This article originally appeared in The Detroit News.
The field is set: Bill Schuette. Brian Calley. Patrick Colbeck. Jim Hines. Gretchen Whitmer. Shri Thanedar. Even Abdul El-Sayed, though whether or not his name will be able to appear on the ballot remains to be seen. Michigan governor candidates are introducing themselves, they’re pulling stunts, they’re maneuvering with their activist bases, and they’re hoping to catch their groove heading into the spring.
A word of advice to voters and political observers; the stunts, the phony town halls, and the early digital ad wars are a mildly titillating sideshow, but they won’t make much difference come August — or November.
Personalities matter, but so do issues. This year in particular, amidst a hyper-divisive political environment with an angrier-than-ever-before 24 hour news cycle, it’s the big issues and how candidates up and down the ballot respond to them that will drive voter sentiment and, eventually, behavior.
Pay attention to how candidates are engaging and pay attention to their track records. What they’ve done in the past is going to inform the multi-million dollar advertising campaigns that’ll carry them through Election Day. These are the issues campaigns need to address if they’re going to have success in 2018:
■ Taxes and pocketbook Issues. The unmitigated success of last December’s federal tax reform has kicked off a fresh wave of tax cut fever among Republicans in Michigan, while Democrats double down on the assertion that thousand dollar savings for local families represent little more than “crumbs.”
Tax policy can be incredibly dry, but big bonuses, fatter paychecks, and a bizarre habit by many in the mainstream press to decry and belittle tax relief and its proponents ensure this topic will remain front and center.
■ Sexual harassment and assault. From the #MeToo movement to Larry Nassar and the disgusting way prominent “leaders” at Michigan State University covered up and tried to excuse away a serial sexual predator, no issue may generate more ink and air time than the candidates’ positions on sexual harassment and assault. The year has already seen one prominent Democratic candidate for state Senate publicly defend MSU Trustee Joel Ferguson, get universally lambasted, then publicly reverse course.
You better believe opposition research teams are combing through candidates’ personal histories, track records, and donor rolls. They’ll be asked again and again by reporters and by town hall participants from one end of the state to the next what they’re doing. Including the obvious: Why, as Ingham County prosecutor, for instance, one didn’t do more, and, why won’t she return campaign checks from an accused sexual predator.
■ Sunshine. It’s a press favorite, but if you were to poll voters on the issues that matter most to them, it’s a good bet FOIA reform ain’t it. Michigan State University’s appalling handling of complaints about Nassar will change this for the now. Smart candidates will race to the light. The one or two who stake out the most aggressive, pro-transparency positions early will do themselves a big favor with voters.
■ Workers’ rights. Michigan’s economy was in shambles eight years ago, but it’s been rebuilt. The turnaround has been nothing short of spectacular; the folks back to work after a lost decade are enjoying more rights than ever before. Voters should keep a keen eye on the approach by candidates to workplace freedom. A candidate’s approach to right to work, the prevailing wage mandate, and new red tape and regulations from the state Capital couldn’t be more important. Equally important is a candidate’s approach to those who refuse to work. Our state needs ready workers more than ever and those who sit on the sidelines subsidized by those who do punch the clock needs to be addressed.
Voters have plenty of choices in 2018. Winning candidates will be those who get the issues right.
Greg McNeilly is chairman of the Michigan Freedom Fund.