The pivotal moment in Michigan's Republican fight for governor may have occurred long before any of the main contenders had even entered the race.
In the fall of 2016, after the release of old footage in which Donald Trump bragged about groping women, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley renounced his support for Trump and called for the GOP nominee's withdrawal from the presidential campaign.
State Attorney General Bill Schuette stuck with Trump, secured the president's endorsement and has not let Republican voters forget it before the Aug. 7 primary. The Trump factor has proven tough for his rival Calley, the favorite of outgoing two-term Gov. Rick Snyder, to overcome in a bitter battle that also includes conservative state Sen. Patrick Colbeck and Dr. Jim Hines, a political newcomer.
The winner will advance to the November election, where he will look to extend the GOP's eight-year hold on the governorship.
The reason for Schuette's emphasis on his Trump backing and the "abandonment" of Trump by Calley — both in televised debates and in TV ads run by his campaign and allied groups — is clear. Among likely Republican voters, Trump's favorability and job ratings were about 80 percent, while support for Snyder was around 65 percent, according to an EPIC-MRA poll released in June.
"That suggests that Trump's endorsement of Schuette in the primary has much more punch than a Snyder endorsement of Calley," said pollster Bernie Porn.
The 64-year-old Schuette, of Midland, joined the GOP contest with financial and political advantages after holding numerous public jobs over more than three decades. He has emphasized his proposals to cut the state income tax and make auto insurance more affordable.
He also is critical of Calley for backing the expansion of Medicaid under "Obamacare," helping former Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm enact a business tax when he was a lawmaker and, as lieutenant governor, missing legislative sessions to attend Harvard University part-time while earning a master's degree.
In debates, though, Schuette has largely reserved his criticism for potential Democratic opponent Gretchen Whitmer rather than his Republican opponents.
Calley, who was a commercial lender before winning election to the state House and later becoming Snyder's running mate, said he is best positioned to continue Michigan's economic resurgence — having helped Snyder lay the foundation for the addition of 540,000 new private-sector jobs, lower unemployment and population growth. He has called Schuette's prosecution of top state officials for Flint's water crisis a "gross abuse of power."
And he said Schuette broke the law when he had state staffers notarize or witness deed signings as part of multimillion-dollar sales of land he and his sisters inherited in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
"Do we continue this historic Michigan comeback that we've been on or do we turn back to the career politicians of the past?" said Calley, 41, of Portland.
Countered Schuette, who has led in public polls: "My calling is service. I'm experienced. For us to win and compete against the other states in America for jobs, you better have someone who is experienced and understands how you help build an economy."
Seeking to blunt the Trump issue, Calley said he voted for him and supports his key initiatives such as cutting federal taxes and combatting the opioid epidemic. He also has pointed to Schuette's own past criticism of some of Trump's divisive comments.
Colbeck, a 52-year-old former aerospace engineer from Canton Township who embraces tea party principles, said Trump should reconsider his endorsement of Schuette and support him instead as the anti-establishment candidate who would "drain the Lansing swamp" and fight special interests. He has clashed with Senate GOP leadership and has opposed the more moderate Snyder's expansion of Medicaid eligibility and an increase in fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees to fix roads.
Outside of the media and political insiders, Colbeck said, there is no excitement for Schuette or Calley."I have something the other candidates don't have. I have an enthusiastic grassroots support team and I also have a conservative voting record," said Colbeck, who wants to eliminate the state personal income tax and is the only Republican to have not run a TV ad.
The underdog Hines, 63, is an obstetrician-gynecologist from Saginaw Township who has also worked as a medical missionary in Africa. He said he was with Trump from "the very beginning." Schuette initially backed Jeb Bush in the 2016 presidential primary, while Calley favored John Kasich and Colbeck supported Ted Cruz.Hines touts his private-sector experience and questions what the "term-limited politicians" in the field have done about high auto insurance rates, poor reading scores and deteriorating roads.
"I want to put people first. I want to be sure that kids can read and our roads are fixed," Hines said.Campaign-finance reports covering this year were not due until 10 days before the primary. But as of the end of 2017, Schuette had raised $3 million to Calley's nearly $1.4 million, Hines' $729,000 — most of which he had given himself — and Colbeck's $242,000. Through early July, though, Calley and pro-Calley groups had outspent Schuette and pro-Schuette organizations on broadcast TV ads, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network .
A nonprofit founded by Snyder recently launched a $1.3 million TV ad campaign to tout the duo's accomplishments.
Anti-abortion and gun rights groups give all four candidates high marks, while major donors and the business community are split over the top two contenders. Schuette has the backing of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, restaurants, real estate agents and law enforcement. Calley has support from the Detroit and Grand Rapids chambers along with homebuilders.