Lt. Gov. Brian Calley has finally joined the 2018 race for Michigan governor. But does he have a chance at victory in the GOP primary next August?
Calley doesn’t have any doubts.
“I’m going to win,” he says.
That confidence isn’t surprising given Calley never wanted to get into the race without a solid shot at becoming governor. He got a rocky start in May, launching an awkwardly handled petition drive to “clean up” state government by moving to a part-time Legislature. Calley’s now handed off that effort and is returning to his campaigning roots, which are grounded in connecting to voters with a sincere, no-nonsense message.
Yet Calley faces an uphill battle. His main primary opponent is Attorney General Bill Schuette, who announced his candidacy in September and has been charging full steam ahead in campaigning and fundraising. Schuette had $2.3 million in his campaign coffers in October — a million more than Calley had in cash at that time. And Calley lags far behind in voter enthusiasm. A poll in October found Schuette leading Calley, 52 to 13.
Calley will also test whether he can appeal to the avid Republican voters in Michigan who supported President Donald Trump — and still do. Calley rescinded his endorsement of then-candidate Trump last fall after the infamous 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape came to light.
Schuette maintained his endorsement of Trump, even though he didn’t like the president’s comments about women either. Now, Schuette’s loyalty has earned him the endorsement of both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, which he’s touting widely.
That Trump base still loves the president. Michigan pollster Steve Mitchell says that among likely GOP primary voters, Trump’s job approval rating is 80 percent. Gov. Rick Snyder is just as popular among the base. Yet Trump’s got 60 percent who strongly support him, while the governor has 40 percent.
“I think you have to say the Trump endorsement is very important,” Mitchell says. “He’s very strong with the base and primary voters. Calley will have to find a path to overcome that importance.”
Similarly, GOP strategist Stu Sandler, who is also heading a super PAC backing Schuette, thinks Trump’s vote of confidence is invaluable.
“That’s a tough one to overcome,” says Sandler, who is using Calley’s lack of support for the president against him in a website called “Calley Abandoned Trump.”
Calley is banking on his boss’ popularity among Republicans to boost his standing. And he says voters care about a wide range of issues impacting their lives here at home — not just who’s sitting in the White House.
“I don’t think the calculus is as simple as some make it out to be,” Calley says.
Republican consultant John Truscott agrees that a Trump stamp of approval isn’t necessary.
“It doesn’t make that much difference,” says Truscott, while also acknowledging Calley’s challenges. “He has a tough road.”
Lieutenant governors generally don’t have much luck following the governors they served under. In 2002, Dick Posthumus, former GOP Gov. John Engler’s lieutenant governor, fell just short of beating Democrat Jennifer Granholm. Granholm’s lieutenant governor, John Cherry, was never able to get his primary bid off the ground.
But Calley is not afraid to run on the Snyder agenda (much of which Snyder credits him for accomplishing). Calley’s proud of where Michigan stands now, and he wants to continue the state’s comeback.
“People in Michigan are used to results and outcomes,” he says.
That’s a smart approach, says Mitchell.
“Lieutenant governors make big mistakes in trying to distance themselves too much from the governor,” he says. “Run hard as part of the team that turned around Michigan’s economy.”