MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. — Attorney General Bill Schuette’s march toward the Republican nomination for governor may be smooth because it is now uncertain if his presumptive rival will even run.
Brian Calley, the lieutenant governor under term-limited Gov. Rick Snyder, is not a candidate at this weekend’s biennial GOP gathering on Mackinac Island, missing a prime opportunity to openly raise support among nearly 2,000 party activists. Calley could still enter the race, but the notion of him not announcing his candidacy by now seemed improbable last spring, when he launched a part-time Legislature ballot drive on the same island while teasing a future gubernatorial bid.
Now, Calley plans to host town hall-style events across Michigan this fall before making a final decision. He said Saturday the “normal political system has gotten so good at the politics of divide.” He wants to reach beyond Republicans to “seek out people with different points of view” by providing a venue to voice what keeps “them up at night or what are they ticked off about.”
Schuette allies are openly questioning if Calley will run, while others in the GOP — including some of Snyder’s aides — are unsure. At this stage in 2009, when the party was last gearing up for a contested gubernatorial primary, the five contenders were declared candidates. They even had their first debate at the Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference.
“I think he wants to get in. I’m not sure whether or not he will,” said Saul Anuzis, a former state GOP chairman. “Right now, Bill Schuette’s the guy to beat. His goal is to kind of clear the field so to speak.”
Schuette, of Midland, has cultivated deep ties within the party during decades in which he’s served as a congressman, state senator, Cabinet member, appellate judge and now the state’s top elected law enforcer. He also is touting his relationship with President Donald Trump, who recently tweeted his support for Schuette.
“I don’t worry about others,” said Schuette, who emphasized his desire to cut the income tax and auto insurance premiums. “I’m going to win the primary big. I’m going to win the general close.”
Other Republicans running for governor are less known: conservative state Sen. Patrick Colbeck of Canton Township, who emerged from the tea party movement in 2010, and newcomer Dr. Jim Hines, who has spent more than $400,000 of his own money.
Political analysts question whether either man can beat Schuette. But Colbeck said he has “heard this song before,” noting he beat established lawmakers in his initial Senate bid and many voters remain undecided more than 10 months before the primary.
Schuette has “been running for this position for 30 years. You’d like to think he’s out of the gate strong,” Colbeck said.
Colbeck, who opposed Snyder and other Republicans’ expansion of Medicaid and their passage of higher fuel taxes for road maintenance, said “people are sick and tired of politics as usual” and want leaders to “paint in bold colors, not pale pastels.”
“It’s a wide open lane for us in this upcoming election,” said Colbeck, who was an aerospace engineer before becoming a legislator.
Snyder, who was an outsider with no political experience eight years ago, won the primary after four more conservative candidates split the vote. While there could be an opening for a moderate candidate, Calley is more conservative than Snyder.
Stylistically, however, he is similar to the governor.
“Everybody talks about fighting all the time. Across the political spectrum, that’s the big thing — I’m going to fight. … We have been about the work, getting things done,” Calley said. He did not mention Schuette by name, but the attorney general often points the base to his own legal challenges of former President Barack Obama’s health care law and environmental regulations.
Calley said he is focused on helping people with drug addiction, mental illness or a criminal past live “full and independent and self-determined lives.” He discounted the significance of him not being a candidate yet, saying contenders are unlikely to spend large sums of money on ads until 2018.
“That’s when the campaign really starts. All of this talk that’s happening here, that’s insider stuff,” Calley said, adding that he has no “magical, informal deadline” to decide.
The meeting, though, is a big stage to make an impression on the die-hard activists and donors who fuel campaigns with volunteer and financial support.
Schuette told the crowd that Trump “knows who was with him and who wasn’t” in the presidential election — a reminder of Calley’s decision to drop his support for Trump after the release of the recording of Trump’s vulgar comments about women.
“The fact is each and every one of us here who rode for the brand, we made a difference,” he said.
Said Calley: “I’m not a robot for a brand. I’m driven by what is best for the people of the state of Michigan.”
Hines, an obstetrician-gynecologist who was a Christian missionary doctor in Africa, is casting himself as the outsider with fresh ideas and experience leading a large medical practice in Saginaw. The other candidates are “politicians that are term-limited, looking for their next job,” he said.
Snyder’s relationship with Schuette is tense because of the attorney general’s criminal investigation of the Flint water crisis and other reasons. Snyder did not say Saturday if he would like to see Calley run but called him the best lieutenant governor in the country and a “fabulous partner.”
With his tenure winding down, the second-term governor used the conference to remind Republicans of gains under his watch — an improved business climate and growth in jobs and personal income that has outpaced other states.
“I want to make sure people can build on this platform and keep going,” he said.
Schuette is saying he would be the “jobs governor” and Michigan would start “winning again” during his governorship.
Snyder countered: “We’re winning big-time.”