Conventional wisdom holds that it is the Democrats’ turn next year to win the governorship after two terms of a Republican administration under Rick Snyder.
But next year also features the election of a U.S. senator, which is sure to thrust Michigan into the national spotlight, as Democrats fight to keep incumbent Debbie Stabenow.
Can Democrats retain a prized U.S. Senate seat, and at the same time win the seat of the state’s chief executive?
That’s the subject of ongoing conversations within the party about which seat to protect and how resources will be devoted in 2018.
Lurking beneath the surface of such thinking is the last gubernatorial cycle when Democrats lost with Mark Schauer as their nominee, while at the same time winning with Gary Peters to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Carl Levin.
That 2014 election remains a constant reminder about the missteps of the party in terms of resource allocation, the candidates it backed as well as tailoring their messages to the base.
“I think we can do both. The two goals are quite complementary. Sen. Stabenow has been a masterful campaigner. It helps us in terms of keeping her seat and winning the governorship,” said U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint.
Kildee, who decided against running for governor and opted to stay in Washington, said Democrats should not cede any race to Republicans.
“This race is so closely defined by the failure of the GOP agenda,” Kildee said, adding that the Flint water crisis will be a top issue.
“Flint is the case in point for the failure of Republican governance in Michigan,” he said.
Kildee said he also isn’t worried if singer Kid Rock was to enter the race as a Republican to challenge Stabenow.
The most recent poll conducted by Target-Insyght places Rock within striking distance of Stabenow, 50-42, in a survey of 822 likely voters, suggesting he’s the leading candidate in the GOP pack.
“I think people are seeing now (through Donald Trump) what happens when a person whose only quality is a status of celebrity. That is his calling card,” Kildee said. “Kid Rock is well known. He is a celebrity. Anybody who underestimates Stabenow is seriously mistaken.”
Another Target-Insyght poll puts the Democrats’ leading gubernatorial candidate, Gretchen Whitmer, neck and neck with prominent lawyer Geoffrey Fieger at 35 percent in a survey of 377 likely voters. Fieger, who has yet to announce his candidacy, has far stronger name recognition in Detroit than Whitmer, according to the poll.
Brandon Dillon, the chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, said getting resources to mount a strong campaign won’t be an issue next year.
“Both the U.S. Senate and governor race are top priorities and will be fully funded,” Dillon said. “Obviously, we know any statewide race in Michigan will be competitive. We are already organizing at the grassroots level to win in 2018 up and down the ticket.”
Democratic victories in those races will require massive voter turnout efforts in Detroit, the party’s largest base.
Keith Williams, head of the Democratic Party Black Caucus, said party leaders must change course for that to happen.
“I’m tired of the party taking us for granted. They’ve got to earn our vote. They can’t win without Detroit,” Williams said. “They’ve got to involve people at the grassroots level, not just talking to gatekeepers.”
Williams added, “We can’t afford to lose the Senate seat. But we need a good gubernatorial candidate to get out the vote. We have to figure out what is important by putting the right resources in our community that will motivate people.”
Jonathan Kinloch, chairman of the 13th Congressional District Democratic Party, agreed.
“If you want to win both the governor’s race and the U.S. Senate race, you have to make voters in Detroit matter,” Kinloch said. “Unfortunately, Democrats sometimes have not done that. We have not been communicating effectively to black voters how their lives will be made better by the kinds of policies the party supports.”
Kinloch said when faced with the choice of whether the party should focus on one race more than the other, “We have no choice. We’ve got to win both. It’s our job to get the base out because the road to victory in statewide elections goes through southeastern Michigan.”
Julia Pulver, a party activist in Oakland County, said focusing solely on the top of the ticket will be a mistake.
“We as Dems tend to focus only on the top, and we have found ourselves losing more and more and more races at all levels. Building our base, investing in candidates from the floor up, building up our bench and then supporting those candidates as they continue to rise is how we should be focusing all our resources,” Pulver said.
Kildee said Republicans always have the upper hand in fundraising and that would be expected in the coming election.
“It is very difficult to ever outspend Republicans. I think there is a point at which the real difference is the message, character and quality of the individuals,” the congressman said.
And he insists the election will not be a singular choice for his party.
“They are complementary to one another. I actually considered it a big advantage that Stabenow will be on the ballot when I was thinking about running for governor.”
The writer hosts “Redline with BankoleThompson,” which is broadcast at noon weekdays on Super Station 910AM. This column appears Mondays and Thursdays.