In the ad, the one that says Michigan will be “worse off with Whitmer,” a child clutches a stuffed animal as she stands in the front doorway of her house, stealing one last look inside before following her parents, who are hauling away boxes of their belongings.
The image is visceral, and that’s the point. It’s meant to stir up emotions from a decade ago, when thousands of Michiganders moved out of the state because of economic crisis during what Republicans call “the lost decade” under former Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
The message, from a Koch brothers-related group, is clear: Elect Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic candidate for governor, and she’ll resurrect the Democratic policies she and Granholm shared that forced people to pack up their homes.
Republicans — including Attorney General Bill Schuette, the GOP nominee for governor — are campaigning in Michigan on an economic message that is as much a dark warning about the past as it is about the future. Their strategy so far has been to link Whitmer, a state representative and senator during the 2000s, to Granholm, whose tenure coincided with the worst American recession since the 1930s, to convince Michiganders that a vote for Whitmer would be a vote for economic collapse.
With less than two months until the election, and Whitmer well ahead in the polls, it’s not clear the strategy is working.
Former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, the state’s last Democratic governor, has long been criticized by conservatives for her decision to temporarily raise Michigan’s income tax rate to close a budget deficit. That decision, which turned out not to be temporary, has become a key talking point for Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Schuette, who vows to reverse it if he is elected. (Courtesy photo)
In interviews with political consultants and analysts, former lawmakers and economists, Democrat and Republican, many suggest that Schuette could have more success with voters by sticking to a positive economic message about how he would continue the progress achieved under GOP leadership in Lansing in the last eight years. Some noted that harkening back to the Granholm era is unlikely to move independents, whose votes will be critical to the outcome in November, and may at most shore up Schuette’s conservative base.
Dianne Byrum, a partner with Byrum & Fisk Advocacy Communications in East Lansing and a former Democratic legislator who served with Whitmer in the House, said that while she’s not surprised Republicans would try to link the Democratic nominee to Granholm, the attacks wouldn’t have the same intensity if Whitmer were male.
“It’s real easy to discount a woman candidate,” she said. “I just believe there’s some real momentum this election cycle behind women.”Some economists also question the extent to which any governor’s policies can influence an economy, for better or for worse, contending that anyone in the Michigan’s governor’s office from 2007-09 would have struggled to contain the damage from a global financial reckoning and a Michigan auto industry in freefall.
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Still, in a gubernatorial contest that insiders say is a battle of traditionally conservative and liberal beliefs, it’s a politically logical place for Schuette and Republicans to start.
“Governors are leaders,” Schuette spokesman John Sellek told Bridge via email. “So governors absolutely have an impact (on) the direction of the state, the results of the legislative process, of setting the right economic course and using the bully pulpit to get action and results.
“Michigan's policy change of course under Gov. (Rick) Snyder without a doubt (changed) the direction of Michigan'(s) future. However, that means the next governor could be a disrupter and take us in a different direction. And certainly if a governor is a poor leader or exercises no leadership, then a rudderless state is likely to fail regardless.”
Whitmer said she considers the attacks casting her as Granholm 2.0 are a distraction from the real issues facing Michigan. Her campaign has also gone to lengths to show Whitmer was not simply a rubber stamp for Granholm in the Legislature, the way she has been portrayed.
“Gretchen isn’t running for governor on anyone else’s record,” Whitmer campaign spokesman Zack Pohl said via email. “She’s running to fix the damn roads, protect and expand access to quality, affordable health care, improve education and skills training, and clean up our drinking water.”
On the merits, Whitmer did in fact vote for many Granholm policies, including the controversial 2007 income-tax hike that was supposed to be temporary (it wasn’t). Granholm is still maligned today by conservatives for the tax increase, and for pushing the unpopular Michigan Business Tax — one that Whitmer also supported.
But Whitmer also voted against bills Granholm ultimately signed, often when they involved K-12 education, such as when the Legislature agreed to transfer taxpayer dollars away from public schools or other intended purposes to fill budget holes.
And Democrats note that any bill Granholm signed into law — especially the unpopular ones — only got to her desk because they had some Republican support, as well, since Republicans controlled the state Senate and, during her first term, also the House.
A spokeswoman for Granholm, who regularly appears on CNN as a political commentator, told Bridge the former governor’s contract with CNN prevents her from giving interviews to other media outlets.
A governor’s choices on taxes
In 2011, after leaving office, Granholm looked back with some frustration on the limited options she felt she had as governor, telling The New York Times that no single state can stave off a global economic meltdown; that it required help from Washington.
“As the person who was in charge of the state at the time and who campaigned on trying to fix it,” she said, “it was very hard for me to accept myself that I didn’t have the tools to be able to wave a magic wand and fix the loss of manufacturing jobs and the loss of market share of the auto industry and the bankruptcies.”
She certainly tried, said Howard Edelson, a Democratic political consultant who ran Granholm’s successful re-election campaign in 2006 against West Michigan businessman Dick DeVos.
