Actually, all that usually can be said about how Michigan goes politically is that’s how Michigan went. The state has a long history of flopping back and forth between selecting Democrats and Republicans in major elections.
Now Mitt Romney, a major flip flopper according to his opponents, has come back to town. The Republican primary is happening Feb. 28. Television ads and political commentaries are cluttering up the landscape.
The mud slinging and misrepresentations are not unexpected, but there is one big surprise. Romney’s father served as a Michigan governor and also head of now-defunct American Motors. Mitt Romney was born and raised in Michigan. Mitt Romney could lose the primary election in Michigan.
Far right-wing darling Rick Santorum rose to the top of the polls recently, gaining a virtual tie with Romney. Six months ago no one would have predicted that. Santorum won support in Michigan, as elsewhere, because of his strong appeal to the tea partiers who are playing major roles in Republican candidate selection.
Western Michigan is full of social conservatives. Even in eastern areas of the state where most voters normally are progressives, many consider themselves fiscal conservatives, and they are worried about the national debt. In addition to claiming “favorite son” status, Romney loudly proclaims himself to be a lifelong conservative who would apply business principles to correcting the federal balance sheet. So why isn’t he running far ahead in his “home” state?
For one thing, Romney’s attempts to portray himself as a local boy who in his words, “always loved Michigan,” are pretty lame. He did spend his early years at the family home in a suburb of Detroit, where he attended an exclusive prep school. But after that he hasn’t been seen often in these parts during the past 40 years.
Romney went off to college at Brigham Young University, as many good Mormon boys and girls do. Bachelor’s degree in hand, he enrolled at Harvard for degrees in law and business. He founded a financial company in Boston in 1984, entered politics in 1994 by losing a senatorial contest in Massachusetts, and later served as governor of the Bay State. He never has lived in Michigan as an adult.
Santorum and friends are attacking Romney’s conservative credentials at every opportunity. A major charge is that the “Romneycare” health care plan adopted in Massachusetts while Romney was governor was the model for “Obamacare” enacted at the federal level.
Romney ran into a problem even when he consistently and steadfastly maintained a conservative position. He said months ago, and recently repeated to Michigan media, that he opposed federal bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler sponsored by both the Bush and Obama administrations. It is generally acknowledged that the bailout loans saved both auto manufacturers.
General Motors recently announced from its world headquarters in Detroit a record breaking profit for 2011. Chrysler sales have improved mightily. Both companies are once again hiring in Michigan, and GM is planning plant expansions here and in nearby states. Big chunks of the bailout funds have been repaid.
Continuing to say that the proper course of action was to let GM and Chrysler fail while the federal government stood by doing nothing might draw applause in a tea party caucus, but it doesn’t play well in Detroit. Most Michiganders are ardent supporters of the American auto industry, even those who are anti-union and thus could fall into either the Romney or Santorum camps.
Like Romney, Santorum says he does not believe in government help for corporations, except for tax breaks. However, on any other issue you can name, he leans farther right than Romney, or at least he has convinced many tea partiers that he does.
Another factor probably will help Santorum. The Republican-controlled legislature and GOP governor changed primary election rules after they got a firm grip on political power in Michigan. Until this go-around, voters received a unified ballot and could make choices across party lines at will. This year, voters in the primaries can use only a Republican or Democratic ballot. It could be that the change won’t have as much effect on cross-over voting as the Republicans apparently hoped for.
There’s much talk on the political grapevine, and some out in the open, about the intention of many dedicated Democrats to ask for a Republican ballot and vote for Santorum. They believe Obama will have a much easier time in November running against the radical ex-senator than the more moderate Romney.
There could be a little bonus here for Romney. Should he lose the Michigan primary it may not be a mortal blow. He could blame a defeat on those tricky Democrats as he once again exits the state.
We’ll soon see what happens. As Michigan goes, so might the nation. But don’t count on it.