Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette sits with former Trump adviser Steve Bannon at a Nov. 8 GOP loyalty dinner in Warren. (courtesy Metro Detroit Political Action Network)
To Michigan Republicans, Attorney General Bill Schuette may have had the best seat in the house: Next to Steve Bannon at a Nov. 8 GOP unity dinner in Warren.
Yes, that Bannon – an architect of President Donald Trump’s surprise 2016 victory, a one-time White House adviser and now CEO (again) of Breitbart News who intends to back pro-Trump candidates in 2018.
Schuette’s dinner geography could signal his reward for sticking with Trump through multiple scandals during last year’s campaign and his steadfast loyalty of the president since he took office in January. Trump has already endorsed Schuette.
But political experts say the help could turn into a hindrance during Schuette’s campaign for governor. While Trump’s blessing may be essential in the Republican primary, it could become a liability in a general election among a wider state electorate that is increasingly dissatisfied with Trump.
Lt. Gov. Brian Calley hasn’t declared his candidacy but is widely viewed as a possible GOP gubernatorial candidate.
Schuette got a glimpse of the good and the bad that Trump support can bring last week: Good, he sits next to Bannon. Bad? He had to answer questions about white supremacist views that some have ascribed to Bannon, who describes himself as an “economic nationalist.”
“Nobody in this room is in favor of white supremacy. I’m not, no one is, and that’s a fact,” Schuette told The Detroit News at the dinner.
With the campaign for governor just starting to simmer, politicians and observers from both sides of the partisan divide agree that Schuette – and all hopeful GOP nominees – had to jump aboard the Trump Train to have any shot at winning the primary next August.
“Either they can endorse and embrace (Trump) or they can retire,” said Steve Mitchell, a pollster who often works with Michigan Republicans.
For proof, look to Tennessee and Arizona, where sitting Republican U.S. Sens. Bob Corker and Jeff Flake decided against running for reelection next year, with most saying they could not get through primaries in their states because of their outspoken antipathy for Trump.
And polls show Trump continues to have huge support among Republicans in Michigan.
But while 76 percent of Michigan Republicans back Trump, 56 percent of independent voters view him unfavorably, according an EPIC-MRA poll in September. Just 4 percent of Democrats had a favorable view in the poll.
“It hurts them because Trump is so unpopular among independents and Democrats,” said Bernie Porn, a Michigan pollster and president of EPIC-MRA.
“(Trump) would have to change those numbers dramatically to help candidates in a general election. At least in Michigan.”
Race for nomination
So far, Schuette faces announced candidates that include state Sen. Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton Township, and Dr. Jim Hinds, a Saginaw area doctor. Lt. Gov. Brian Calley has not announced but many think he will campaign to succeed term-limited GOP Gov. Rick Snyder.
Trump won Michigan by fewer than 11,000 votes. In a state that hadn’t backed a Republican since 1988, Trump’s victory – he flipped 12 counties that had supported President Obama in 2012 – cemented his role in the 2018 race for governor.
While it’s typical for candidates to campaign toward party loyalists in primaries and become more moderate in general elections, experts say this campaign may be different because the Republican base demands a loyalty to Trump unlike previous presidents.
Schuette embraces the association, though he first supported former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s GOP candidacy for president. The attorney general’s website prominently features a photo of him and his wife at last year’s Republican National Convention in front of a “Make America Great Again” sign. Schuette’s campaign motto, “It’s time to win again, Michigan” evokes Trump’s slogan, and he has multiple references to Trump’s endorsement on his website.
Colbeck, a staunch conservative who calls himself a “real Republican,” has long supported Trump. Calley, on the other hand, withdrew his endorsement of Trump just weeks before Election Day when a video surfaced of him making derogatory comments about women.
Now, as the governor’s race heats up, Calley has appeared to return to the Trump fold. His office recently touted his support for Trump’s emergency declaration on the opioid crisis (“Lt. Gov. Calley: State ready to work with President Trump to end opioid emergency…”) and like Schuette and Colbeck, he made the pilgrimage to Warren to attend the Macomb County Republicans’ unity dinner this month featuring Bannon.
