Finley: Schuette v. Whitmer will test how much Michigan has changed

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News
Former Democratic legislative leader Gretchen Whitmer and Republican state Attorney General Bill Schuette won the nominations to run for Michigan governor.

Michigan's gubernatorial election is not quite a rerun of the 2016 presidential contest here, but it is shaping up as an intriguing sequel.

Bill Schuette and Gretchen Whitmer are neither as polarizing nor as compelling as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. And yet there are enough similarities in their face-off to set it up as a key test of how much the electoral dynamics have changed since Michigan handed Trump the presidency.

Once again, a woman rooted in the Democratic establishment dodged a strong challenge from the party's Bernie Sanders wing to secure the nomination. Whitmer, the former Senate minority leader, held the Clinton base together in Michigan by bending just far enough left, without breaking into socialism. 

Schuette, the ultimate career politician, lacks Trump's outsider status, as well as the Peck's Bad Boy persona that so delights the base. But the attorney general does have the president's endorsement, and he campaigned in the primary on his America First platform.

The question heading toward November is whether the Michigan electorate has buyer's remorse, or is ready to affirm that what happened two years ago was not a fluke.

For sure, state Republicans still love Trump — 90 percent of GOP voters approve of the president's performance, with 80 percent voicing strong approval, according to Mitchell Research Group surveys.

But what about everyone else? Better than half of state voters say they don't like Trump. Will they punish Schuette by proxy? 

Or will they buy his campaign pitch that Whitmer is the reincarnation of former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who presided over the most ruinous period in modern Michigan history, or worse, a clone of Clinton?

Like the presidential match-up, Schuette and Whitmer come with negatives that can overpower their positives.

Schuette's efforts to limit gay marriage and abortion in Michigan and his courting of the tea party give him little chance of holding together the coalition of Republicans, independents and moderates that carried Gov. Rick Snyder to victory twice. 

Schuette was damaged in the primary by opponent Lt. Gov. Brian Calley's relentless messaging that he used the attorney general's office for his personal and political gain.

Whitmer came into the race as the default choice of the Democratic power brokers, who searched for an alternative right up to the last minute. Her resume is thin — she accomplished little of substance as Senate minority leader. And her pitch is disingenuous — who really believes the daughter of a former Blue Cross chairman had to battle the big insurance companies to care for her ill mother?

Even Democrats who voted for her seem uninspired by her candidacy, and it's unknown whether she can convert voters who were so passionate about Shri Thanedar and Abdul El-Sayed.

So once again, you have for many voters the choice of the lesser of two evils.

There will be little crossover vote in this election. Republicans and Democrats will stay with their parties, and the battle will be for Independents, who now accounts for nearly a third of the Michigan electorate.  

Capturing that middle would seem an easier chore for Whitmer, who benefited from two progressive primary opponents splitting the left wing vote, allowing her to remain comparatively moderate.

Schuette had to go full-frontal Trump to secure the nomination. In the general election, he must court an electorate that is more than half anti-Trump. But his backers are true believers.

Conditions in America and in Michigan have shifted since the presidential balloting. 

Trump captured 52 percent of the white, female vote in 2016. The #metoo movement and the president's own boorishness has energized women. Will those newly empowered voters do what they didn't do two years ago and carry a woman to victory?

In Schuette's favor, the economy is blistering. Places like Macomb County, which tilted the presidency to Trump, are enjoying near record employment. Wages are increasing, as is opportunity. And they still love the president. Will they see a vote for Schuette as a vote of confidence in Trump? 

Elections are always about whose voters show up on Election Day. 

Clinton lost Michigan not because of a massive surge in Republican ballots, but because Democrats, particularly black Detroit Democrats, didn't care enough to vote. Note that Whitmer heads a ticket that so far is made up of white, suburban women. And all of the congressional and legislative races that might motivate Detroiters to the polls were settled in the primary.

So again, November 2018 will likely swing on the same question as November 2016: Will Detroiters vote, or stay home?