Howes: 'Unity' touted by MI GOP reckons with division, Trump effect

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News
The unity Michigan Republicans will likely tout at this weekend's party convention doesn't reflect the sharp divide between its de facto leaders, Attorney General Bill Schuette, left, and Gov. Rick Snyder.

When Michigan Republicans adjourn their convention this weekend, expect them to tout unity in the race to succeed Gov. Rick Snyder and maintain control of the state Legislature.

Except that really wouldn't be true, ranking Republicans say.

Not for a party whose regulars are increasingly predisposed to embracing a Trump agenda only loosely affiliated with traditional Michigan GOP values. And not for a party whose de facto leaders — Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette — are divided sharply by the AG's criminal investigation into the Flint water crisis, among other things.

The prosecution of Nick Lyon, the Department of Health and Human Services director bound over for trial this week in connection with the Flint fiasco, doesn't help. Within minutes of the court's decision, Snyder issued a statement expressing his "full faith and confidence" in Lyon and his continuing leadership of the department.

Bridging those divides in a bid to retain control of Lansing won't be easy, especially for Schuette, the Republican gubernatorial nominee. He's yoked his political future to President Donald Trump, despite the president's mounting legal troubles and relative unpopularity among the independents and suburban women voters Schuette needs to build a winning center-right coalition.

That's a big reason behind his choice for running mate — former state lawmaker Lisa Posthumus Lyons, daughter of the governor's chief of staff, Dick Posthumus. Schuette needs to bolster support in west Michigan, needs to bolster support among suburban women, needs to persuade traditional Republicans that he's not Trumpier than Trump.

And Schuette's continuing Flint investigation is now climbing into the upper reaches of the Snyder administration — and may be potentially eyeing Snyder himself, who won’t be attending this weekend’s convention. Barring persuasive evidence, the mere prospect of criminal charges against the pro-business Snyder is unlikely to engender anything more than tepid support for Schuette among business leaders.

"This is a bad year for this to play out," says Bill Nowling, communications director for Snyder's 2010 campaign and now managing director and partner of Lambert, Edwards & Associates in Detroit. "There is no Republican Party. There's the party of Trump and there's everyone else. It's the president's party.

"This animus between the governor and the attorney general is pretty pitched right now. The fissures will be pretty clear to everyone. Republicans may not love their candidate, but they'll get behind him."

Adds Ron Weiser, chairman of the Michigan Republican Party: "Ultimately a Republican, despite all the conflict, will come home and vote for Schuette."

In theory, anyway. After eight years of comparatively non-ideological governance, the race for governor is shaping up to be a clear choice between a traditional mid-Michigan conservative-turned-Trumper in Schuette and a middle-of-the-road Democrat, Gretchen Whitmer, struggling to energize both her party's leadership and increasingly progressive base.

Whoever wins, one likely result would be the revival of ideology and partisan politicking in state governance — exactly what the state, in better economic shape than in nearly a generation, doesn't need. That would be a sharp break from the Snyder years that yielded tax reform, disciplined budgeting, bipartisan cooperation in the Detroit bankruptcy and a pro-business approach to policy-making and economic development.

Michigan needs more of the same from its next crop of leaders, not a return to "Lost Decade" leadership turbo-charged with partisan confrontation from the right or the left. Yet the chances of ending up with one version of the caricature loom. And if a national economic slowdown follows, the challenges could multiply for folks ill-equipped to manage through adversity.   

Implicitly acknowledging the tension, Schuette's camp is not banking on an endorsement from Snyder, which party officials do not expect either. That would not be unprecedented: John Engler challenged and beat former Gov. Jim Blanchard in 1990 without the blessing of Bill Milliken, Michigan's Republican governor from 1969-83.

Schuette "is rock solid for President Trump," says Rusty Hills, a senior adviser to the attorney general. "Snyder is a good governor, period. Nobody disputes that."

But his time is up, and parts of his legacy could be imperiled. The success of Detroit's reinvention depends on nonpartisan cooperation between City Hall and Lansing, as well as business-friendly policy. The Gordie Howe International Bridge depends on saying "no" to continued entreaties from Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun. 

Snyder's hand-picked successor, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, was rejected by Republican primary voters. And so was his pragmatic, just-get-things-done style of governing now out of favor with a Republican base that embraces the more confrontational methods of the president, however mixed the results.

"The Republican Party has a big tent and unity requires intentional and gracious effort," Calley said in a statement to The Detroit News. "I will do my part to bring Republicans together behind our slate of candidates to win in November."

How much room and tolerance for dissent that tent provides remains to be seen. Too often, disagreement equals betrayal in the Trumpian view intuited by his supporters, and betrayal must be punished. That's not the kind of unity and graciousness Calley's talking about.

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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.