Nobody likes to admit this, but the most important election in Michigan this year is the Aug. 6 primary, not the one in November. In most cases and most races, the primary is where everything is really decided; the general election is pro forma.
Right now, for example, John Dingell and Lynn Rivers are bankrupting their supporters and beating each other’s brains out for the Democratic nomination in the Downriver-Ann Arbor congressional district. Whoever survives will go on to a virtually automatic win over whichever Republican is sent to the slaughter.
Statewide, very few will cast ballots at all. While thousands of voters are on vacation up North or riding their Jet Skis around Zug Island, a small minority — maybe 25 percent of those eligible — will decide who will run things for the next few years.
That may be true even in the governor’s race, depending on what the Republicans do. We’ll get to that in a minute, but first — if you haven’t paid much attention to the election so far, don’t feel bad. Most humans haven’t. They have lives. The candidates for governor have been out there running for more than a year, but normal Michiganders, even those who take citizenship seriously and plan to vote, are now just starting to pay attention.
Accordingly, the candidates are now hitting the airwaves with slickly packaged commercials, most of which bear as much relation to reality as the personal ads in the back of this newspaper. Since, on the other hand, I am always completely fair and totally infallible, here’s a quick primer on the race so far.
Republicans: In some circles, the very idea of voting in a GOP primary is seen as slightly worse than satanism. Something is different this year: state Sen. Joe Schwarz, known informally as “the candidate for grown-ups.” He’s sometimes cantankerous, takes no bullshit and makes more sense on most issues than all the rest. He’s pro-choice, the biggest defender of the state’s universities and the only candidate in either party who admits the Second Amendment does not mean every idiot has a right to an AK-47.
Naturally, he is a huge underdog to Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus. As is often said, Posthumus is a nice man. (In person, he comes across like Dan Quayle trying to play Mr. Rogers.) He also makes John Engler look like a social liberal. Posthumus even opposes abortion to save the life of the mother.
Democrats ought to be able to wipe the floor with Posty. Schwarz would give ’em a race. But would it be better to leave one party firmly in the grip of the extremists — or to have a real choice in November between two decent candidates?
Democrats: Anyone paying attention knows there is a three-way race between Jim Blanchard, David Bonior and Jennifer Granholm. The most recent polls show nearly a dead heat, with Granholm slightly up and Bonior surging.
Let’s deal first with Granholm. After three nonimpressive years as state attorney general, she’s running a campaign for governor reminiscent of her fellow Californian Richard Nixon’s famous 1968 effort: Say little of substance, avoid debating and look for the best camera angles. Forget campaign finance reform; spend money like water; snidely attack your opponents and pretend to be piously above the fray when they attack you.
Commenting on the “plastic quality of her effort” in his newsletter, Inside Michigan Politics, guru Bill Ballenger notes “the great, unanswered question is whether she possesses the political skills to thrive in a difficult environment … and the fact is, we don’t know, because there is no evidence, no background, nothing in her history to demonstrate such capability.” Nice.
Blanchard was, popular myth to the contrary, a generally good, energetic governor who, early on, angered the right and lost control of the state Senate because he had the guts to raise taxes to deal with a budget crisis he’d inherited. He has the best economic plan of any of the candidates and seems far younger than his age. If it matters, he’s been the most consistently pro-choice.
Yet lately he seems to be relying on his record and reputation, and is, correspondingly, slipping in the polls. To have a hope of “closing the sale,” as they say in these business-friendly times, he needs to do something to inspire.
Bonior lagged in the polls for months, to the point where it seemed all but hopeless. Now, suddenly, he’s gaining, thanks in part to a TV blitz. Ballenger correctly notes that Bonior has “run a courageous campaign, and he comes across as the only person in the race with blood in his veins.” Bonior’s strongest on labor and the environment.
He is also anti-abortion, but says that is a personal position that wouldn’t affect policy. To some extent, governors’ positions on abortion are about as relevant as their positions on East Timor. Yet how they answer says a lot; are they willing to put honesty ahead of political risk? Schwarz and Bonior get highest marks here.
So who am I voting for? I am willing to go out on a limb and say … I don’t know. For a long time, I thought it would be right to back either Blanchard or Bonior, whichever had the best shot at defeating Ed McNamara’s marionette.
But if that seems impossible — or one opens up a sizable lead, you can make a good case for a principled vote for the good Dr. Schwarz, unless there are other races in your area that require a vote in the Democratic primary.
Stay tuned. The good news is that three of the five would be much better than we have now. The bad news is that the other two are leading. Well, there’s always hope.Correction: Next week's Politics & Prejudices column contains a clarification in this week's story. Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]