Michigan Governor: Falling Star- What Ever Happened to Jennifer Granholm?

by Stuart Rothenberg June 22, 2006 · 12:10 AM EDT

If only Canadian-born Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) had been born in the United States, many state and national political commentators said a couple of years ago, she might well have become the Democratic nominee for vice president in 2008 or the party’s White House candidate in 2012.

More than a few observers cited Granholm alongside California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) as poster children for a constitutional amendment that would allow naturalized American citizens the right to hold the presidency.

Granholm eventually may regain her status as a star of the Democratic Party. But right now, she is more concerned with her political survival in November.

Granholm, the only sitting governor in the nation to be a contestant on “The Dating Game,” faces a formidable challenge from wealthy Republican businessman Dick DeVos, whose father was a co-founder of Amway and whose wife previously chaired the state Republican Party.

An early June EPIC/MRA survey of 600 likely voters conducted for the Detroit News and WXYZ-TV showed the extent of the governor’s problems.

Granholm’s job approval in the poll stood at 40 percent, while 59 percent said they disapproved of her performance. Not surprisingly given those numbers, only 30 percent of respondents said they would vote to re-elect her, while 33 percent said they would vote to replace her.

DeVos held a 48 percent to 40 percent lead over Granholm in the poll, with almost one in five Democrats selecting DeVos over the governor. Ominously, independents preferred DeVos over Granholm 46 percent to 30 percent.

Not everyone believes DeVos’ lead is that large. Some private polling suggests the race is closer, though it confirms that the Republican has the edge and that Granholm has serious electoral problems across the board.

Everyone agrees that Granholm’s greatest problem, and potential downfall, is the state’s economy. The American automobile industry’s illness has become acute, and it has spread to companies that survive off the auto sector.

“I’ve never seen an issue pop as consistently and to the exclusion of other issues as the economy in Michigan,” one veteran insider told me recently. “It has been building for two years.”

DeVos went up on television with paid advertising in March, with help from his own checkbook, and he has been on the air ever since. And he is likely to continue the air assault all the way to November, without a major break.

Democrats who know the state and are watching the race closely blame Granholm for spending too much time “listening” and for not being nearly aggressive enough in dealing with the state’s economic problems.

One Democratic political veteran, who says DeVos “isn’t a great candidate,” admiringly adds that the Republican has performed well in his own ads and that he has successfully “presented himself as someone who understands [the state’s economic problems] and is going to do something.” Voters want action, and they see DeVos as someone who will act.

Of course, Democrats have yet to launch an all-out assault on the GOP candidate, and Republicans already say they know what will be coming. They predict that Granholm will attack DeVos for allegedly “outsourcing” U.S. jobs and therefore for being part of the state’s problem, not its solution.

Granholm already has tried to blame President Bush for the state’s economic condition, and she is sure to return to that argument. But she is also likely to emphasize her proposals to deal with creating more jobs in the state.

Republicans are expecting a strong counterattack. As one DeVos ally joked, “We’d be happy to have the election next week.”

But Republicans have to feel that they are fortunate to be in the position that they are, with a one-time star of the Democratic Party now scrambling to survive past November.

Given the state’s fundamental partisan alignment, Granholm surely has the ability to recover and re-establish herself as the frontrunner in the race. But for now, it’s up to the governor to attack DeVos, and he has the resources to answer her attacks and launch new ones of his own.

Finally, Granholm’s problems should serve as a warning to those in the media who become enamored with a new political face and immediately turn that person into a political icon. Officeholders must prove themselves every day, and true political stardom, if there is such a thing, takes years to develop.