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Michigan GOP eyes veteran official to challenge Whitmer in 2022

The Detroit News - 12/30/2020

Dec. 30—LANSING — Former congresswoman Candice Miller is the early recruiting focus among Michigan Republicans seeking a candidate to challenge an expected reelection bid by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in 2022.

In interviews with more than a dozen Republican insidersabout the party's future, the current Macomb County public works commissioner's name came up over and over again. After President Donald Trump lost Michigan on Nov. 3 and with legislative redistricting on the horizon, some GOP leaders argue the 66-year-old Miller could resolve looming uncertainty about what's ahead.

"Talk about a candidate that can bridge multiple generations and bridge multiple issues and bring people together in Michigan," said Rocky Raczkowski, chairman of the Oakland County Republican Party. "I believe Candice Miller is that candidate. I haven't met a politician that was able to be comfortable with multiple groups, multiple cross sections of individuals, like Candice Miller."

Miller, who served eight years as secretary of state and 14 years in the U.S. House, has been floated as a potential candidate for governor before. But she's previously passed on running.

Asked if this is the time she decides to campaign for the state's top office, Raczkowski responded, "She has to. There's too much riding on Michigan."

Miller is focused on her job and listening to people whose opinions she values while examining "options," said Jamie Roe, a Republican consultant who's worked for Miller.

In a Tuesday interview with Detroit News Editorial Page Editor Nolan Finley, Miller said she loves her current position, which, she said, combines her interests in infrastructure and the Great Lakes.

When pressed on whether she would rule out a run for governor, Miller responded: "I don't know what to say. Two years is a long time away."

As the priority of Michigan Republicans begins turning to the 2022 campaigns, they find themselves in a place they haven't been for 30 years. They will hold none of the three top statewide political positions — governor, secretary of state and attorney general — as the three jobs are on the ballot.

The situation leaves the GOP without a candidate who would naturally be the next person to run for governor while facing pressure to find an established name who can consolidate support and quickly raise money to compete with Whitmer's significant financial war chest. She had more than $3 million in her campaign account as of Oct. 20.

Whitmer also has built a national profile as she's worked to combat COVID-19 and clashed with Trump. She was among the finalists interviewed to be Democratic President-elect Joe Biden's vice presidential nominee, a selection that went to Kamala Harris.

But the party that wins the presidency tends to struggle in the first off-year election. In 2010, two years after Barack Obama became president, Michigan Republicans flipped the state House and Rick Snyder won the race for governor.

John Yob, who was Snyder's lead consultant in 2010 and runs the consulting firm Strategic National, predicted 2022 "is going to be one of the best cycles in Michigan Republican history."

While the next election is 22 months away, candidates for Michigan governor who don't already hold a statewide position usually launch their campaigns in the first half of the year before the election year. That has been the practice for almost two decades.

For the 2018 race, when there was no incumbent, Whitmer formed her committee to run for governor on Jan. 3, 2017,four years ago this coming Sunday. The two top Republicans in that election — then-Attorney General Bill Schuette and then-Lt. Gov. Brian Calley — officially formed their committees in fall 2017, but they already had positions that gave them the public spotlight.

Calley, who lost to Schuette in the GOP primary and is now president of the Small Business Association of Michigan, said he probably started his campaign too late. But Schuette had been effectively running for governor since he was elected attorney general in 2010, Calley joked.

"So starting early isn't everything," he said with a laugh.

If the Republicans find a viable candidate, fundraising won't be a problem, Calley said.

"They're going to have to have somebody who at least out of the gates has some kind of X factor that makes them look or feel legit," Calley said of Michigan Republicans. "And then, they'll need to get working pretty soon."

For the 2014 race, when Snyder was seeking reelection, former U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer, his Democratic challenger, formed his committee on May 24, 2013. As a political unknown in the 2010 race, Snyder launched his campaign committee on March 18, 2009.

'Dream candidate'

Many Michigan Republicans are hoping that Miller ends up being their alternative to Whitmer. Calley, who says he won't run in 2022, described Miller as "the dream candidate" of many in his party.

Republicans say Miller can appeal to voters on both sides of the aisle, can raise money and, as a current public works commissioner, can speak directly to problems with roads and infrastructure, which was the focus of Whitmer's 2018 campaign and her "fix the damn roads" slogan.

Also, Miller is from southeast Michigan, the state's most populous region and where Republicans must perform better than they did in 2018 and where they contend the current governor, who's from mid-Michigan, is vulnerable.

As a woman, Miller could help the GOP with female voters who are a majority of Michigan's voters and were a weakness in 2018 and 2020.

Miller was Harrison Township supervisor and Macomb County treasurer before winning a race for secretary of state in 1994 — ending the 24-year reign of Democrat Richard Austin. After two terms as secretary of state, she was elected to the U.S. House in 2002. She served there through 2016, when she decided not to seek reelection. Instead, she ran for Macomb County public works commissioner, beating a Democratic incumbent who had the job for more than two decades, Anthony Marrocco.

Miller was reelected to a four-year term on Nov. 3, winning her race by 23 percentage points. Trump won Macomb County by 8 percentage points.

