With the help of $15 million or so in advertising, much of it fueled by his personal fortune, Michigan GOP gubernatorial candidate Dick DeVos is in a statistical dead heat with incumbent Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm in the polls.
Success for DeVos, however, may depend on keeping the spotlight on Granholm's economic record -- or lack of it. She remains personally popular with a substantial majority of Michigan voters. But her re-elect numbers are running below 50 percent, reflecting a widespread feeling that she hasn't achieved much of consequence despite the state's dire circumstances.
Last week DeVos went off-message, asserting to an Associated Press reporter asserting that local school boards should be allowed to order that "intelligent design" be taught in the classroom. That might shore up his conservative, western Michigan base, but it could provide grist for opponents eager to portray any Republican as some sort of religious nut who caters to right-wing extremists.
The good news for DeVos is that Granholm's effort to play the class warfare card appears to have flopped. Early Democratic TV ads and Granholm speeches hammered the fact that under DeVos's leadership, his Alticor Corp., the huge direct sales outfit formerly known as Amway, cut about 1,000 jobs in hard-pressed Michigan while pouring hundreds of millions of investment dollars into China.
The Detroit automakers have been doing much the same thing -- and in far bigger numbers -- for years. Yet Granholm hasn't criticized them, as local commentators have noted. And Alticor, unlike the car companies, is still turning a profit, placing it in a position to create new jobs in the future. DeVos managed to enlist Lee Iacocca, one of the most popular figures in Michigan business history -- and a man who has been closely associated with Democrats in the past -- to make just that point in a devastating new TV ad.
Meanwhile the DeVos campaign continues to stress the need for fundamental change in the Michigan economic climate, starting with elimination of the state's detested Single Business Tax. Granholm crows about her success in bringing a Google office to Ann Arbor and several Japanese auto operations to other areas of Michigan. But the number of jobs she claims to have "created" is a drop in the bucket compared to the 100,000 or so jobs Michigan has lost since she took office in 2002.
Likewise her proposals to pour more money into education have aroused little enthusiasm -- perhaps because during her tenure Michigan's K-12 system has continued to deliver mediocre results at best while costing taxpayers far more per teacher than in other states. As if to reinforce the image of a labor movement with its head in the sand, the Detroit teachers recently went on strike to demand higher pay even as students were fleeing the city in droves -- some 30,000 students in just the last year, according to official statistics.
DeVos could still blow the opportunity he has created for himself. But the Granholm campaign has seemed lackluster at best. Meanwhile, local GOP activists are muttering about a Vice President DeVos in 2008 and national Republicans are excited by the prospect of a reenergized state party that could help the GOP reclaim the Michigan electoral vote in 2008 after three straight losses to Democratic presidential candidates.
In short, the Michigan GOP seems both unified and motivated to achieve the once-unthinkable, the defeat of an incumbent not so long ago hailed as a Democratic superstar.