Mark Schauer is now officially the Democratic nominee for governor, after this week's primary election. Not that there was any suspense; he was the only candidate on the ballot.
He's been doggedly running for more than a year, crisscrossing the state, already having visited, he told me, 70 of Michigan's 83 counties. Looked at one way, he shouldn't have much chance. Remember the last time a sitting Republican governor was defeated for re-election?
You probably don't; it was 1948. Schauer, rail-thin, low-key but full of energy, cheerfully concedes Gov. Rick Snyder is going to have millions more for his campaign than he will.
Yet when I spent some time with the Democrat last week, he seemed authentically and cheerfully upbeat – and with good reason. Most voters don't really know Schauer yet.
Though his speeches are getting better, he does not captivate a room the way Bill Clinton or even Jennifer Granholm did. Yet here's why Republicans are worried:
Despite all the handicaps, Schauer is running even — or almost even — in the polls. A recent Public Policy Polling surveyed showed both with 40 percent, and the rest undecided.
Other surveys show Snyder ahead – but seldom by more than the statistical margin of error. What's really ominous for Republicans is this: Not a single poll shows Snyder with even 50 percent. That's a bad sign for an incumbent with a little-known opponent. Most voters who are undecided close to election day tend to move to the challenger.
Last week, the fact that Michigan voters aren't so wild about Ricky aggravated Nolan Finley, editor of the slavishly pro-Snyder Detroit News editorial page. "Nothing explains the polls, except for a Michigan culture that still resists and resents change, even when it works," he huffed.
Well, gee. I wonder if Finley might have forgotten a few things. Like the fact that this governor taxed pensions and cut aid to education to give businesses a huge tax break that has, as of yet, failed to create jobs.
Did he overlook that this governor participated in the ramming through of right-to-work legislation in less than a day, after saying that was "not on my agenda?"
Did he forget that Snyder signed a law allowing motorcyclists to ride without helmets, something that has already meant more deaths and brain-injured people?
Or that he attempted to get legislation that would have helped insurance company profits by severely limiting benefits for terribly injured car accident victims? (His fellow Republican, Oakland County's L. Brooks Patterson, himself a car wreck survivor, helped kill that idea ... at least for now.)
Yes, some people may have a reason or two not to want another four years of the one tough nerd's "relentless positive action." But how would Schauer be different?
"Well, for one thing, I would be a candidate for the middle class," he said. "I'm one of them."
Indeed, Schauer is not rich. He grew up in Howell, where his mother was a nurse and his dad a high school teacher. Schauer, now 52, went to Albion College, then got a job as an urban planner in Battle Creek.
That's where he stayed, eventually spending a dozen years in both houses of the legislature, then two more in Congress before losing his seat in the GOP landslide of 2010.
Schauer's biggest focus is education. "We must recognize that teaching is the most important profession in our society, and education is the single most important investment we can make in the Michigan economy," he said.
Though his program is a bit short on specifics, he also promises to make higher education more affordable, something that both fairness and the economy require. Unless we can find a way of giving our young people the schooling they need, we can kiss any chance at prosperity and decent jobs goodbye.
Schauer is also big on renewable energy, and vowed to require utilities to triple the amount they use to create electricity. Where he is weakest, oddly, is one issue where the governor has shown intelligent leadership: the roads.
For three years, Rick Snyder has attempted to get the legislature to come up with at least $1.2 billion a year in new money that he and highway experts say is the minimum necessary to prevent our roads from crumbling further.
Snyder has suggested getting the money from a combination of higher car and truck registration fees and boosting the price of gas at the pump.
This actually makes some sense, since those who use the roads most would pay more. To be sure, Snyder's plan did not raise fees nearly enough on the heavy tractor-trailers most responsible for pounding the roads to rubble.
But it was a plan — even though the governor hasn't yet been able to get his spineless legislative colleagues to go along.
Schauer doesn't even have a credible plan.
"I recognize that the roads will require significant investment." he said, but added that he was unwilling to raise the gas tax, and said he would try to get help from Washington to fix the roads (dream on) and look for savings by eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse.
As a serious road program, that's an insult to the intelligence. He'll have to raise taxes somehow, which he has to know. Yet how would he get any of his legislation passed?
The candidate smiled; he believes he has an advantage over both Snyder and the hapless Granholm, neither of whom ever served in the legislature. "I was in the minority; I learned how to build coalitions and get things done."
Perhaps he could. But can he sell himself to the voters? "By October there will be a very, very clear contract in voters' minds between Snyder and myself," he said, adding:
"This is going to be a referendum on Snyder, an election about the middle class, and voters know I'm one of them."
I'm not convinced – yet – that Schauer can win. But I am convinced that the governor is going to have a serious fight.
Needed: A Constitutional Amendment
Imagine you wanted to hire somebody for a sensitive job that could involve access to national secrets and paid $174,000 a year. Now imagine that somebody was willing to pay millions out of their own pocket to get it. Would you be suspicious?
Damn right. Well, welcome to the American political system today. David Trott, the slick foreclosure attorney from Birmingham, spent $2.4 million of his own money just through June, trying to win the GOP nomination in the 11th congressional district, which centers on Livonia.
Up in Midland, Paul Mitchell, a rich businessman without a shred of political experience, paid $2 million out of his own pocket to buy the nomination there. And you know both men spent a pile more in the last six weeks.
Even in the legislature, we had candidates spending vast sums to try to win seats that have little real clout. Democrats are sure to remain a powerless minority in the state Senate, but that didn't stop State Rep. Ellen Cogen Lipton from spending more than $210,000 to try to beat two other Democrats.
What's happening is that our alleged democracy is fast being reduced to a system of the best (or worst) so-called representatives money can buy. Four years ago, in a 5-4 decision in a case called Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the U.S. Supreme Court essentially ruled government could set no limit on campaign spending.
There's many reasons to fix this, including that no normal person can now afford to run for anything. If anyone is looking for a vitally important cause, you couldn't do better. mt