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Ready to Capitalize on Voter Frustration

Can GOP stay out of their own way?

By John Sellek

“No one’s going to sit there as a Democratic consultant and try to bullshit you that this is anything but a really sour environment for Democrats.”

Those stunning words are not from a Republican political operative. They are from one of America’s premier Democratic pollsters, John Anzalone, who not only advises President Joe Biden but also our governor, Gretchen Whitmer.

While he has likely offered Gov. Whitmer a lot of good political advice, it doesn’t change the fact that Democrats are facing a hurricane of frustration, fear, and fury.

Voters who formed the winning 2020 Biden coalition were simply hoping to take a deep, cleansing breath after a turbulent few years under President Trump and the pandemic, but that hasn’t happened. As a result, President Biden and Democrats up-and-down the ticket are electorally weakened to a massive extent.

Instead of getting some downtime – inflation, inflation and then more inflation has rocked voters and businesses alike. And uncertainty is building from events like the scary and sad American withdrawal from Afghanistan and the horrifying Russian invasion of Ukraine that carries the threat of nuclear war.

All of this has piled on top of the echoes of Gov. Whitmer’s decisions during the pandemic on the economy, nursing homes, and our personal freedoms; not to mention political mistakes involving maskless visits to the bar, flights to Florida and (attempted) boat rides.

Plus, fair or not (little is fair in politics), voters returning to their pre-pandemic lives are also demanding to know why the roads aren’t fixed yet.

Crowded Republican Field for a ‘Miserable’ Job

So, we’ve established that being governor in this era is hard and probably just a bit miserable.

Yet the GOP had 10 candidates submit the thousands of signatures required to run for governor – more than any GOP primary in 100 years.

What gives?

Well, there is immense energy in the Republican Party today, driven by pandemic-era policy choices and the resulting polls showing that voters are unhappy with Democratic governance.

We started a year ago (that’s right, campaigns never end!) with the surprise candidacy of James Craig, who stormed into the lead and stayed there for a long time. Since then, we have also seen the rise of Tudor Dixon, Perry Johnson, Kevin Rinke, Garrett Soldano, Mike Markey, Mike Brown and more as they jumped into the race to challenge Gov. Whitmer.

This is not the GOP of the past where the ballot is flooded with career politicians seeking higher office. What all of these candidates have in common is that they are political outsiders seeking change, or, at least, attention.

While Gov. Whitmer’s supporters may scratch their heads at the GOP running against expired pandemic edicts, polling shows those decisions are still key in many voters’ decision making (just ask former small business owners) and are what activated so many GOP candidates and activists to begin with.

Other key issues on the GOP’s pro-business, pro-freedom agenda include inflation, are energy infrastructure, roads and homebound parents’ refocus on their children’s education.

No Sure Victories, Trump Endorsement Looms Large

While the political environment looks favorable for Republicans, victories are no sure thing. Trump’s inability to accept the 2020 results, coupled with a loyalty test based on that issue, led to massive intraparty division at the GOP state convention in April and the rare instance of a legislator being kicked out of the House Republican caucus. Additionally, the GOP has a tendency to take effective political wedge issues way too far for the comfort of voters they need to win statewide.

Despite that, in addition to the need to show they can raise and spend Whitmer-levels of campaign cash, the biggest remaining moment in the near term of the GOP gubernatorial primary is Trump’s endorsement. That endorsement will go a long way, if not all the way, in determining the nomination. That may hurt in the general election, but the Democrats will hang Trump around the nominee’s neck regardless.

Voters Likely Bringing Sledgehammers to Ballot Box

While all of this GOP noise may give Democrats hope, remember this: you and I are not normal!

No offense, but those of us on Mackinac (and Twitter) aren’t “normal” because we spend so much time plugged in to the political discussion. We know the ins and outs of the candidates and issues.

Meanwhile, the rest of the state is just trying to get by, to survive the pandemic while fretting about their finances, children’s education and mental well-being, crime and more.

That means two things.

First, both Democrats and Republicans have a lot of work to do reach voters and define the brands of statewide candidates, good and bad. But, second, all their efforts to spin voters may not matter much because voters are likely to enter the ballot box with a sledgehammer, not a scalpel, as they vote their frustrations on the ruling party.

John Sellek, CEO of Harbor Strategic Public Affairs, is a public relations executive who previously served Michigan’s governor, legislature and two attorneys general. He advised Gov. Whitmer’s 2018 opponent, Bill Schuette.


”There is immense energy in the Republican Party today, driven by pandemic-era policy choices and the resulting polls showing that voters are unhappy with Democratic governance.”
-John Sellek, Chief Executive Officer, Harbor Strategic Public Affairs