Why does it seem Michigan’s Republican gubernatorial primary has gone on forever?
Because it has. And we still don’t have a clear winner only days away from the Aug. 3 election date.
Consider this: Two days after Barack Obama was elected president on Nov. 4, 2008, Attorney General Mike Cox filed paperwork to raise money for governor.
State Sen. Tom George became an official candidate on Jan. 27, 2009. U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra toyed with the race in January ’09, too, but waited two months before taking the plunge. Ann Arbor venture capitalist Rick Snyder had formed his exploratory committee the week prior.
The latecomer, so to speak, was Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard, who launched his formal look-see on April 29, 2009. He would have done it sooner if Oakland County Executive Brooks Patterson hadn’t waffled on getting in.
These five candidates — no more, no less — have made up the GOP field for more than a year. In a week, it’ll all be over. The winner will be considered the front runner heading into the November General Election.
Even at this late stage of the marathon, Denise DeCook, political strategist for the Marketing Resource Group said, she still sees this race as a toss-up.
"For the GOP … the desire to reclaim the governor’s office has become a core principle, and with little consensus developing, the race remains an open contest," she said.
The lone exception remains George, 52, the two-term state senator from Kalamazoo, who moonlights as an anesthesiologist and covers emergency room shifts when the Legislature is on break. The married father of three has run a campaign focused on getting Medicaid recipients to take better care of themselves and urging voters to support a constitutional convention.
Yet, George hasn’t caught fire, even though he’s the only candidate to shine a light on how devastating massive tax cuts would be to the state budget.
"Despite a couple strong debate performances, he has not shown he has a following large enough to impact the race," said Matt Resch of Resch Strategies.
Cox, 48, the two-term attorney general, took office in 2003, after running the murder division within the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office. He won his first statewide race against Democrat Gary Peters by exactly 5,200 votes. He immortalized the victory by naming his political action committee "The 5,200 Club."
The Livonia native is married to Laura Cox, the only Republican on the Wayne County Commission. Together they have three young children.
Cox has an adult daughter by a previous marriage, and his experience in raising her while attempting to extract child support payments from the child’s mother prompted him to leading an aggressive "deadbeat parent" initiative as attorney general.
The well-oiled Cox gubernatorial campaign has made a proposed $2 billion tax-cut its cornerstone. Any remaining questions on the candidate’s positions are referred to the candidate’s 60-plus page, "92-point" plan, which it uncorked last September. One of its more effective TV commercials focused on his four years as a U.S. Marine (1980-’83).
His opponents have used shadow groups to question his decision to use the "urban legend" tag for an alleged party at then-Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s Manoogian Mansion in 2002 which is said to have featured a stripper named "Strawberry" who fought with Kilpatrick’s wife and then turned up dead months afterward. A civil suit filed by the woman’s family that attempts to link the two incidents is being covered heavily by the Detroit media.
The Manoogian Mansion anchor has contributed to allowing Hoekstra to keep the front-runner tag for much of the campaign. Hoekstra, 56, was the vice president of marketing for Zeeland-based furniture manufacturer Herman Miller when he ran an apparent long-shot campaign against then-U.S. Rep. Guy Vander Jagt in 1992.
But Hoekstra stunned political observers by winning by six points after beating up Vander Jagt for being out of touch with the district. Hoekstra pedaled around the West Michigan congressional district, connecting with voters and vowing not to serve more than 12 years.
Hoekstra ended up reneging on that pledge in 2004, after he had secured a key spot on the U.S. House Intelligence Committee. The voters didn’t mind, consistently re-electing him with huge margins. Born in the Netherlands, Hoekstra immigrated with his family to Michigan when he was 3. He’s married and has three children.
He followed up on relatively low fundraising numbers in 2009 by raising $1.2 million in 2010 from more than 4,000 contributors. When added to the 2,000 who gave in ’09, nobody touched more individual pocketbooks than Hoekstra.
His message has focused on "getting government out of the way" of business through solid, proven conservative leadership. His record in Washington has opened him up to being attacked by Cox for supporting niche projects like the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere." Lately, Cox has gone on TV with the charge that Hoekstra missed 70 percent of his congressional votes this year.
The "Bridge to Nowhere" line has been the most effective attack ad used in this gubernatorial campaign, said Rob Macomber, a political consultant with the Sterling Group, because various polls showed that it succeeded in softening Hoekstra’s support in West Michigan.
The true wild card in the gubernatorial field continues to be Snyder, the 51-yearold former CEO of Gateway Computers, who ran a venture capital firm in Ann Arbor before dedicating himself to the gubernatorial race.
The self-labeled "nerd" earned three University of Michigan degrees by the time he was 23. He became a partner at what is now PricewaterhouseCoopers in six years. He ran Gateway Computers until 1997. He was the first chairman of the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and, later, chairman for Ann Arbor SPARK, a regionalized economic development program.
Married with three children, Snyder has put $6 million into a campaign focused as being an outsider with the type of business experience that has generated results. He refused to fill out questionnaires from special interest PACs, although he has attended some interviews. He has taken no PAC money and is low-key in trumpeting the endorsements he does receive.
Snyder’s squishiness on social issues (supports stem cell research, is not opposed to abortion in case of rape and incest) has opened him up to attacks from the party’s right, but it is attracting moderate Democrats and independents.
"I think the most unique aspect of this race has been Rick Snyder’s attempt to win the GOP primary without working to win GOP votes and actually turning his back on traditional GOP constituencies," Resch said. "That’s a unique strategy."
Gateway executives moved manufacturing operations to China when Snyder was on the company’s board, leaving him vulnerable on the same outsourcing issue that helped sink Dick DeVos in 2006. Cox has used the issue and another in which Snyder cashed in on $23 million in Gateway stock months before the company’s executive admitted to having misreported the company’s financial growth, causing Gateway’s value to plummet.
Running from behind since the beginning, Bouchard, 54, was appointed Oakland County’s sheriff in 1999 after being elected to his third state Senate term. The sheriff won the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate in 2006, but he lost to incumbent Democrat Debbie Stabenow, 57 percent to 41 percent.
Bouchard said he saved Oakland County $1.6 million a year by privatizing its jail’s food services and pledges to make similar savings in state government if elected. Bouchard tried to make significant inroads in West Michigan, where he is not well known, by naming Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, the former Kent County (Grand Rapids) clerk, his running mate.
On the campaign trail, the married father of three has touched on Tea Party themes. He also supports Arizona’s new controversial anti-immigration law and making Michigan a "right to work" state, which would give workers in union shops the power to opt out of joining the organized bargaining unit while still reaping the benefits negotiated by the union.
Attacks on Bouchard have focused on his allegedly extravagant purchases as Oakland County sheriff, including a French-made helicopter. The enigmatic Michigan Civic Education Fund attacked Bouchard for allegedly walking out of a deposition where he was asked about destroying evidence about an alleged affair he may have had with a county employee.
No one candidate has a consensus of the Republican electorate right now, Resch said, because the electorate is so skeptical of politicians.
DeCook said whoever can make that last strong move in the final week will win the race.
"At a time when the voters view of politicians is at all-time low, there seems to be more focus on the qualities of the candidates rather than on what they can do for Michigan," she said. "The candidate who can cozy up to their base with their credentials and provide a clear issue position will secure the most votes in their primary."