university nearby), like Ann Arbor, Lansing and Kalamazoo, are thriving economically and voted for Hillary Clinton.

Bridging these vast cultural, educational and political divides in Michigan is no easy task. However, Austin believes the next governor must try to do exactly that.

Once upon a time, Austin was considered a prime Democratic gubernatorial prospect for 2018. He’s deeply thoughtful and has an envy-inducing résumé in addition to Brookings and his public service: He holds a master’s from Harvard’s Kennedy School, directs the Michigan Economic Center and previously was founding director of the New Economy Initiative for Southeast Michigan.

Austin’s work has earned him a bipartisan fan club (at least if you count old-guard Republicans). I noted last year that he might also be able to appeal to idealistic Bernie Sanders supporters.

But Austin ran into a big roadblock when he lost his 2016 re-election bid. He was rather bizarrely, and completely unfairly, targeted for his strong support of transgender students.

After spearheading the drive for completely voluntary school guidelines for trans kids, Austin butted heads with fellow board member Eileen Weiser, whose husband, Ron Weiser, is now Michigan Republican Party chair. The Detroit News — which used to run periodic editorials practically begging the GOP to drop incendiary stands on social issues and focus on conservative economics — ran staff columns siding with the culture warriors replete with the “special rights” canard straight out of the 1990s.

It’s unconscionable for anyone to make our most vulnerable children into a cheap and easy political target. And it’s admirable that Austin was willing to stand up for them.

That’s the kind of courage we could use in the governor’s mansion. But that’s not the next fight Austin is planning to take on. Instead, he’s looking to assist with Michigan’s future in other ways. For starters, he’ll be following up on his Brookings piece on on what can be done at the state and national level to help hollowed-out Rust Belt cities and those who still live there.

That sounds like the sort of thing people who are running for the state’s highest office just might want to pay attention to.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.

Susan J. Demas: Michigan’s GOP U.S. Senate Skirmish Stars Donald Trump

There aren’t a lot of hard-and-fast rules in politics left now that a former pro-wrestling instigator and reality TV star is president.

But staying true to yourself still remains a good rule of thumb for anyone who wants to appear on a ballot. (Indeed, that worked out pretty well last year for Donald Trump, who made no attempt to stop tossing Twitter bombs in favor of stilted political speeches).

So if you’re a longtime business executive who’s donated to moderate candidates and sent your kids to private schools, you might not want to suddenly reinvent yourself as a Bernie Sanders-style Democrat prepping for the “revolution,” even if the neck beard suits you.

Likewise, if you’re a former chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court who’s built a decades-long reputation for being a thoughtful, judicious conservative, you might want to rethink the idea of running as a Trump-style Republican.

But that’s exactly what Bob Young is doing in his uphill battle for U.S. Senate in 2018.

Since it wasn’t exactly a secret that he was running (he let the cat slip out of the bag earlier this month at a GOP fundraiser in Mt. Pleasant), Young decided to make the announcement this week on Facebook Live, where political consultants think all the youngs hang out. (As the mother of two teenagers, I can confirm that is 100% not true).

“I’m the disruptor that D.C. needs,” Young declared, quite animatedly, outside what he said was his childhood home in Detroit.

“I’m not a politician — I’m a judge,” Young said in a statement. “When I get to Washington, I’m going to lay down the law — no more big government, and no more government getting in the way of businesses and communities solving problems and creating jobs.”

At first blush, you might think that Young was trying to draw a strong contrast to three-term U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing), who Republicans are utterly convinced is beatable.

Young described himself as a “black, conservative Republican” and dismissed Stabenow (who’s just a year older) as a “product of the past.” (That also seems fairly reminiscent of Trump, 71, slamming Hillary Clinton, 69, for not having “the stamina” to be president).

But this is really about the Republican primary. Young was undoubtedly hoping for an uncontested race. Instead, he’ll have to battle with 35-year-old Lena Epstein, who made a name for herself as Trump’s No. 1 defender in Michigan last year. She jumped into the Senate race while Young was still mulling over his candidacy.

While many Michigan Republicans were wary of or even publicly critical of Trump, like Gov. Rick Snyder, Epstein had no such qualms and quickly became the real estate magnate’s state campaign co-chair. That’s something that Trump isn’t likely to forget — and neither will his diehard supporters in the party.

So Epstein has carved out her territory in the Republican primary as the true Trumpian candidate. As a businessperson who’s never run for office before, she’s a true outsider. And, like Young, Epstein is not afraid to play up her identity, stressing in an op-ed last year that she’s a Jewish millennial woman.

That’s going to be a tough combination for Young to beat.

Epstein also seems itching for a fight (and she’s hired GOP consultant John Yob, who specializes in internecine warfare).

Before Young declared, she announced that she “unapologetically” supports Trump’s promised to build a wall with Mexico and punish “sanctuary cities.” And in a move that caused political junkies to break out the popcorn, Epstein bought an online ad in which she challenged Young to “clarify where he stands on these critical issues.”

Epstein didn’t let up when Young made his formal announcement, ripping Stabenow and Young for their combined almost 60 years in elective office. Then Epstein reaffirmed her affinity for all things Trump and asserted that Michigan voters made it clear in 2016 that they wanted “outside leaders with business experience.”

I’m not sure how Young can really compete with Epstein on the Trumpian outsider front. He has a long record of public service. He’s a traditional conservative in the Michigan mold of John Engler and Spence Abraham (who Stabenow beat in 2000 to win the seat).

The problem is that brand of Republicanism just may not resonate with the base anymore. But it’s probably a more believable look for Young, who just isn’t cut out to sell Trump-like rants.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.