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.