Trump win looms large for GOP governor prospects

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Donald Trump’s presidency will have reverberations for two Michigan Republicans considering gubernatorial runs in 2018, since they took divergent paths on how to handle the GOP businessman’s bid for the White House.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette and Lt. Gov. Brian Calley both rallied around Trump after he secured the party’s presidential nomination in July, standing side by side on the floor of the Republican National Convention as Michigan announced its delegate allocation.

While Schuette remained a vocal booster, Calley withdrew his endorsement in October when 2005 footage surfaced showing Trump making lewd comments, bragging he could get away with groping and kissing unsuspecting women because of his celebrity.

That decision proved “a bad political call,” said Susan Demas, editor and owner of Inside Michigan Politics. Trump ended up creating a near-wave statewide victory for Michigan, and he was the first GOP nominee to win the state since 1988.

“I think a lot of people will credit (Calley) for taking a moral stand, and values voters are still a solid bloc of the Republican primary electorate,” Demas said. “But I do think there very easily could be an opening for a very enthusiastic pro-Trump candidate.”

Calley’s decision to denounce his Trump endorsement “is certainly not going to help him given the fact Trump was successful,” said Bill Runco, chairman of the 12th Congressional District Republican Committee covering parts of Wayne and Washtenaw counties.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of people that are going to run up and say great job withdrawing your support,” he continued. “That could be a bit of an issue.”

Calley said he ended up voting for Trump as he cast a straight-ticket Republican ballot. But he has declined to discuss the decision beyond an interview with the MIRS subscription newsletter in Lansing.

The lieutenant governor is calling for unity in the wake of the contentious election season, however, and recently told reporters he is optimistic the Snyder administration can forge a solid working relationship with the president elect.

Trump’s willingness to work with U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, who criticized and ran afoul of the GOP nominee in the run-up to the election, “gives a lot of people confidence that there can be battles of the past, and people can be on different sides of things in the past, but ultimately we’re all in this for America,” Calley said.

Schuette served as Michigan primary chairman for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and initially kept his distance from Trump, repeatedly saying he would support the “nominee” without naming him. By November, however, Schuette had established himself as one of the state’s high-profile Trump backers and helped warm up fans at huge Trump rallies.

“The intensity level is blowing out the house,” Schuette said on election eve in Grand Rapids, where Trump held his final campaign rally of the cycle. “It’s pretty incredible. Something’s happening.”

Laying the groundwork

Neither Schuette, 63, nor Calley, 39, have formally announced any plans to run for governor. But both have continued to raise money and make regular appearances at public and party functions, setting themselves up should they decide to make a campaign run official.

Schuette said he is taking his future one “step at a time,” telling The Detroit News “we’re going to finish” 2016 before talking about the next election cycle.

When asked if he’s starting to explore a campaign for governor, Schuette replied: “I think we’ll be real direct about things in due time.”

Another potential Republican candidates is U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, the Harrison Township Republican who is retiring from Congress but recently won election as the next Macomb County public works commissioner.

Miller would be “formidable” if she ran for governor, Demas said, but her aggressive campaign for public works commissioner suggests she may be happy staying in that post.

“She has broad appeal for Republicans and crossover appeal,” Demas said. “She’s a strong conservative yet she comes across as eminently reasonable.”

But Miller dismissed the talk without explicitly ruling out the possibility.

“Right now, I am just so focused on this job,” Miller said Thursday of her new county position.

Several Republican officials mentioned a possible run by state Sen. Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton.

“I’ve certainly been getting a lot of encouragement, and I’m honored people are thinking of me in that way,” said Colbeck, a tea party favorite. “My wife and I are in regular discussion on a lot of topics, and that pops up sometimes.”

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, this week said he is not running for governor.

“As much as faith is a part of my life, I just realized that it isn’t where God’s leading me to serve,” Meekhof, R-West Olive, said Tuesday, reflecting on his term-limited end to serving in the Senate after 2018. “If he’s not leading me there, it’s got to be somewhere else. I just don’t know where that is yet.”

Despite Trump’s recent win, history suggests the party that holds the White House has a harder time in mid-term elections. Several top-tier Democrats are considering runs, including former Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer of East Lansing and U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee of Flint Township.

Building war chests

But Schuette and Calley have both been building their war chests for possible campaigns, according to disclosure reports filed with the Michigan Secretary of State’s Office.

State records show Schuette raised $984,317 between the start of 2015 and Oct. 20. Calley raised $620,440 during the same span, and his latest quarterly filing listed fundraisers in Grand Rapids, Lansing, Traverse City and Cadillac.

While both Republicans are fixtures of the political scene, officials say Schuette, in particular, has been a near-ubiquitous presence at party functions.

“I’m seeing him at pretty much every one of the events I go to,” said 14th Congressional District Chair Janine Kateff, whose district covers parts of Detroit, the Grosse Pointes and portions of Oakland County. “He makes it a point to come, give a little pep talk and say some encouraging words.”

Schuette made a special trip to Riverview this month to address 12th District Republicans when the state party rerouted a campaign bus tour after Trump announced a Nov. 6 rally in Sterling Heights, Runco said.

“He’s just that kind of guy,” Runco said. “He’s tireless when it comes to getting out and about and engaging with folks. I’m not saying (Calley) isn’t a hard worker, too, but I just don’t think anybody outworks Bill Schuette.”

Whether Calley’s decision to withdraw his Trump endorsement comes back to haunt him may depend on who shows up to vote in the 2018 Republican primary, said 13th District Party Chair David Dudenhoefer.

“The Trump phenomenon was one for 2016, and I think by the time 2018 comes around, the dynamics change. They always do,” Dudenhoefer said. “Will people who otherwise perhaps had not voted in previous elections that came out for Donald Trump stick around and come out again in 2018? That’s the question.”

Staff writers Chad Livengood and Melissa Nann Burke contributed.