Susan J. Demas: Brian Calley Facing Uphill Battle to Succeed Rick Snyder in 2018

Brian Calley, Dome Magazine

Brian Calley, Dome Magazine

The following column appeared in Dome Magazine.

In the years leading up to the 2010 election, it was a given that Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s No. 2 would be the Democrats’ nominee to succeed her. But after struggling with fundraising (or at least keeping what he raised in the bank) and being dogged by the increasing possibility of a contested primary, Cherry folded his campaign.

At first blush, Calley looks far better positioned to follow in the footsteps of his boss, Gov. Rick Snyder. The governor has tasked him with leading high-profile priorities like cutting business taxes (a big winner with the GOP donor base), but has also given Calley the freedom to pursue his own agenda, like improving mental health care. The LG is a staple at news conferences and bill signings, signifying his status as a true partner with Snyder.

That’s more than the long-suffering Cherry was ever allowed, as Granholm’s star power eclipsed him time and time again. Many voters had no idea who Cherry was, despite his decades of public service.

But Calley still isn’t a lock to win the 2018 Republican nomination. In fact, he came in a distant third in polling done last week by Inside Michigan Politics and Target Insyght.

It was a dead heat between Attorney General Bill Schuette, who earned 21 percent, and U.S. Rep. Candice Miller (R-Harrison Township), who had 20 percent. Calley lagged behind with 11 percent and Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) only mustered 3 percent.

Of course, with 45 percent of voters undecided and roughly 1,000 days to go before the 2018 general election, a lot can change. Indeed, everything can.

Right now, the Flint water crisis is dominating headlines. It’s unclear if this will still be a significant issue in the ’18 election, but it could help shape the contours of the race in both party primaries. Calley is desperately trying not to get sucked into Snyder’s scandals and Schuette is finally investigating what went wrong. Meanwhile, Miller gets to stay above the fray, introducing a bill in Congress for an eye-popping $1 billion in emergency relief for Flint.

All things considered, Calley isn’t starting the 2018 campaign from an enviable position.

In the IMP/Target Insyght poll, the only ideological bloc the LG won was the small band of self-identified “liberal” voters –– a rather unhelpful distinction in a GOP primary. In contrast, Schuette won conservatives –– the largest group –– and Miller edged the AG out with “very conservative” voters. Calley lost both these blocs by double digits, as he also did evangelical voters.

The LG didn’t win a single geographic region, and only posted 8 percent support in critical metro Detroit, where Miller earned 28 percent. Calley came in second in Grand Rapids, as well as in mid-Michigan and Ann Arbor. But he was in single digits in the Upper Peninsula, northern Lower Michigan and the Bay area.

As the youngest lieutenant governor in the nation, you’d think Calley would appeal to 18-34 voters, but he, once again, was a distant third. That was also the case with voters age 50 and older –– a huge slice of the Republican primary electorate.

And Calley didn’t show any real crossover appeal. He only won 10 percent of Democrats and just 6 percent of independents. Miller, on the other hand, won an outright majority of Democrats, and was the first choice of independents, as well.

As of now, the million-dollar question is if Miller runs. The congresswoman may prefer to pursue opportunities closer to home when her seventh and final term ends. But she would enter the race as the clear “establishment” Republican candidate –– she cleaned up with Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Chris Christie voters. Hailing from southeast Michigan gives her built-in advantages with both name ID and big GOP donors who live there.

But if Miller takes a pass on ’18, it’s not clear that Calley’s odds to win the nomination would improve. Schuette is a stellar fundraiser and consummate campaigner, working a room like no one else in Michigan politics today. He’s also aggressively courted tea party activists since 2009. In contrast, polling shows that conservatives have real concerns with Calley –– perhaps a hangover from Snyder, even though his LG is considerably further right on social issues.

If Calley ends up pulling a Cherry and forgoes a gubernatorial run, it wouldn’t be a total surprise. After all, it’s clearly an uphill climb.

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