Calley: ‘Zero question’ he would have been stronger than Schuette against Whitmer

By: - December 21, 2018 8:10 pm

Former Lt. Gov. Brian Calley | NIck Manes

Lt. Gov. Brian Calley on Thursday told the Michigan Advance that he’s fully confident he would have been a better general election GOP nominee than the man who defeated him in the Aug. 7 primary.

“There’s zero question in my mind,” Calley said of Attorney General Bill Schuette. 

Bill Schuette
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, April 20, 2016 in Flint | Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

When asked if he could have defeated Democrat Gretchen Whitmer, who will be sworn in as governor on Jan. 1, Calley hesitated slightly and replied, “I think I could have won.”

Calley talked to the Advance in his Michigan Capitol office on the last day of a manic Lame Duck session. It was just an hour before his emotional farewell speech in the Senate, the body over which he’s presided for the last eight years.

The LG was noticeably clean-shaven after growing a post-primary beard, something he jokingly acknowledged in his speech: “Yes, I did shave, thank you. Also wearing pants. I’m all set today.”

When Calley last sat down for an interview with this reporter in February 2017, he was asked if his decision to withdraw his endorsement from now-President Donald Trump after the “Access Hollywood” tape would hurt his gubernatorial campaign, should he decide to run. The Republican said he didn’t think so. But on Thursday, Calley said unequivocally that was why he lost.

“It absolutely was decisive,” he said. “Near as I can tell, there really was only one factor that won the day in the Republican primary, and not just here in Michigan — it’s really what we see across the country. It’s definitely President Trump’s party.”

Last month, Calley reminded this reporter of her first question in their first sit-down interview for a long-form profile after he became the second-youngest lieutenant governor in Michigan history: “Everyone says you’re a Boy Scout. So were you?” (He wasn’t).

When asked today if there was room in the party for his brand of “Boy Scout Republicanism,” Calley struck a hopeful chord, even though he said, “The political system is getting so good at motivating people through anger.”

The Advance talked to Calley about being perhaps the strongest lieutenant governor in Michigan history, the Flint water crisis, his strong relationship with Gov. Rick Snyder, his political future and the autism insurance reform he championed. That will run on the Advance in future editions.

The following are excerpts from the interview on why the economy didn’t save the GOP in the 2018 election, if he voted for Schuette, and what kind of governor Calley believes Whitmer will be:

Michigan Advance: The last time we sat down and talked in February of 2017, you said that Michigan usually only changes parties for governor during times of economic distress. So why do you think 2018 didn’t turn out that way?

Calley: Well … that had been kind of the pattern if you … look at it before. But I think all the rules of the past you throw out; everything’s changed. I’ve seen the biggest change, really, that I’ve noticed is that it used to be you had state elections based on state issues and federal elections based on federal issues. And that’s how you can have a state like Michigan where you have one outcome for state offices and one outcome for federal offices.

And now it does seem the electorate is so focused on what’s happening nationally that those trends are impacted. It always had some impact, but it seems like it’s a very profound impact now — both at the primary and at the general election level.

Michigan Advance: During that same conversation, I asked you about you pulling your endorsement of President Trump and if that would hurt you if you were to run for governor. And you basically said that people’s priorities change from election to election. Do you now think that it did end up hurting you in the August primary? Do you think it was decisive?

Calley: It absolutely was decisive. Near as I can tell, there really was only one factor that won the day in the Republican primary, and not just here in Michigan, it’s really what we see across the country. It’s definitely President Trump’s party, and so there is a desire on a very large proportion of the Republican primary electorate to line up with the president’s choices. And so I don’t think that there was anything that I, or frankly, Bill Schuette could have done, to change the outcome once the president made that decision [to endorse Schuette].

Michigan Advance: Do you think that there is a place for your brand of Republican politics and Gov. Snyder’s brand that’s conservative, but emphasizes civility and eschews rhetoric that some people think is racist and sexist? Maybe ‘Boy Scout Republicanism’, if you would?

Calley: [smiles] There does tend to be cycles. Sometimes different styles are more prevalent than others, so I hesitate to make absolute type statements about … you know, things are going one way now, and therefore this is how they’re going to be. In fact, here in Michigan, it seems like one election to the next, the only thing you know about the next election is it’ll look nothing like the one before.

