Despite fulfilling promises, Michigan governor's quest for second term is met with ambivalence

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has accomplished much of what he set out to do when he was elected four years ago. He's logged improvements in the state's economic health, presided over the creation of 250,000 private-sector jobs and confronted many of Detroit's worsening financial problems.

That's more than many governors achieve in a single term. But instead of cruising to re-election on the fulfillment of his 2010 promises, Snyder's bid has been met with ambivalence by parts of his own party. Some Republicans don't know what to make of his neutrality on social issues and his reluctance to bash Democrats. And he's made plenty of enemies among Democrats and organized labor.

"You know I'm not a great politician. I don't want to be a great politician," the former venture capitalist and corporate executive recently told a crowd of approving business leaders.

Snyder, who never held public office until he became governor, won the job with a campaign as a "tough nerd" and an outsider.

The business community adores him for overhauling the tax system and delivering many cuts for private enterprise. He also signed on-time state budgets and other commerce-friendly measures. But conservative activists are angry about his embrace of the Medicaid expansion in the health care overhaul, Common Core education standards and proposed higher gasoline taxes to improve roads.

Snyder also defied fellow Republicans by committing state money to help Detroit emerge from bankruptcy and vetoing GOP gun, abortion and voter ID bills.

"I expect someone with an 'R' by their name to promote the Republican Party's platform at the very least," said Joan Fabiano, a Lansing-area tea party leader.

Snyder has incensed voters on the left, too. Labor leaders were enraged that he made Michigan a right-to-work state and toughened a law giving the state more control over financially distressed local governments. Unions have targeted him for defeat. The Democratic Governors Association has spent more than $5 million on TV ads to help opponent Mark Schauer, a former one-term congressman.

Snyder remains the favorite, and most polls have shown him ahead of Schauer, who is still unknown to many voters. No first-term Michigan governor has lost re-election in 52 years.

But the former accountant's job-approval and favorability ratings are lagging. And an EPIC-MRA poll conducted in mid-July showed the candidates about even among 600 likely voters: Snyder with 46 percent, Schauer at 43 percent, with a sampling error margin of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

"This is a governor who is stuck in the mid-40s" in the polls," Schauer said. "There is a combination of anger and motivation for change."

Some observers question whether independents will stay in Snyder's corner and whether the GOP base will be excited enough about a second term to vote in large numbers.

"There are a lot of people out there who don't like what he's done," said Bill Ballenger, a political analyst and former Republican state lawmaker. "I don't think there's visceral dislike of Snyder personally. I don't think he's got any great visceral passion for him either."

A tea party candidate plans to run against Snyder's running mate, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, at the GOP's state nominating convention in August, threatening party unity before November.

Snyder, 55, beat much better-known Republicans in the 2010 primary. His rivals split the conservative vote, and he also appealed to Democrats and independents.

Once in office, he delighted conservatives with the elimination of Michigan's longstanding requirement that unionized workers pay union fees as a condition of their employment. Then he moved back toward the middle.

That shift included decisions that alienated others in his party. He vetoed an abortion-insurance bill that GOP legislators later overrode. More recently, he signed bipartisan laws raising the minimum wage and committing $195 million to prevent steep cuts in retiree pensions and the sale of city-owned art in Detroit's bankruptcy case.

"We are the comeback state. ... We've gotten a lot done, and we should be proud of that," Snyder said. "But we should not be complacent nor content."

Some analysts think he could be vice presidential material in 2016 if he secures re-election in a state that has been carried by Democrats in six straight presidential elections. But he must first win over Michigan voters, some of whom are still reeling from the Great Recession, which threatened the survival of the American auto industry.

One casualty of the downturn is Warren Allen, 59, who lost his job in Pfizer's senior management six years ago in a merger-related downsizing. So did his wife.

He said the couple pays $3,000 more a year in taxes because Snyder and the GOP-led Legislature eliminated or phased out exemptions on retirement income to help offset a major reduction in business taxes. Snyder has defended the move as fairer to all taxpayers and one that still leaves Michigan with a generous exemption.

Allen, a lifelong Republican, said he won't vote for Snyder again because people who were forced into early retirement don't qualify for a partial tax break on IRA distributions that others can take.

"He put it all on the retirees' back," Warren said, "and seniors aren't going to forget."