GOP bid for unity at Mich. rally falls short with Snyder a no-show

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Schuette and Vice President Mike Pence on the stage Wednesday at a GOP unity rally at Amway Grand Plaza Hotel in Grand Rapids.

Grand Rapids — After a tense Republican primary race full of political barbs and bombs, all three GOP governor hopefuls joined nominee Bill Schuette on stage Wednesday in Grand Rapids as Vice President Mike Pence urged unity ahead of the November election.

Pence thanked the candidates for attending the gathering while restating his and the president’s support for Schuette and U.S. Senate Republican nominee John James. The vice president noted that a sign of a strong party is a competitive primary.

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“Tonight, we send a message all across the state of Michigan that Republicans are united,” Pence said, addressing a crowd at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel.

The rally comes at the start of what’s expected to be a rough general election campaign and closes out a contentious primary race among Republicans, where calls for setting aside primary sniping was expected.

Missing from the Grand Rapids rally was one prominent state Republican. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, who did not endorse Schuette on Wednesday, had supported his lieutenant governor, Brian Calley, in the primary and has clashed with Schuette about the attorney general’s decisions on prosecutions after the Flint water crisis.

The snub did not appear to bother Schuette, who said he wasn’t worried about the silence from the Governor’s Office and pointed to the support of his primary opponents at the rally Wednesday.

“It’s only been less than 24 hours since we had this big election,” Schuette told reporters when asked about the lack of an endorsement from Snyder. “I’m a positive guy. I’m an optimistic guy.”

Joining the call for unity were GOP gubernatorial candidates Calley, Saginaw obstetrician Jim Hines and state Sen. Patrick Colbeck, along with Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and U.S. representatives Bill Huizenga and Tim Wahlberg. 

Schuette in November will face Democrat Gretchen Whitmer, who took 52 percent of the vote Tuesday, ahead of progressive candidates Abdul El-Sayed and Shri Thanedar.

Schuette and Pence criticized the former Senate minority leader, whom Schuette called the “most liberal member of the Michigan Legislature."

“If Jennifer Granholm was bad, Gretchen Whitmer is worse,” he said.

When asked about a potential running mate after the event, Schuette said he couldn’t tell reporters “her name” yet. He did not give a timeline for his decision.

Calley had attacked Schuette during the primary campaign after claims that the 64-year-old attorney general used government staff to sign personal real estate documents at the office and used his state office to plan for a political convention. While Schuette downplayed the allegations as "politics," the lieutenant governor argued they were serious enough for the attorney general to resign.

That was pre-election. By Tuesday night, Calley offered a tentative olive branch in a YouTube concession video in which he congratulated Schuette on the victory.

“The reality is this is President Trump’s Republican Party,” Calley said. “His chosen candidates win Republican primaries. We see it all across the country.”

Hines and Colbeck voiced their support for Schuette after the primary results were in Tuesday. But Colbeck said the party needs more than just presidential endorsements and urged a return to the party’s grassroots Wednesday morning.

“Nobody from D.C. is going to be able to unite the party in Michigan,” the Canton Township Republican said. “It’s got to come from within.”

As Schuette and James move toward the general election, their messages must stretch beyond backing by Trump and Pence, and reach people outside of the president's base, said Richard Czuba, the Lansing-based Glengariff Group pollster.

“On the Republican side, certainly this is the party of Donald Trump,” Czuba said. “The million-dollar question is: How do these Republicans now pivot to independent voters that do not like Donald Trump?” 

Pence and Trump endorsed Schuette and James in their respective races. On Wednesday, Pence said James had “captured the imagination” of people throughout the state.

“Michigan is going to say no to six more years of Sen. Debbie Stabenow,” Pence said.

In her years in Congress, Stabenow has done “precious little to bring results back to Michigan," James told the crowd in Grand Rapids on Wednesday. "We don’t need obstruction, we need opportunity. We're not looking for free stuff, we're looking for a fair shot.”

James, a military veteran, won 55 percent of the vote over his Republican opponent, Grosse Pointe businessman Sandy Pensler. Pensler attended the rally Wednesday after voicing his support for James post-primary Tuesday night.

 “It has been a rough primary, but John James and I always said we would be friends after the primary and I believe that now as I did then,” Pensler said.

Pence, the former governor of Indiana, last visited the state in June, when he attended a Schuette fundraiser in Birmingham and touted federal tax cuts at Frank Rewold and Son Inc., a family-owned construction contractor in Rochester. He delivered a commencement speech at Hillsdale College in May.

Detroit News Staff Writer Jonathan Oosting contributed to this report.

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