Chad Selweski covered state and regional politics for The Macomb Daily for nearly 30 years. He contributes to Deadline Detroit and blogs at Politically Speaking.
By Chad Selweski
An hour or two after the polls closed, Republican Bill Schuette was hanging on, keeping the gubernatorial race against Democrat Gretchen Whitmer within single digits.
But the attorney general must have known what was coming. As pro-Whitmer votes came flooding in from Metro Detroit, the 34-year political veteran saw his ambitions fading fast on a day when voter turnout was off the charts despite rainy, windswept weather.
Was it a Blue Wave? Was it a female-led Pink Wave? Regardless, Schuette couldn’t keep his head above water.
In Wayne County, he lost to Whitmer by a 71-27 percent margin, including a 93-4 percent wipeout in the city of Detroit.
In Oakland County, once a Republican bastion, he lost by an astonishing 100,000 votes, a 57-41 percent gap. In Macomb County, where Schuette’s biggest fan, President Trump, remains popular, the outcome was much closer, 50-47 percent. But political pundits had widely assumed that Schuette could not win Michigan without carrying the key battleground of Macomb.
Whitmer’s winning margin statewide surged to 53-44 and the race was over.
At the same time, Whitmer’s big showing across the tri-county area pulled along her fellow Democrats on the ticket, with Jocelyn Benson winning for secretary of state and Dana Nessel succeeding Schuette for AG. (Someone needs to figure out a female version of the old “coattails” reference used to describe a big election win.) With a late-breaking victory, again thanks to Metro Detroit, U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow rounded out the sweep by the all-female Democratic team.
A few weeks before the election, Republican activists began grumbling privately that Schuette was running an ineffective, lackluster campaign. He was strong in Trump country, maintaining control in nearly all the rural counties Up North and on the west side of the state. But critics said he wasn’t spending enough time in Metro Detroit, where half the state’s voters reside.
As one seasoned Democratic official put it: “Bill Schuette is a gifted politician. But he just seems like he’s off his game.”
Whitmer's Upbeat Ads
In contrast, Whitmer morphed into a strong campaigner as the election season went on, and her upbeat TV ads contrasted nicely with the attack mode used by Schuette (and many other candidates). Ironically, the East Lansing Democrat’s major weakness for many months had been her inability to gain traction in southeast Michigan, the region that ultimately sealed her win.
For weeks, Schuette tried to portray himself as the hero of the Flint water crisis and the Larry Nassar scandal at Michigan State University while trying to place some blame for both debacles on Whitmer, the former state Senate Minority Leader. But voters seemed to view Flint and Nassar as dark moments mired in by villains. No heroes in all that muck.
Late in the game, Schuette turned to scare tactics, claiming that Whitmer would ruin Michigan’s revived economy. He went further, asserting that voters should fear the Democratic candidate because she was an “extremist” who would invite a wave of unsavory illegal immigrants to the state.
It didn’t work for obvious reasons. The idea that Whitmer, who campaigned as a typical mom of two teenage girls, was dangerous seemed rather absurd.
While Whitmer hammered away at a simple message, “Fix the damn roads,” her GOP opponent, despite his long political resume, appeared out of tune.
Women Propel Historic Turnout
When all the numbers are dissected, the post-mortem on this election probably will show that suburban women provided an overriding advantage for the energized Democrats, as analysts anticipated. Anecdotal evidence suggests that women drove the unprecedented turnout, with Oakland County (64 percent) and Macomb County (59 percent) up near percentages normally seen only in presidential elections.
Maybe Schuette was off his game, but his campaign never seemed to shake the after-effects of a divisive Republican primary he won in August, defeating term-limited Gov. Rick Snyder’s preferred successor, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley.
Snyder responded by declining to endorse Schuette, a flashy politician who had clashed often with the mild-mannered governor. The non-endorsement did some damage but Snyder never flinched. Whether it was Schuette’s praise for Trump, or his stance on any number of big issues – same-sex marriage, Medicaid expansion or protecting the Great Lakes – the governor probably sensed, maybe with some satisfaction, that Schuette was out of step with the electorate.
On Election Night, Snyder was not at the big Schuette “Victory Party.” He was spotted in Ann Arbor, at the season opener for the University of Michigan basketball team, dressed casually, a ball cap on his head.
That was a symbol of the kind of night it was for Schuette and the GOP: Game over.