Candice Miller tests waters for a gov run in Michigan

Nolan Finley, and Ingrid Jacques

Mackinac Island — Of all the elephants in the room up here this past weekend, Candice Miller perhaps was the biggest of them all.

What might have seemed like a send-off party for the retiring Macomb County Republican congresswoman, felt more like a welcoming home to a political future in Michigan.

While Miller says she’s leaving Congress to spend more time with her family, she acknowledged her career in public life may not be over.

“I’m kicking the tires,” she says, while attending a reception for Attorney General Bill Schuette during the Michigan Republican Leadership Conference.

Miller’s large presence on the island — she escorted red-hot presidential candidate Carly Fiorina — set off speculation that she may have her eyes set on a gubernatorial bid in 2018. It certainly caught the attention of other anticipated hopefuls, including Schuette’s team.

“She’s very formidable,” says a long-time Schuette strategist. “She has lots of talent, lots of skill and a very impressive base in Macomb County.”

That’s going to be an important factor, as Macomb replaces Oakland County as the GOP stronghold in southeast Michigan.

The betting on Miller running was divided.

“At the end of the day, I don’t think she’s going to run,” says Schuette’s guy.

That was what a lot of people thought going into this weekend, but perceptions changed for many after watching her work the gathering for two days.

Miller hosted the hottest ticket reception Saturday for Fiorina. It was filled to capacity, with a block-long line to get in. Inside, support for Miller was as strong as for Fiorina.

“Everybody in there was asking her to run,” says Stu Sandler, who recently formed the consulting firm Grand River Strategies with Miller’s former aide Jamie Roe. “It changed my mind about her future plans.”

Schuette and the other likely contender, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, were in full campaign mode — sponsoring lavish receptions, including one at which Calley, on keyboard, provided the entertainment. Both men covered the island with T-shirts and other campaign paraphernalia.

Should Miller enter the race, it would be a game-changer for both the Democrats and Republicans. As a veteran congresswoman, her ability to raise money would make this a high-stakes campaign.

Before running for Congress, she served two terms as a much-loved secretary of state. Her statewide name recognition is high.

And Miller is known as a tough, smart, relentless campaigner. She certainly would affect the decision-making process of other GOP contenders. The same may be true for Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, often mentioned as a potential Democratic candidate.

Both Miller and Hackel draw support from across party lines in Macomb. If both got in the governor’s race, it would split that Macomb base. And given Miller’s historic strength, that’s not a risk Hackel may be willing to take.

Calley would not comment on either his own intentions or Miller’s prospects.

Miller was clearly enjoying herself and the attention. And she was not surprised she was the object of so much prognosticating.

“I’m here, I’m on Mackinac,” she says. “I’m with Carly. Of course people speculate.”

Asked if her Mackinac turn is a testing of the waters for a gubernatorial run, Miller says: “Absolutely it is.”

The GOP is fighting history as it seeks to replace Gov. Rick Snyder with another Republican. The governor’s office has changed partisan hands with each new governor since William Milliken.

Miller, a woman, a conservative who appeals to independents, and a veteran of Michigan’s campaign trail, would be a tempting choice for those seeking to change that pattern.

If she gets in, at the very least she’ll set a much faster pace for the 2018 race.