Never mind this morning’s headlines about Attorney General Bill Schuette and former Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer knotted in a tie for the 2018 governor’s race.
Look below the surface and the polling numbers demonstrate a huge problem for Whitmer, the overwhelming Democratic frontrunner. First, 57 percent of the voters surveyed by Lansing-based EPIC-MRA do not know who she is. Second, another 25 percent are undecided whether they like her or they don’t. So, the East Lansing Democrat is a blank slate for more than eight in 10 voters, while 12 percent give her a favorable rating and 6 percent view her unfavorably.
With one year to go before the final stretch of the gubernatorial campaign, that hardly represents a solid jumping-off point. Her eight months as a declared candidate, while Schuette has yet to file, have served as an extraordinarily low-profile endeavor.
Schuette can’t be happy with his 37-37 percent deadlock with Whitmer, but he must be relieved that the hotly contested Republican primary he faced with Lt. Gov. Brian Calley may never play out. After serving 5 ½ years as Gov. Rick Snyder’s right-hand man, Calley is barely better known than Whitmer. EPIC-MRA pollster Bernie Porn said he did not include any head-to-head November 2018 matchups with Calley in his survey because “of the polling I have seen thus far for primary matchups, Calley is not yet competitive with Schuette.”
In short, Calley’s hopes to succeed the boss seem to be fading, which means Schuette could focus almost entirely on the general election. Polling by another Lansing firm, Target Insyght, shows support declining in recent months for Calley and Whitmer.
Polls this early in the election process don’t necessarily mean much, and the 37-37 EPIC-MRA matchup probably reflects a Democrat vs. Republican determination by poll respondents more than judgment on a clash of political personalities. But Whitmer’s widespread anonymity gives the AG, and the GOP overall, countless opportunities to shape the former senator’s public image in detrimental ways.
To be clear, Schuette, despite decades on the political scene and a diverse resume – state senator, judge, congressman, Agriculture Department director – also does not score high on the voter recognition radar. Nearly a quarter of the voters don’t know him.
At the same time, given that Snyder is one of the least popular governors in the nation, the Democrats’ Whitmer should have an advantage as many voters presumably conclude it’s time for a change.
The biggest blind spot for the Dems remains their relative comfort with Whitmer’s lack of accomplishments during her 14 years in the House and Senate vs. the firehose effect by the AG, with a flood of news conferences, announcements and press releases coming from Schuette’s office over the past 6 ½ years. Many of those news events created newspaper and website stories.
What Whitmer (and Calley) refuse to acknowledge is that the PR-minded Schuette has a laundry list of selling points that he can use in campaign TV and radio ads and literature. Let’s see, the subject matter of past headlines includes: consumer protections, nabbing those involved in drug rings and violent crimes, investigations of government corruption, environmental protection measures, arrests made for Medicaid fraud, efforts to break up human trafficking rings, crackdowns on charity scams, improved enforcement of child support payments, an emphasis on preventing student bullying, and assistance to Michigan veterans.
Maybe that’s the Schuette Spin Zone, but it’s a damn good platform to rely upon for a run for governor.
What’s more, long-running cultural issues such as same-sex marriage and religious liberty provisions might not be much of a factor in 2018, as those who detest the AG’s views would never vote for a Republican in any event.
One more factor looms large. Whitmer recently engaged in a campaign shakeup and hired as her new campaign manager Keenan Pontoni, who directed the losing June effort of Democrat Jon Ossoff in a nationally renowned congressional special election in Georgia. In 2016, the 30-year-old Pontoni ran the congressional campaign of Washtenaw County Democrat Gretchen Driskell and she lost by 15 points. In 2014, he was the Michigan Democrats’ “numbers guy” and the party surrendered four state House seats to the GOP.
Pontoni endures a love/hate relationship with Democrats in the Legislature and within the state’s congressional delegation. One of the party’s top upcoming candidates for state Senate in 2018 was so dismayed by the choice of Pontoni that he privately withdrew his endorsement of Whitmer.
As the hard feelings of 2016 linger, with continued sniping between Bernie Sanders supporters and Hillary Clinton backers, the last thing Whitmer needs is a divided party offering half-hearted support for what may be an underdog gubernatorial run.
Geoffrey Fieger, the pompous attorney known for his egocentric TV ads, was also included in the EPIC-MRA survey, apparently because he made some noises about running for governor again several months ago. The poll found that Fieger’s name ID among voters is 91 percent. Yet, his favorability ratings are in the negative, at 27-40 percent, and he trails Schuette 43-33 percent in a potential 2018 matchup.
As he is often want to do, Fieger offers some irrational political punditry to explain his unpopularity.
He told the Detroit Free Press that he is at a disadvantage as potential candidate because he is so well-known. He also added this: “(Voters) say they don’t want to be lied to, but they really do – they want to be lied to.”
Nearly 20 years later, I suspect most loyal Democrats still can’t figure out how they ever nominated a character like Fieger as their nominee for governor in 1998.