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Surprising no one, Calley enters the race for governor

Nov 29, 2017

Lt. Gov. Brian Calley has announced that he is, indeed, a candidate for the Republican nomination for governor next year, which wasn’t exactly a surprise.

In fact, he has been expected to get in for so long some were starting to think that maybe he wouldn’t run after all.

Something like that happened eight years ago, when then-lieutenant governor John Cherry was widely expected to try to succeed his boss, Jennifer Granholm. But in January, Cherry announced that he wasn’t running.

He said he was having trouble raising money, but I suspected the real truth was that it was going to be a horrible year for Democrats. Governor Granholm was unpopular, there was a backlash against the Affordable Care Act, and Republicans went on to sweep Michigan that fall.

Now, the reverse is more or less true. Governor Rick Snyder is deeply unpopular, and President Trump’s approval ratings are at historic lows. If that weren’t bad enough, the Snyder-Calley administration has the burden of being seen as the guys who poisoned Flint.

On top of that, Calley has another problem. He gets into this race as a huge underdog to Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, who has been running for years, and has a huge fund-raising and name recognition advantage.

Calley, despite being lieutenant governor for almost seven years, is still largely unknown statewide. He could probably walk into any major shopping mall anywhere in this state and be unrecognized. He is popular with those who have family members with autism. The lieutenant governor’s daughter is autistic, and he has worked hard to increase autism awareness, and to make sure insurance companies cover treatment for autism.

Yet beyond that, he faces an uphill climb. His pre-campaign was largely notable for a series of misfirings. Calley’s signature issue has been a petition drive to make Michigan’s legislature part-time, something he unveiled at the Mackinac Conference last May. But the launch was shaky, and the organizers lost time and had to throw out several thousand signatures when the petitions had to be redone.

In addition, the effort has been widely denounced as wrong-headed, even dangerous, by not only Democrats, but by many normally Republican allies, such as Rich Studley, the head of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. Calley has now handed off the petition drive to other leadership, but it seems fair to say he didn’t get the lift from it he wanted.

Still, I think having him in the race is good for all concerned -- including Bill Schuette. While there are also a few lesser-known candidates, like state Senator Pat Colbeck, Schuette deserves to be tested by a heavyweight challenger. Calley is of a different generation than Schuette; at 40, he is young enough to be the 64-year-old attorney general’s son.

Schuette is also widely viewed as opportunistic and catering mainly to the hard right, and Calley may appeal to those Republicans who are not too thrilled with Donald Trump.

That remains to be seen. Recently, I asked three longtime Republicans who they’d most like as their candidate. Their response: Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller, who they thought could beat any opponent in either party.

My guess is that if they agree on little else, both Calley and Schuette are happy she’s staying out of this race.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.