Her strategy — the benefits of which are still questioned to this day — included giving tax credits to companies, including the three Detroit automakers, in exchange for promises to retain jobs in Michigan. Snyder ended the program early in his first term, but it’s still a strain on the state budget because credits will continue to be paid out for decades.
Republicans blame Granholm for signing into law the unpopular Michigan Business Tax, which Snyder replaced in 2011 with a flat corporate income tax paid by fewer businesses. That tax (which Whitmer opposed, in part because the legislation also taxed some retirement income), resulted in more than $2 billion in tax cuts to businesses, but has left Michigan more dependant on tax revenue from individuals.
Then there’s the income tax hike Granholm signed (and Whitmer supported) in 2007 to avert a government shutdown, raising the rate from 3.9 percent to 4.35 percent. It was supposed to be temporary; Snyder lowered the rate to 4.25 percent in 2011 and froze it. At the time, Michigan faced a roughly $1.75 billion budget deficit, falling property values and the nation’s highest unemployment rate as the U.S. barreled toward recession, and Granholm pressured GOP lawmakers to pass a budget that included higher taxes to go along with deep cuts in government spending.
“Hindsight is always perfect 20/20. At the time, there were only so many choices, things you could do to move the state forward,” said Edelson, the Democratic consultant. “You needed a bipartisan vote to get it done.”
Schuette has made repealing the Granholm-era income tax increase one of the central platforms of his campaign, though he has not said how he would make up the revenue, other than references to cutting “wasteful or unsuccessful” programs which he does not identify.
As Schuette’s campaign continues to play up the Granholm-Whitmer connection — it recently issued a news release with the hashtag “#GranholmIsComing” and noted that Whitmer accepted a $3,400 campaign contribution from Granholm in August — outside conservative groups are amplifying their tie on the airwaves.
Americans for Prosperity, a group backed by the Koch brothers, launched a six-figure ad campaign in Michigan. And the Republican Governors Association took to TV in August with “Just Like Granholm,” an ad that depicts the two women’s images next to the words “failed policies.”
Better Jobs Stronger Families, a pro-Schuette super PAC launched mostliberalticketever.com, calling Whitmer and her running mate, Garlin Gilchrist II, the “Granholm dream ticket.”
While these groups contend Granholm’s economic policies were directly responsible for Michigan’s economic crisis a decade ago, the Michigan Truth Squad has said the accusation “ignores seismic financial forces that crippled an already reeling state economy.”
Charles Ballard, an economist at Michigan State University, said he believes a governor’s impact is modest, since a state is often at the whim of national and international economic pressures.
It was Granholm’s Republican predecessor, John Engler, who presided over Michigan during the 1990s economic boom and subsequent dotcom bust. Employment peaked in 2000, years before Granholm came into office in 2003, and continued to fall throughout the decade in large part because the state’s over-reliance on manufacturing made it susceptible to globalization.
Steep fall, slow recovery
Michigan's economic woes started long before Jennifer Granholm became governor with the state shedding over 300,000 during the last years of Gov. John Engler's administration (teal bars). It bottomed out in late 2009 and has steadily risen since, though still below 2005 levels. Granholm's term (blue bars) began in January 2003 and Gov. Rick Snyder (purple bars) in January 2011. Move your cursor over the graphic for more details.
“It’s not accurate to say that the economic troubles began when Jennifer Granholm took office. That’s just not true,” Ballard said.
“If Jim Blanchard or Bill Milliken or John Engler or Rick Snyder had been governor in 2008 and 2009, it would have been horrible,” he added. “There is no person who could have been governor of Michigan at that time and we wouldn’t have had a horrible time.”
Yet Michael LaFaive, senior director of fiscal policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Midland-based free market think tank, counters that state-level policymakers actually can influence a state economy.
Granholm, LaFaive argues, responded to an economic crisis by adopting a “hated and complex” new business tax, raising the state’s personal income tax rate and expanding the use of corporate subsidies.
“It would send a signal to the rest of the country that if that’s the best that we can do, then we’re not open for business in an era where people were looking for places that were more receptive to their investments,” he said.
“The debate,” he added, “will probably never end.”
‘Not a rubber stamp’
To be sure, Whitmer was a generally reliable vote for Granholm during her two terms as governor, though Democrats and even some Republicans said Whitmer’s support was not unsurprising for a lawmaker of the same party.
But Whitmer wasn’t a rubber stamp. In 2010, for instance, Whitmer opposed Granholm’s plan to shift some money from the state’s School Aid Fund, typically used to fund K-12 education, to support community colleges in the general fund budget. She also voted against legislation Granholm signed that made changes to Michigan’s teacher pension system, including moving new hires to a hybrid pension-defined contribution plan; shifted some transportation driver’s license fee revenue to the general fund; and created a one-time tax penalty amnesty program for state taxpayers.