And so, I do know … that our electorate does have a desire to see people work together and get outcomes to be respectful. But … the system is getting so good, the political system is getting so good at motivating people through anger that I do worry that the proportion of people that are interested in that may be shrinking. But again … I mean, people change. Priorities change. Times change. I think that the same characteristics that lost me the Republican primary were also closer related to the things that resulted in Gretchen Whitmer winning the general election.

So, when you do the analysis, you got primaries and you got general elections, and it’s a tale as old as democracy where you try to find the winning combination where you can make it through the primary and still be electable in a general election.

Michigan Advance: Do you think you would have performed better than Bill Schuette against Gretchen Whitmer in the general?

Calley: There’s zero question in my mind.

Michigan Advance: Do you think you would have won [in November]?

Calley: I think I could have won. I made a strategic decision early on that I knew was going to make the … primary election harder to win. But the decision was to essentially start running a general election campaign straight away. And just accept that I would rather lose a primary than win a primary in a way that guaranteed a loss in November. I didn’t see any point in winning a primary in a fashion that didn’t keep the door open for winning November.

So I started early. I didn’t have the dynamics to win it. On the other side, though, with Gretchen Whitmer, it seemed like she did have the dynamics to not have to go to the left of her opponents and still win.

I think Democrats were really hungry for a win, so the criteria was not necessarily to find the candidate that was the most pure on ideology, but instead the one that had the best chance of winning. Had that been the criteria on the Republican side, I would have won that primary.

Michigan Advance: So it’s been reported that Bill Schuette refused your endorsement. Did you end up voting for him?

Calley: I did. I committed to supporting our nominee early in the process, and so that was never a question. The unity rally I offered to go … speak at and to get my support, even though it was literally the next day after the election.

And so, at that point, though, for whatever reason, they really didn’t want it. And so, later on though, I decided to offer it anyway when I spoke at the [Michigan] Republican [Party] convention a few weeks later. Making the case for the whole ticket, but including the top of the ticket. There’s nothing worse than a sore loser. Well, actually, a sore winner is worse than a sore loser. But …

Michigan Advance: Do you think that Bill Schuette was a sore winner?

Calley: Well, neither one of us became governor so I don’t know if …

Michigan Advance: So a primary winner?

Calley: Because I’m not close enough to him and his team, I don’t want to give a characterization like that. All I knew is that I wanted to be gracious. And so I decided to do that even if it was uninvited.

Michigan Advance: You’ve worked with Gretchen Whitmer for eight years, both when you were in the House and also as lieutenant governor. What kind of governor do you expect that she’ll be?

Calley: Well, she will be the first governor since [GOP former Gov. John] Engler that goes in knowing how the legislative process — knowing very well — how the legislative process works. That’ll be an advantage. Now, she’s also going into a time of divided government. That’s harder. It definitely makes everything harder. Because her time in the Legislature was all spent in the minority, that’s just the way it worked out in the House and the Senate.

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

I don’t think that we really know in terms of what government style she’ll have. Because she’s been in the opposition role in the legislative experience. Now, that said, I do believe she appears to be positioning as a person that understands that when you’re responsible for governance, you have to work with people. You can’t afford to be just partisan all the time.

So I’ve seen plenty of good signs. I think she made a lot of smart moves … when she decides to weigh in on things and what she’s decided not to. Even with all the legislative [action], the tone of her response to legislative initiatives shows me that she would rather good outcomes than score rhetorical points. And that’s a very good sign.

Michigan Advance: If she were looking to make a stand for bipartisanship and offer you a role in her administration, would you be interested?

Calley: I hesitate to bluntly just say, ‘No,’ because it hasn’t been offered and it’s not going to be. I remember … eight years ago, we had people that were like, ‘I’ve decided not to accept a role in the Snyder administration,’ [and] we’re like, we weren’t even talking to you, and it was kind of offensive.

Michigan Advance: Would you like to name names?

Calley: No.

Michigan Advance: OK.

Calley: But so, in that sense, that’s my only hesitation to say ‘no,’ but I don’t think it would be a good idea for me or her. She needs to build her own team.

And having Rick Snyder’s No. 2 guy on that team, I think, would undermine that. That said, I have a strong vested interest in the continued success and growth of this state, and I stand ready to work with her and [Senate Majority Leader-elect] Mike Shirkey and [House Speaker-elect] Lee Chatfield — everybody else that I need to in order to be helpful in the success of this state.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 23-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on C-SPAN, MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQ people, the state budget, the economy and more. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 100 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive.