GOVERNOR, SECRETARY OF STATE OR ATTORNEY GENERAL: WHO IS MOST VULNERABLE NEXT YEAR?
Headed into next year’s elections, for the first time since 1990 Michigan’s top three state officials seeking to continue in office are all Democrats. In 1990, it was Gov. James Blanchard, Secretary of State Richard Austin and Attorney General Frank Kelley. In 2022, it will be Gov. Gretchen WHITMER, Secretary of State Jocelyn BENSON and Attorney General Dana NESSEL.
Upbeat after their well-attended Biennial Mackinac Island Leadership Conference this past week-end, Republicans are optimistic about 2022 because of the track record of how political parties that are out of power in the nation’s capital tend to perform two years after losing the White House and Congress. Quite well! But those are FEDERAL offices, and Democrats can feel confident about next year’s election by simply reviewing how rarely Michigan governors, secretaries of state and attorneys general ever get unseated regardless of the national climate in Washington, D.C. No incumbent Michigan governor has lost re-election to a second term since Democrat John Swainson in 1962; no Secretary of State has been unseated since Democrat Richard Austin in 1994; and no incumbent Attorney General since Republican Frank Millard in 1954 — nearly seven decades ago. So here is …
Question 1): Of the three statewide officials up for reelection in 2022, who is the most vulnerable and least vulnerable to be defeated — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, or Attorney General Dana Nessel, and why are they the most and least vulnerable?
Answer 1): Whitmer and Benson are the two biggest targets, while Nessel is probably in the safest position. Whitmer is vulnerable because there is no part of her coalition — whether it’s suburban moms, trade unionists, young voters with service jobs, or anyone with children who play sports — that she has not infuriated at some point. Small businesses may not have been with her when she first ran in 2018, but now they are highly motivated, particularly because of how she damaged them through her handling of the pandemic. The most recent polls reflect this. Whitmer is underwater, and last week’s Trafalgar survey had Republican James Craig six points ahead assuming he wins the GOP nomination. As for Benson, she has two highly visible jobs — motor vehicles/drivers’ licenses and elections — and she’s had trouble handling both. The longer the SOS branches stay illogically closed, the worse it will be for her — and if they open, people may remember that even before the pandemic wait times had increased tenfold, and the online appointment system had stretched to days, not hours. Her profile in handling elections is a far cry from Dick Austin’s image. She’s arguably the most partisan SoS in recent history. As for Nessel, yes, she may be mean as a snake, but she’s flashed a snarky sense of humor and has been the most adept with her office. She hasn’t enraged large interest groups or critical masses of individuals (except maybe Yoopers and some Roman Catholics). Still, everything depends on whom the Republicans nominate for these three offices, and right now the Michigan GOP looks like it may strike out. Donald Trump has already weighed in with endorsements of two sure losers should they win the Republican nominations for Secretary of State and Attorney General — Kristina Karamo and Matt DePerno, respectively (Republicans better hope former state House Speaker Tom Leonard can be renominated for a second AG run). And of the dozen or so GOP candidates for governor, each may have small portions of electable qualities but none is close to the “total package” it will take to beat Whitmer. She, Benson and Nessel are articulate and politically savvy incumbents who are good at raising money and retail campaigning.
Question 2): Today, the Michigan Board of State Canvassers appears ready to certify initiative petition language for ‘Secure MI Vote,” which would enact what Republicans claim are needed election law ‘reforms.’ The petitioners must collect at least 340,047 valid signatures in the next few months in order to place the measure before the GOP-controlled Legislature, which can pass it into law without the governor’s signature. What is the actual language of this proposal that circulators will ask citizens to sign?
Answer 2): Initiation of legislation amending the Michigan Election Law, 1945 PA 116, MCL 168.495, 523, 759, 759a, 759b, 813, and adding 168.523b, 760a, 946, to: require partial social security number for voter registration; require photo ID for in-person voters; require driver’s license, state-ID, partial social security number or photo ID on absentee ballot application; require voters who don’t provide this ID to present ID in person within 6 days after election to have their vote counted; provide state-funded IDs to applicants with hardships; specify minimum times clerks must accept absentee ballots for in-person or dropbox delivers; prohibit officials from making absentee ballot applications available except upon voter request; prohibit donations to fund elections.
Question 3): Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has collected about $3.4 million for her re-election campaign next year that could be in jeopardy if a lawsuit and campaign finance complaint filed by Republicans are successful. The Michigan Republican Party (MRP) is suing Secretary of State Jocelyn BENSON to keep Gov. Gretchen WHITMER from holding onto what the GOP calls “illegal excessive contributions.” The lawsuit was filed last Tuesday on behalf of MRP Chair Ron WEISER in the U.S. District Court’s Western District. Likewise, the conservative Michigan Freedom Fund filed a complaint with the state Bureau of Elections alleging that Whitmer violated campaign laws on her way to raising a record $8.6 million from Jan. 1 to July 20. Whitmer argues she should be allowed to exceed the cap on individual contributions because she is under threat of recall. It’s true that language for several recall petitions has been filed, but none of them has been certified for the ballot and almost certainly never will be. Whitmer’s campaign makes no secret that it is using a 1984 ruling that exempts candidates facing a recall from limiting individual contributions to $7,150 per donor. According to last month’s campaign disclosures, 154 donors contributed more than the state’s $7,150 individual campaign limits. Some of them include Mark (1-800-Call-Sam) Bernstein, a personal injury lawyer and a member of the University of Michigan Board of Regents ($257,150), and Illinois Gov. J. B. Pritzker ($250,000). The ruling used by the Whitmer campaign was signed in 1984 by former Democratic Secretary of State Richard Austin. It was a response to a request from then-Oakland County Prosecuting Attorney L. Brooks Patterson, a Republican, for clarification on whether state Sen. Phil Mastin (D-Pontiac) could exceed campaign finance caps because he was facing a recall. Austin ruled that campaigns COULD exceed contribution limits — which at the time were $450 for individuals — if the money went to fend off a recall. Austin argued that was only fair because committees to recall candidates aren’t subject to donation limits. The ruling has never been challenged in court. The Republican plaintiffs argue that the loophole is inapplicable because none of the recall efforts against Whitmer can be considered “active,” since none has made it past the Board of State Canvassers. So, in the final analysis, will Whitmer have to give back the $8.6 million and stop collecting any more dollars as a result of Austin’s ruling? And does anybody care?
Answer 3): Our politics may be ‘broken’ at all levels, but it’s hard to believe that a court won’t strike down this over-the-top misuse of campaign finance law. The governor is using a loophole that is begging to be plugged. Will this become a campaign issue? No, because an increasingly cynical public realizes the election system is awash in money and has given up caring about how much campaign cash is being raised and spent. This will boil down to whether Whitmer will be able to maximize her financial resources in the face of what may be a well-funded challenge by a Republican nominee, somewhat like the situation in 2006 when Gov. Jennifer Granholm realized she would be facing a billionaire (Republican Dick DeVos) and could fend him off only if she was able to raise close to the amount of money DeVos would throw at her. She did.
Question 4): If there is a so-called “forensic audit” of the 2020 election in Michigan which certifies that Joe Biden truly DID win, would that change the minds of anyone who had believed otherwise?
Answer 4): No, or at the most three to five people out of a hundred. Question is, what are all 100 going to do about it next year? Will they all vote? Or will they stay home? If the latter, the Republicans will get smoked.