On the amnesty bill, Whitmer cited the state’s structural budget deficit as her reason for voting no, saying on the Senate floor: “This is simply a get-out-of-Dodge move. I am not going to support it. I am tired of these one-time fixes.”
Pohl, Whitmer’s spokesman, dismissed Republicans’ efforts to link Whitmer and Granholm and then turned the tables, noting that Schuette has failed to win the endorsement of Michigan’s last three Republican governors: Snyder, Engler and William Milliken. (In fact, Engler only pulled his support for Schuette after being named interim president of Michigan State University, explaining he would stay out of election politics while in the university position.)
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“Let’s be clear, Bill Schuette would rather talk about the past because his plans for the future include ripping health care away from hundreds of thousands of Michigan families by rolling back Medicaid expansion,” Pohl said, “and he knows that’s a losing strategy.”
Initially, attempting to link Whitmer to Granholm is a reasonable strategy: Convince voters, especially independents, that Whitmer’s economic policies would hurt their paychecks, said Tom Shields, president of Lansing-based consulting firm Marketing Resource Group Inc., which worked on Republican physician Jim Hines’ gubernatorial primary campaign.
But it may not seal the election, Shields added. Schuette and Republicans have several factors working against them: President Donald Trump’s unpopularity in Michigan, a surge of momentum among women candidates and electoral history in Michigan that tends to give the governor’s office to the party that doesn’t control the White House.
“The Granholm connection is a quick reference that some people understand, but he’s going to have to move on to the policy difference” between him and Whitmer, Shields said.
“What Schuette has going for him — what should be a benefit — is how well the economy’s going,” he said. “Taking credit for that, considering it happened under a Republican administration. And then trying to basically get people to believe that the election of Whitmer could upset that.”
Republicans’ hold on Lansing may also make it difficult to credibly argue that Whitmer would usher in a sea of tax hikes. The GOP has had majority in the state Senate for more than 30 years and many believe it will stay red after November.
“As long as the Republicans have control of the Senate, the idea that Gretchen Whitmer can come into office, raise taxes and do all these terrible things is ridiculous. It’s not going to happen,” said Bill Ballenger, a former Republican state legislator and longtime Lansing political pundit. “If you ask me, I think it’s a foolish strategy.”
The message may fire up Schuette’s base, said Arnold Weinfeld, interim director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at MSU. But he appears to also recognize the need to expand his appeal if he’s to catch Whitmer.
So Schuette, who spent years as attorney general trying to strike down the Affordable Care Act, announced last week that Medicaid expansion would be safe in Michigan if he is elected, while also emphasizing his work prosecuting sexual assault and sex trafficking. And he may soon have to explain his defense of Michigan’s same-sex marriage ban, which the U.S. Supreme Court overturned in 2015, Weinfeld said.
Whitmer, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to have as far to shift from her primary message, Weinfeld said. She’ll need to remain clear and consistent on issues, he said, and show voters “that I am my own person.”
What would Whitmer do
Whitmer’s policy proposals as a candidate call for increased investment in road repairs and universal preschool, among others. Those goals have fed critics who insist she would push massive spending that would undo the fiscal discipline and budget surpluses under Snyder.
Democrats note, however, that Michigan’s economy is stronger today than when Granholm was in office, which puts the state in a better position to invest in the most critical challenges they say the state now faces to its infrastructure and schools.
Whitmer’s roads and schools proposals “weren't the policies of Jennifer Granholm,” said Steve Tobocman, a former Democratic state representative from Detroit who served in the House with Whitmer in the 2000s. “Jennifer Granholm talked about diversifying the economy and, frankly, managed a shrinking budget.”
Lawmakers who served with Whitmer in the House and the Senate, on both sides of the aisle, say her legislative experience taught her how to make and keep relationships that will be crucial to advancing policy as governor. (Though that’s a credential that would apply to Schuette, as well.) Neither Granholm nor Snyder had prior legislative experience when elected.
“They went at it hard in the state Senate, but Randy Richardville wouldn’t hesitate for a second and call Gretchen if he had an idea or if he wanted to share a comment with her, and she would take the call,” said Byrum, who served with Whitmer in the House.
Richardville, the Republican Senate Majority Leader while Whitmer led Democrats, told Bridge he and Whitmer “punched out when our jobs were done” and were friendly outside the Senate chambers.
He said, however, that Whitmer and Granholm “were two peas in a pod, there’s no question about it” on Democratic policy planks and he doesn’t believe their policies would take Michigan in the right direction.
“I don’t see her as ever being somebody that you could ever take for granted. She’s going to think it through herself,” Richardville said. “She was not a follower of Jennifer Granholm, but they saw the world in a very similar way.”
The real question, Richardville said, is whether Whitmer would lead the state like Granholm — constantly at odds with a stalemated Legislature — or more in the style of President Clinton, who he said was more willing to set aside a partisan agenda in pursuit of solving problems.
“She’s never been in that kind of a bargaining position before,” he said. “Her challenge, should she be elected governor, is: ‘Which of these two people do I want to be?’”