Virg Bernero, the Lansing mayor and Democratic gubernatorial hopeful, shakes hands with Mero Gonzalez during a campaign stop at Coco's Coney Island in Mount Clemens. (Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News)
Lansing -- It was a mad scramble Monday across Michigan for the seven candidates vying to be the next governor as they tried to sway undecided voters and get them out to the polls today.
After months of debates, hundreds of attack ads, too many campaign stops to count and dozens of issue papers, it's up to the voters to decide which candidates will face each other in November's general election.
While recent polls have indicated Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero is opening a lead over opponent Andy Dillon, the Democratic race -- and the Republican contest -- are far from over, especially with the large number of undecided voters on either side.
For the first time in recent memory, the Democratic and Republican contests are up for grabs with no clear favorite.
One undecided voter, Gary Hawks, tracked down Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Snyder at a Lansing diner to ask questions.
Hawks, a retired state superintendent from East Lansing, liked Snyder's business background and his promise to change the way state government runs. But he hadn't quite made up his mind Monday if Snyder should get his vote.
"I just like to get the facts in their own words," Hawks, 76, said as he considered his options.
The Republican race is especially close, with three of the five candidates bunched tightly at the top: Ann Arbor venture capitalist Snyder, state Attorney General Mike Cox and U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Holland. Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard also is within striking distance, some say. State Sen. Tom George of Kalamazoo has been mired in fifth place throughout the campaign.
On the Democratic side, Dillon of Redford Township had the lead for much of the campaign and has been surpassed in recent polls by Bernero, who has a single-digit lead.
"Since the Democrats became a major party in Michigan after World War II, we've never had anything like this, with questionable races on both sides," said Bill Ballenger, editor of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter.
Some point to 1982, when then-U.S. Rep. James Blanchard emerged from a field of seven candidates and Farmington Hills businessman Richard Headlee came out of a race against three opponents. But Ballenger said while the GOP primary was a barnburner, Blanchard was the clear frontrunner in the Democratic race and won easily.
This is the first gubernatorial election since that year that has not featured an incumbent governor or lieutenant governor.
No obvious Granholm heir
John Klemanski, political science professor at Oakland University, said when Lt. Gov. John Cherry dropped out in January, the dynamics of the race dramatically changed.
"A lot of times, there's an heir apparent or an anointed one. That's not the case this time," Klemanski said. "It's pretty unusual."
Cherry has been lieutenant governor all eight years Gov. Jennifer Granholm has been in office. She's term limited and can't run again.
Adding to the uncertainty is the large number of undecided voters: nearly a third of Democrats and 15 percent of Republicans. Most of the candidates continued to flood the airwaves with ads in the last days of the campaign.
Michigan's economic morass has been an important backdrop to the gubernatorial campaign. Each of the seven candidates is focusing on job creation as the No. 1 priority, but they have different approaches. Taxes also have been a big issue with some candidates vowing not to raise taxes and all wanting to reduce levies on business to varying degrees.
Republicans are hoping to reclaim the governor's office, buoyed by voter dissatisfaction with the direction of the state under Granholm and the country under President Barack Obama, as borne out by polls. The conventional wisdom is that this will be a banner year for the GOP.
But Democrats are banking on the Republicans nominating a staunch conservative who is out of step with the mainstream in a traditionally blue state.
State political map at stake
Capturing the office -- as well as the state House and Senate -- is critical to both parties as the newly elected officials will be responsible for redrawing the political map following this year's U.S. Census. The redistricting will have an impact on elections in the state for the next decade.
Should Michigan move from a blue state to a red state, that could have repercussions on its relationship with a Democratic president, who has worked well with Granholm and sent millions for recovery programs, advanced battery credits, transportation and other projects to the state. Having a Republican as governor also could hurt Obama's chances to win re-election, because the state's political leader would be able to use the bully pulpit of the office to back his challenger in 2012. Obama needs to keep Michigan, a pivotal state, in his column to win another term.
The race for governor has dominated the campaign, rendering all but invisible important races for Congress and the state Legislature. All 15 congressional districts, 38 state Senate seats and 110 state House seats are in play this year.
The only other contest vying at all with the gubernatorial race for attention is the 13th Congressional District in Detroit, where incumbent U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick is facing a stiff challenge from state Sen. Hansen Clarke in a field of six.
There will be at least three new members of Congress this year because Hoekstra is running for governor and U.S. Reps. Bart Stupak, D-Menominee, and Vern Ehlers, R-Grand Rapids, are retiring. There are spirited GOP primaries in all three districts. Hoekstra is hoping large turnouts in the two western Michigan districts will carry him to victory.
Cox is funneling most of his resources into voter-rich Metro Detroit late in the campaign and he's running automated calls against Snyder, the narrow leader in the latest polls. Snyder is wooing independents and cross-over Democrats and counting on Cox, Hoekstra and Bouchard to split the conservative vote.
Bouchard saved most of his money until the final couple of weeks in the campaign for a late TV ad splurge. He's the favorite of many of the tea party groups around the state.
Bernero is leaning heavily on his support from big labor and abortion rights activists to mobilize voters. He hasn't spent a penny on TV ads, but labor and other groups, through the Genesee County Democrats, have funneled nearly $2 million into television spots. Dillon is courting moderate voters and touting his business and legislative experience.
On the final full day of campaigning:
Also on ballots
Sources: Michigan Department of State, AP and Detroit News research.