Question: According to University of Michigan economic experts, Michigan will experience a ‘nearly complete recovery’ from the COVID-19 pandemic. In the coming weeks and months, the Republican-controlled Legislature will send billions of dollars in federal COVID relief money to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for her signature. Added to that, The House, Senate and Governor’s office have worked cooperatively to put $1 billion in a new economic development fund designed to lure large industrial projects to Michigan, especially an electric battery plant in Delta Township west of Lansing. The money would go into a new Strategic Outreach and Attraction Reserve (SOAR) fund, which would be a holding pot until lawmakers allocate the money to either a site development fund or a closing fund, where it could be spent through the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC). The deal also includes $400 million for businesses impacted by COVID and $75 million to raise the floor on the personal property tax exemption. With all this happening, Whitmer will almost certainly win reelection, right?
Answer: The old adage “It’s better to be lucky than good” certainly applies to Whitmer. She may be a poor governor by traditional standards, but Dame Fortune continues to smile on her. She had the advantage of having an unpopular president in 2020, Donald Trump, whom she successfully used as a foil. Once Trump was gone, she shifted gears on her wrongheaded approach to managing the coronavirus. Polls show she has begun making up lost ground with the independents and ticket-splitters whose attitude toward her will determine who wins the governorship next year. In her first two years in office, she was aggressively partisan. This past year, she’s moderated that somewhat because she realizes that’s what is needed to appeal to voters “in the middle” who decry the excessive polarization of the state’s major political actors.
As for the “recovery” the economists are talking about, if it’s just a technical ‘on paper” recovery, it may not help Whitmer that much. Yes, the economy is almost always the pre-eminent issue in elections, but in this case that may depend on whether the recovery is something that is tangible for voters. If people are still paying more for food, gas and a ‘night out’ because of raging inflation, there may be no political benefit to be gained for Whitmer, who could also be saddled with her identification with a new, equally unpopular president, Joe Biden. The pandemic has changed the way we look at customary economic markers; yes, unemployment may be relatively low, but the jobless aren’t chasing jobs so much as jobs are chasing people.
If people continue to feel Michigan is on the ‘wrong track’ because of their daily experiences, it doesn’t matter how many experts say that the health of our economy has returned to pre-COVID-19 levels. Also, economic issues aren’t the only ones out there. We’re a split state politically on explosive social/cultural issues. What is happening in education, especially in the K-12 classroom, may be critical, as we saw in the recent Virginia gubernatorial election. One Republican candidate, former Detroit police chief James Craig, is emphasizing law and order as an imperative, and while it’s unlikely that will be the paramount issue in 2022, it may be important in a close contest, not only in a GOP primary but in the general election. We’ve got a long way to go. Whitmer may be carrying a lot of baggage, but she’s a seasoned campaigner who has shown she can run rings around the Republicans in messaging, most of the time.