Finley: Flint turning Snyder into a politician

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News


Nearly halfway through his second term, the governor who boasted of not being a politician is finally grasping the necessity of playing politics.

Gov. Rick Snyder is coming here today to host a brunch at the Cleveland library for the Michigan delegation to the Republican National Convention. Though he’s not scheduled to stop by the convention hall, the visit fits into a political agenda that is preoccupying the governor this summer: saving the Michigan House for Republicans.

The GOP holds an 18-seat majority in the 110 member House, and Democrats are making reclaiming that chamber their top priority in Michigan this year. They believe they have a good shot, in part because of Snyder’s flagging popularity. The national party is raising money for state legislative races, and of the 45 term-limited lawmakers in Michigan, 27 are Republicans.

And while Snyder has not always had the cooperation he might expect from a Republican-controlled House, he has a self interest in turning back the challenge: He doesn’t want this election to become a referendum on him.

“That’s true to an extent,” says Jarrod Agen, Snyder’s chief of staff, who has been in Cleveland all week on the governor’s behalf. “But he also knows that he can’t get done what he needs to do in Flint if we lose the House.”

Snyder is hoping to revive an administration that has been hamstrung by the public outcry of its handling of the Flint water crisis. The governor’s performance and popularity numbers have dropped to a dismal level since Flint.

Now Snyder, who once entertained notions of coming to Cleveland as the GOP presidential nominee, is here to get his back his Michigan mojo.

Flint has woken up Snyder to the importance of political engagement. Until now, he’s avoided retail politics the way an Internet shopper avoids the mall. He was rarely seen at purely political events and had little connection to the party’s grassroots, the sort of people who make up the GOP’s convention delegation. And he certainly did not control the machinations of the state party the way that former Gov. John Engler did.

Snyder has taken a mostly hands-off approach, happy to let others, most notably Attorney General Bill Schuette, be the face or the Republican Party in Michigan. That’s changing.

The governor is showing up at local Lincoln Day Dinners, the GOP’s major fundraising vehicle, particularly in the districts of legislative leaders such as House Speaker Kevin Cotter and Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof. He’s also meeting with Republican donors, and is on the phone helping to raise the $6 million the party is seeking to pour into the 16 House races it believes is at risk.

Snyder’s RPA political action committee is making its own donations to House candidates. This week, the governor made the rare move of endorsing candidates endorsements in several contested GOP primary races.

“As a fundraiser, he’s very effective,” says Ronna Romney McDaniel. “No one else has his reach with donors. And he has been very engaged this year. He’s done all we’ve asked.”

House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, says he’s happy for the help.

“The governor gets that we have to hold the House if we hope to get things done in the next two years,” he says.

Fundraising is one thing, turning out voters is another. And that’s where the party needs help. With Donald Trump topping the ticket as the presidential nominee, no one can predict turnout, or whether the presidential nominee will help or hurt the down ballot GOP candidates. And Democrats tend to vote in larger numbers in presidential years.

Snyder’s effectiveness is somewhat hampered by his refusal so far to endorse Trump and his unwillingness to participate in the actual convention. Like Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Snyder is staying away from Quicken Loans Arena.

With Trump voters in particular, that could resonate as an elitist stance. Snyder tends to be more popular in districts where Trump is less so, and vice versa. So the party is using him strategically in terms of voter contact.

GOP operative Stu Sandler, who is consulting in a number of House races, says the governor is still an asset.

“Republicans are still with him,” Sandler says. “Overall, if he stays engaged, it will be a good thing for the party.”

Nolan Finley’s book “Little Red Hen: A Collection of Columns from Detroit’s Conservative Voice” is available from Amazon, iBooks and Barnes & Noble Nook.