Brian Calley is running for governor. The lieutenant governor wants the Republican nomination to succeed term-limited Gov. Rick Snyder, setting up a potentially divisive intra-party battle against Attorney General Bill Schuette.
Most expected this back in May, but instead Calley embarked upon a quixotic campaign for a part-time Legislature (even though his proposal actually would limit the people’s voice while empowering the executive and judicial branches). Originally intended to help Calley prove his conservative bona fides to the true believers that vote in party primary elections, the campaign did nothing but raise questions about his competence and viability. It quickly ran out of gas after a series of tactical and legal mistakes.
Then having secured the endorsements of President Donald J. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, Schuette was all but coronated at the Republican confab on Mackinac Island in September that traditionally serves as the opening salvo in the party’s nomination campaigns.
Yet that didn’t dissuade Calley, who did a 360-degree turn and abandoned the part-time campaign. He openly courted moderate and independent voters and rebranded himself as Snyder’s heir apparent in a series of town hall forums across Michigan
If Calley 3.0 sounds familiar, it should. It was Snyder’s playbook in the 2010 campaign. But 2018 is no 2010. The dynamics are completely different.
First, the race this time around is basically a two-man campaign between Calley and Schuette. Yes, term-limited state Sen. Patrick Colbeck and Saginaw obstetrician Jim Hines are running, but neither candidate is viable, which means a plurality won’t be enough for Calley to win. (It’s worth remembering that 63.6 percent of voters in the 2010 primary cast a vote against Snyder.)
Second and most importantly, the Republican Party isn’t lost in the political wilderness as it was in 2010. Trump’s endorsement of Schuette is significant not because he’s president — that is, of course big — but because Trump is titular head of the GOP.
Calley, who unendorsed Trump in the final stages of the 2016 presidential campaign, is once again defying his party’s leader. Even Snyder’s former of chief of staff, now a senior aide in the White House, couldn’t help the lieutenant governor.
The real question is whether the Republican apparatus will officially get behind Schuette through an obscure mechanism known as the rule 11 waiver. It would allow the party to officially endorse Schuette and spend money on his behalf before the primary in August.
Two years ago, it looked like Calley would be the front-runner or at least a strong contender. Many also thought Snyder would leave office for an appointment in Washington just as George Romney resigned the governorship to serve in President Richard Nixon’s cabinet, allowing then-Lieutenant Gov. Bill Milliken to run as the incumbent in 1970.
Now 40-year-old Calley is mounting what increasingly seems like a forlorn hope against 64-year-old Schuette, who has been running for this or that office since the first term of President Ronald Reagan.
This year was already Calley’s annus horribilis. Next year could be even more devastating.
Calley could have many years ahead of him, if he finds a proverbial ejection seat. The obvious choice is running for an open seat in the state Senate, and then using that perch to seek the governor’s mansion in four or eight years.
Dennis Lennox is a political commentator and public affairs consultant.