Moderate Republican Candidate Swims Against Party Tide in Michigan


HOLLAND, Mich. — Maybe it's going too far to call Rick Snyder a member of an endangered species. Better perhaps just to call him an outlier. But one thing is clear: Snyder, the favorite in Michigan's gubernatorial campaign, is something unusual: a moderate Republican in a year when conservative militancy dominates his political party. And he doesn't back down. At a recent town hall meeting in a conservative section of West Michigan, Snyder challenged the right-leaning base of the GOP with the candor that has become his trademark. "If you step back for a minute and you look at what people are actually saying, if you peel and pull that back, about 50 to 80 percent of the time there's a common ground that we don't disagree on," he said. "The thing is that we've got a system today that says, 'Let's fight about the 10 percent on the extremes.' My view is, 'Let's advance the 50 to 80."

Snyder, who is 52 years old, is a venture capitalist and former Gateway computer executive who lives in the liberal enclave of Ann Arbor. He has never occupied public office before. For him, merely holding a citizens' meeting in small-town Ottawa County is something of an experiment. In dramatic contrast to nearly every other Republican candidate to win a gubernatorial primary nationally this year, Snyder owed his victory less to the GOP's conservative base than to independents and Democrats.

Fewer than half as many voters in Ottawa County voted for Snyder as voted for former Congressman Pete Hoekstra-one of four Republican primary competitors with platforms sharply to Snyder's right. Many political observers here believe that the other contenders lost because they so discounted the chances of a moderate candidate winning that they spent all their time pummeling one another and split the tea party and conservative vote. "Snyder just snuck right up the middle," says Bernie Porn, a pollster for the firm EPIC/MRA in Lansing. "No one challenged him. No one even paid attention to him."

The state's open primary process allowed Democrats to cross over and vote for Snyder, giving him momentum that has carried into the general election. " A third of Snyder's votes came from Democrats and independents," says Craig Ruff, a public policy consultant and former GOP gubernatorial adviser . "He still would have won without them. But with them, he made it look like a cake walk." General election polling indicates that many of those voters may cast similar ballots in November. Independents are breaking overwhelmingly for Snyder and surprising percentages of Democrats indicate that they'll vote for him or at least have a favorable opinion of him."The values ideologues are not involved to any great degree in the gubernatorial race," says former GOP congressman Joe Schwarz.

Photo by Melissa Maynard, Stateline
In a series of more than 60 citizens' meetings around the state, former Gateway executive Rick Snyder has emphasized the need to find common ground.

Tough Nerd

Since the primary, Snyder has largely steered clear of ideological issues and instead relied on businesslike pragmatism and a popular ad campaign portraying him as a "tough nerd" to propel him into a double-digit lead in his race against Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, the Democratic nominee.

Bernero's biggest claim to fame is his role in advocating for a federal bailout of the Big Three automakers in 2008, which earned him the nickname of the "angry mayor." Bernero preaches economic populism and tends, like Snyder, to deemphasize the importance of political parties: "There's a two-party system, but it's not really Democrat versus Republican, it's Main Street versus Wall Street," he said at a campaign event. Bernero's vocal support for abortion rights and union labor helped him win the Democratic primary against the more moderate House Speaker Andy Dillon, who opposes abortion rights and has angered many influential unions, including the AFL-CIO, during his time as Speaker. Bernero's campaign Web site emphasizes his support for labor, and holds policies "hostile to union labor" accountable for the state's economic challenges .

Snyder, on the other hand, has run a campaign that befits his background in the high-risk, high-return world of venture capitalism. He spent early and extravagantly on advertising-largely out of his own pockets-but vowed that he wouldn't take any money from political action committees.

Not only that, but Snyder refused to answer the standard questionnaires detailing his positions that pressure groups typically ask candidates to fill out as they're considering whom to endorse. The major groups didn't care for that. "That was a disqualifying factor," says Bob LaBrant of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which opposed Snyder in the primary but has agreed to back him against Bernero.

Photo courtesy of Virg for Michigan
Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero is best known for his impassioned pleas for a federal bailout of the Big Three automakers in 2008, which earned him the nickname "the angry mayor."

The "One Tough Nerd" ad theme was launched during last year's Super Bowl, when Snyder was largely unknown outside of Ann Arbor. It got so much traction that it changed the complexion of the race. "It seemed to sum up a lot about his personality and also a lot about what it's going to take to get the state out of its morass," says Ruff. "It's going to take a lot of tough nerds."

During the town hall meeting in Holland, Snyder used language that would have been as appropriate in a board room as on the campaign trail-balance sheets and 10-point plans-and avoided divisive topics. He launched no offensives against the Democratic Party or its unpopular office-holders in Lansing and Washington and instead worked to position himself above the fray.

One attendee managed to combine two of the most polarizing issues in American politics-abortion and gay marriage-into a single question. Snyder spent less than ten seconds addressing both issues and then said, "To be open with you, when I'm out campaigning, I actually don't spend much time on social issues… my primary focus is on jobs, the economy, restructuring our government, because we're suffering so badly here."

Creating a Balance Sheet

There is something inherently nerdy and nonpartisan about the economic and fiscal plan that is at the core of Snyder's campaign. Like many Republican candidates this election cycle, Snyder often emphasizes the need to break down bureaucratic obstacles and rein in state spending. But he follows it up with a level of nuance that acknowledges the complexity of the state's economic and fiscal challenges without making them seem insurmountable. Armed with his accounting background and the trio of University of Michigan degrees (BA, MBA and JD) that he earned by the age of 23, he vows to create a single balance sheet for all levels of state and local government with charts and graphics that ordinary citizens can understand. Snyder jokes that the state's comprehensive annual financial report, a complex document that he's pored through a couple of times, should have a warning label on it: "Not fit for human consumption."

He vows to make sense out of the state budget, making budgeting decisions based on long-term return on investment-whether that means spending less money or more. Snyder says that recent state cuts to mental health services, for example, were short-sighted and have done more long-term harm than good. He says the across-the-board program cuts that Michigan and other states have leaned on heavily in recent years are "a management failure because that means you don't know your job well enough to say, 'This is more important than that.' It's a cop-out." 

On the same night as Snyder's town hall meeting in Holland, an umbrella group of tea partiers called the Southwest MI TEA Party Patriots gathered in the basement of an Italian restaurant in nearby Paw Paw to reflect on the progress they've made in the past year and strategize about general election races. According to a recent poll, 40 percent of Michigan residents are supportive of the tea party movement, a far higher level than is typical of national polls. The group's leader, Gene Clem, emphasized the success of the tea party's first statewide convention-and couldn't resist the opportunity to take a crack at Snyder. "All the Republican gubernatorial candidates showed except for one," he said, to a chorus of jeers from the audience.

Still, a surprising number of tea partiers are quietly supporting Snyder, even if he wasn't their first, second or even third choice in the primary. "He is a businessman, and when he was working at Gateway he successfully grew their business," says Roger Hensley of Kalamazoo. And even if Hensley doesn't agree with some of Snyder's more moderate positions, he's setting those aside in this race. "The way I look at it," he says, "is that if you have people who are suffering, none of that does them any good." Some tea partiers also appreciate the hard line Snyder has taken against special interests. "In hindsight, I think it was smart that he didn't come around begging for our vote," says Tony Dugal of Kalamazoo. "We're a special interest, too."


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