So did Colbeck. Neither he nor Calley, though, got to sit next to Bannon.
For long-time Republican consultant Dave Doyle, who is working with Hinds, backing Trump should not be surprising. After all, no one would have bucked President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
“If you didn’t support Reagan, you had a problem,” Doyle said.
For Calley, the road may be trickier. If Trump support becomes a litmus test, other GOP candidates could hold their unblinking loyalty against the path taken by Calley.
Jamie Roe, a Macomb County Republican consultant working for a pro-Schuette Super PAC, said Calley’s earlier decision to withdraw his endorsement is “absolutely going to hurt him. He abandoned the president” while Schuette “stood by the president when others ran away.”
“I think that (support of Trump) matters to primary voters,” said Roe of Grand River Strategies.
Calley did not directly respond to questions for comment. Laura Biehl, his spokeswoman, only sent a statement to Bridge: “Lt. Governor Calley is focused on efforts to continue Michigan's economic comeback,” she wrote.
Schuette’s campaign spokeswoman, Bridget Bush, said the attorney general is glad to have Trump’s support, as well as that of other Michigan Republicans.
“Bill is focused solely on sharing his vision of more jobs, more paychecks, and more growth for Michigan families. He has always ridden with the Republican brand and people remember that,” she said in an email.
Experts say Schuette is banking that general election voters will know him for more than just his association with Trump. He’s been involved in state politics for more than 30 years, serving as a judge and in the state Senate and U.S. House. As attorney general, he’s made headlines for prosecuting fellow state officials for their role in the Flint water crisis, including Nick Lyon, the director of the state health and human services department.
Historically, whichever party has held the governor’s mansion for two terms has not fared well in the next election when the same party holds the presidency.
Past governors Jim Blanchard (Democrat), John Engler (Republican), Jennifer Granholm (Democrat) and Snyder all were elected under those circumstances.
That would mean Democrat would have the advantage in 2018, said pollster Mitchell. But Republicans do have a historical note to lean upon: On average, 1.4 million fewer voters typically participate in gubernatorial elections in Michigan than in presidential ones. That’s less than 70 percent of typical presidential election totals.
Lower turnout has typically favored Republicans. In 2010, Gov. Rick Snyder got 58 percent of the vote and won by nearly 600,000 votes just two years after President Obama won by more than 800,000.
The difference? While Republican votes for Snyder were just about 10 percent fewer than the number of votes Mitt Romney got against Obama, Snyder’s Democratic challenger, Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, got fewer than half the vote for Obama.
Patrick Colbeck, a state senator and Republican governor candidate, has long been an unwavering supporter of Trump.
Four Democrats are declared so far – with former state Sen. Gretchen Whitmer leading in polls – and most observers expect Trump to be a factor in that campaign as well. Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a former Detroit health director, has already called Schuette “Trump junior.”
Mark Brewer, a former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, cautioned against making the election all about the current president.
Some critics say the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign failed last year in part because it made “Never Trump” a central theme, and Clinton did not talk enough about jobs and other meat-and-potato worries of voters.
“The anti-Trump (message) may be effective, but that’s not enough,” Brewer said.
But anger at Trump could yield dividends for Democrats – it’s the glue holds together the grassroots movement started just after the election and gained steam with the Women’s March in Washington just after the inaugural.
Thousands of people became active, forming small groups and picking issues to focus on, like the repeal efforts of the Affordable Care Act and working to end the partisan drawing of legislative boundaries that have made Michigan’s elections among the most lopsided in the country.
“I see the same energy (now) that I saw last January,” Brewer said.
But long before there’s a general election, there will be a Republican primary. And the two biggest names, the sitting attorney general and the lieutenant governor, may yet face off. The difference may be Trump, and who supports him.
Jeff Sakwa, an Oakland County businessman and deputy chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, points out that, in Calley’s defense, he did return to the Trump fold.
“Do they (who left and return) get forgiven?” Sakwa asked. “That’s to be seen.”