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Candidates eyeing 2018 race for Michigan attorney general

Imagine a blind date without someone in the other chair. This week, we are on the political dating circuit, meeting some of Michigan’s statewide hopefuls who will not appear on next year’s August primary ballot.

We’re talking about ticket-building and why some candidates for statewide office aren’t waiting until after next year’s primaries to go public with their aspirations.

Primaries allow voters to choose only some of the candidates who will be on the November ballot. Relatively few, actually, when it comes to statewide races in Michigan. Just governor and U.S. Senate.

Democrat and Republican voters will choose their candidates for those offices in the August primaries. And, based on their 2016 voter turnout, Libertarians qualify to choose their gubernatorial and Senate candidates next year in a statewide primary, too.

But, under state law, the candidates for lieutenant governor, secretary of state and attorney general will all be chosen after the primaries at state political party conventions. The current holders of the office - Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, Attoreny General Bill Schuette, and Secretary of State Ruth Johnson are unable to run again because of term-limits.

Who’s who

Dana Nessel, Michigan’s most famous gay rights lawyer, announced last week that she’s seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination for state attorney general. She will likely be joined soon by former west Michigan U.S. Attorney Patrick Miles, a Barack Obama appointee, and state Representative Tim Greimel, former state House Democratic leader.

On the Republican side, we know state House Speaker Tom Leonard and state Senator Tonya Schuitmaker are both eyeing the race for attorney general.

Early days

So, whether they’re announced or not, why would prospective candidates get out this far before the party conventions?

Well, a big part: this is an audition.

At these conventions, party leaders look at who voters elected for governor during the primary and then they start to strategically select the lieutenant governor, secretary of state and attorney general to maximize the chances of winning.

They also decide on candidates in order to satisfy each party’s donor class (the ones who will be responsible for funding the campaigns). Getting out now also lets these nominees show party leaders that they can connect with voters and deal with necessary campaign tasks like organizing and fundraising.

But, just like in any other election, getting out early is no guarantee of a win because so much will depend on who each party’s candidate for governor is.

What they look for

When Republicans are putting together their slate, they tend to be mindful of ideological tests - issues like abortion and education.

Democratic leaders focus more on ticket balancing, basing choices on ethnicity, gender and geography.

Candidates hoping to win over a convention want to head into the arena with an aura of inevitability, that this is a rising star who can lift an entire ticket.

Like Jennifer Granholm in 1998. Democratic primary voters chose fiery trial attorney Geoffrey Fieger to be the candidate for governor. Dem party poohbahs identified Granholm as an up and comer with the capacity to win as Attorney General.

Fieger lost, Granholm won, and four years later, she ran for governor and won.

So, it’s a year out, but let the ticket-building begin.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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