2010-04-10 / Columnists

Voters Slow To Warm to Heating Races

By George Weeks

With just four months before the parties pick their nominees, some lively races are developing for governor, Congress, and the Legislature. But voter interest has been slow to develop.

Is that because of lackluster candidates? Or citizen disenchantment with stalemated government and the ugly tone of political discourse these days?

In fact, the low degree of interest and visibility at this stage is not unusual, and is likely to pick up in the next few weeks, especially in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, which has had a series of dropouts but is coming into focus.

Also, the several recent polls on primary and general election match-ups -- especially those showing high numbers of undecided voters -- will change as more candidates start advertising, sending out direct mail pitches, and get media attention and name recognition.

A look at some races:

Governor: In 2002, there was early excitement among Democrats when Attorney General Jennifer Granholm was competing with ex-Governor Jim Blanchard and U.S. Representative David Bonior for the nomination. In contrast, 2010 Democratic contenders are relatively obscure.

Term-limited Granholm gave her blessing to Lieutenant Governor John Cherry, who is well credentialed but was hobbled because the Granholm link is a political albatross in these troubled times. Cherry dropped out, citing daunting fundraising tasks.

Recent polls are a muddle. The most recent, by Rasmussen Reports last week, found a whopping 53% of Democratic primary voters are undecided. It had these results:

House Speaker Andy Dillon of Redford Township, who made a recent northern Michigan swing, 12%; underfunded Representative Alma Wheeler Smith of Salem Township, a savvy lawmaker who failed in a 2002 bid back when she was a state senator, 10%; Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, an outspoken fellow who is garnering labor support, 8%.

Rasmussen polling had 32% of Republican primary voters undecided -- far fewer than Democrats -- and these tallies for the candidates: U.S. Representative Pete Hoekstra of Holland, a strong voice in Washington and leader in some other recent polls, 27%; Ann Arbor venture capitalist Rick Snyder, who was in single digits before his heavy TV advertising, 18%; Attorney General Mike Cox, who has been up and down in polls, 13%; Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard, 6%.

The political bases of Cox and Bouchard, and to the extent that businessman Snyder has a political base, are in southeast Michigan. Hoekstra reigns in west Michigan, a Republican stronghold.

As Blanchard was fond of saying, polls are like yo-yos. Not crystal balls. Especially four months before an election.

Congress: Until recently, national media focus on Michigan's congressional races was down south, where freshman Democratic Representatives Mark Schauer of Battle Creek in the 7th District and Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township in the 9th District have been targeted by the national GOP.

Now, because of his controversial high-profile role in the health-care debate, Republicans see enhanced possibility of defeating nine-term 1st District Representative Bart Stupak of Menominee, who has been winning big in a 31-county district that on paper -- and only on paper -- has been vulnerable to GOP takeover. In reality, challengers in this large district historically have not fared well against incumbents of either party.

In Stupak's last reelection bid, in 2008, his Republican challenger, ex-state Rep-resentative Tom Casperson of Escanaba, got only 33% of the vote. Among Stupak's 2010 Republican opponents is former trucking executive Don Hooper, who in 2004 got 33% of the vote against Stupak and 28% in 2006.

In the wake of Stupak cutting a deal with the White House for an executive order rather than a law to block use of federal funds for abortion, a new GOP contender has blazed onto the scene with help of some national GOP power players.

I noted here last week that Dr. Dan Benishek, who was born and reared in Iron River and is a surgeon practicing in Iron Mountain, has been running radio ads touting his candidacy and criticizing Stupak on the health-care issue.

Little did I know then the forces that are gathering behind Benishek.

Signing on as an adviser is national political consultant Katie Packer, who was chief of staff to ex-Lieutenant Governor Dick Posthumus (and managed his 2002 gubernatorial campaign against Granholm) and also worked for Governor John Engler and Senator Spencer Abraham and the 2008 presidential campaign of Mitt Romney.

Reached Friday in her Washington, D.C.-area office, Packer said that Benishek is a self-starter who, since first declaring his candidacy on Facebook in reaction to the health-care issue, "all of a sudden... is getting a ton of attention."

That includes such conservative forums as National Review Online and a forthcoming interview with Sean Hannity on Fox TV.

The attention is spurring fundraising.

"He raised almost $200,000 in just six days," said Packer, who added that "a lot of passion has built up against Bart."

It remains to be seen how much of that passion stirs within his district.

Legislature: Because of term-limits, there will be a huge turnover this year in the Legislature, including the loss of two northern lawmakers who are among the four top legislative leaders.

There will be at least 29 new senators in the 38-member Senate, and at least 35 new representatives in the 110-member House. Among those leaving are Senate Minority Leader Mike Prusi (D-Ishpeming), and House Minority Leader Kevin Elsenheimer (R-Kewadin).

There were interesting campaign developments last week in Elsenheimer's 105th District, which includes Antrim, Charlevoix, and Otsego counties, and part of Cheboygan.

After brief and well-publicized exploration of running for Stupak's congressional seat, Cheboygan County Drain Commissioner Dennis Lennox said he would stick with his previous plan to seek the Republican nomination for Elsenheimer's seat. He also endorsed Benishek for Stupak's seat.

Lennox, who says that at 25 he is the youngest county-wide official in Michigan, said: "While it is clear the republic faces serious challenges and threats to her future, the change we so desperately need in Washington will come from the states."

There's much talk these days about Michigan switching to a part-time Legislature. But Greg MacMaster of Kewadin, longtime weatherman for TV 7&4 in Traverse City and Cheboygan who left the station to seek the Republican nomination for Elsenheimer's seat, had an interesting twist:

Since lawmakers get fulltime pay they should work fulltime “and retire such phrases as 'recess' and 'spring break.'

"The Legislature left for spring break without finalizing the state budget, and that's bringing back memories of past budget battles. Partisan political bickering has resulted in short government shut-downs in recent years, and by now you would have hoped the partisanship would have ended when it came to such important matters."

Also leaving next year because of term limits will be Senator Jason Allen (RTraverse City), whose 37th District includes Chippewa and Mackinac counties and six below the bridge. In his capacity as chairman of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, he has been a champion of tourism and other economic programs critical to the region.

In announcing for the open 37th District seat, term-limited Representative Gary McDowell (D-Rudyard) said:

"With experience as a farmer, a business owner, an economic development official and a legislator, I understand the issues facing families and businesses today. We need to get people back to work, and I will do everything I can to help turn Northern Michigan's economy around by helping our displaced workers as well as preparing students for the jobs of the future."

The 2010 race for the 37th is described by Inside Michigan Politics newsletter as "lean GOP." Former Representative Howard Walker of Traverse City is a strong contender for the GOP nomination.

Also seeking that nomination is Randy Bishop of Traverse City, who blogs as "Trucker Randy" and is a conservative activist running on a platform of replacing Michigan's personal income tax and other tax reforms with "The Michigan Fair Tax."

George Weeks retired in 2006 after 22 years as political columnist for The Detroit News. His weekly Michigan Politics column is syndicated by Superior Features.

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