Former Michigan House Speaker Jase Bolger said he's heard Miller's name floated as a potential candidate for governor.

"Candice is a strong leader," Bolger said. "She is somebody who doesn't take baloney. She shoots it straight."

The question for Miller is whether she really wants to be governor, said Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, a Democrat. Some Republicans aren't betting on it.

Stan Grot, a longtime Macomb County GOP activist and chairman of the 10th Congressional District Republican Committee, noted Miller has passed on past opportunities.

"I don't think she's going to run," Grot said.

The uncertainty ahead

To succeed in 2022, Michigan Republicans have a steep hill to climb.

It's been 30 years since an incumbent governor in Michigan lost a reelection bid. The last time was 1990 when Republican John Engler unseated Democratic Gov. Jim Blanchard by less than 1 percentage point. That was also the last gubernatorial election that occurred while Democrats held all three statewide offices.

In 2018, Whitmer won her first term by beating Schuette by 9 percentage points. Democrat Jocelyn Benson became secretary of state with a similar 9-point win over Republican Mary Treder Lang. And Democrat Dana Nessel defeated Republican Tom Leonard by 3 points for attorney general.

Some Republicans are hoping Tom Leonard, the former Michigan House speaker, will seek a rematch against Nessel in 2022.

As for Whitmer, nearly 54% of Michiganians viewed the Democratic governor favorably in a Oct. 23-25Detroit News poll of 600 likely voters. The survey had a margin of error of plus-minus 4 percentage points.

On Nov. 3, Trump lost Michigan to Biden by 3 points. But the GOP incumbent outperformed polling, his party retained control of the Michigan House and the Republicans didn't lose any congressional seats. Trump's ability to keep the race close with record turnout and the Republicans' retention of their state House majority are reasons GOP insiders gave for their optimism for 2022.

But there's also a "ton of uncertainty," said Tony Daunt, executive director of the conservative Michigan Freedom Fund. No one is a clear front runner to be the GOP candidate for governor, and the redrawing of U.S. House and state legislative districts before the 2022 election could spur new candidates to get in the race, he said.

For the first time in Michigan, an independent redistricting commission will draw the new districts after a successful ballot proposal in 2018. If one of Michigan's Republican U.S. House members — there will be seven in 2021 — is drawn out of their district, it's possible that person could run for governor.

Along with Miller, Republicans mentioned former U.S.Senate candidate John James; state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake; state House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering; U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Watersmeet, and Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel as potential candidates.

James, a businessman from Farmington Hills, lost races for U.S. Senate in 2018 and 2020, meaning it would be his third straight statewide election on the ballot. But he has shown a talent for drawing attention on the campaign trail and raising money — two things that would help when competing with a well-funded incumbent.

It's unclear how interested James, Shirkey and Chatfield are in running for governor, according to Michigan Republicans. It's also uncertain what impact Trump, who's still heavily supported by members of the party, will have on any primary contest.

GOP consultant Fred Wszolek of the firm StrategyWorks said there will likely be somewhat of a "Trump veto," meaning the president will be able to use his platform to keep a person he doesn't support out of a position of power.

Calley agreed.

"If the president wants to exert a high amount influence over Republican elections, there's no question in my mind that he can," the former lieutenant governor said.

Chair race comes first

The first big race for Michigan Republicans of the 2022 election cycle will be the contest for party chair, which will be decided by convention delegates in February.

Laura Cox, a former state lawmaker from Livonia, currently leads the state party, but former chairman and University of Michigan regent, Ron Weiser, is challenging her.

"I have spent countless hours over the past month talking to grassroots Republican leaders across the state about what went wrong in 2020, and what we need to do to win in 2022," Weiser wrote in an email to Republicans last week. "I quickly came to the conclusion that the party wanted new leadership, and therefore I made the decision to run for chairman of the Michigan Republican Party."

Weiser, who's known for his fundraising prowess, says he has been endorsed for chair by the majority of Michigan House and Senate Republicans and five of the seven Michigan Republican members of the U.S. House.

But backers of Cox have noted that Weiser led the party during the 2018 election, when Whitmer won her first term and Democrats made gains down the ballot.

Norm Shinkle, chairman of the 8th District Republican Committee, floated Cox as a potential secretary of state candidate if she loses the race for chair.

State Rep. Ann Bollin, the former Brighton Township clerk, and Republican activist Meshawn Maddock, who's running as Weiser's co-chair, have also been floated as potential secretary of state nominees.

For attorney general, much of the conversation has focused on Leonard, who is now a partner in Plunkett Cooney'sLansing office and is the firm's government relations, public policy and regulatory practice group leader.

Many Republicans have also mentioned Matthew Schneider, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, as a future attorney general candidate, but it's not clear whether he would be willing to run in 2022.

The party is in good shape going into the off-year and upcoming gubernatorial election, said Tori Sachs, a Republican strategist.

"I think it would be good to have a candidate by the summer of 2021," Sachs said of the race for governor. "But I think we have some strong candidates who are thinking about it who wouldn't have to launch before then."


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