President Obama drinks filtered water from Flint this past May.

President Obama drinks filtered water from Flint this past May.

On May 17,
Michigan Governor Rick Snyder sat before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and described the Flint water crisis as “a failure of government at all levels.” This statement would be ridiculed for months to come.

The failure of which he spoke is perhaps best understood in numbers: 10,200 polluted water lines, countless lost IQ points, and an entire city of 98,000 people poisoned by its own drinking water. It is estimated that since Flint, Michigan stopped drawing from Detroit’s water system and began using the Flint River as its chief water source in April 2014, the percentage of children with above-average lead levels increased by 50 percent. The source of the lead pollution lies in the Flint River itself, which is dangerously corrosive and has caused lead from Flint’s pipes to leach into the potable water.

In the eyes of many Michiganders, the blame for the disaster lies with Snyder and his administration. At the center of the crisis were Flint’s Emergency Manager Ed Kurtz, a Snyder appointee who made the decision to disconnect the city from Detroit’s water system, and State Treasurer Andy Dillon, who authorized usage of the Flint River as a water source until the city could link up to the Karegnondi Water Supply. Many Michigan residents also hold Snyder’s administration at fault for its slow response to the crisis. By January 2016, several months after the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality pronounced Flint’s drinking water unsafe, Walmart, Coca-Cola, and Nestlé had together provided more bottled water to the city than the state had. Total state aid to Flint now amounts to a mere $234 million, despite Mayor Karen Weaver’s assessment that replacing all of the city’s lead-tainted water lines would require over $1 billion.

Snyder’s approval rating stands at just 40 percent—down 15 percent from last June—and his disapproval rating has climbed to 52 percent, which is the worst it has been during his tenure as governor. And the fallout from Flint does not stop there. It could seriously damage the Michigan GOP’s prospects in the upcoming election cycle.

Retaking the State House

For Democrats, 2016 offers a rare opportunity to change the narrative in Michigan politics. Since the 2010 elections, when Governor Snyder swept into office with a landslide 58 percent victory and Republicans gained control over both chambers of the legislature, Democrats have struggled to regain their footing. In the state house, Republicans hold 63 seats over the Democrats’ 46. In the senate, the GOP controls 27 seats, while the Democrats hold only 10.

Despite Republicans’ massive numerical advantage, House Democratic Campaign Chairman Adam Zemke (D-Ann Arbor) is optimistic about Democratic prospects at the polls this November. Zemke told the Detroit News in April, “Everything is lined up for us in 2016.” He cited the Republican presidential ticket, with Donald Trump at its head, as hurting the chances of down-ticket Republican candidates. Trump is deeply unpopular in the Mitten State, with Hillary Clinton holding a 17-point advantage over the Republican nominee. Many GOP legislators in Michigan will also find themselves term-limited this November, improving the chances of Democratic challengers aiming to win in Republican districts.

Now take into account the Flint water crisis and the Democrats’ odds of electoral success begin to sound plausible. Michigan Democratic Party Chair Brandon Dillon believes that Flint’s water disaster has damaged the entire Republican brand in Michigan. In an interview with the HPR, Dillon called the crisis a reminder of the consequences of Republicans’ “obsession with trying to run government like a business.” Dillon said Democrats are incorporating the crisis into their messaging efforts, focusing on “demanding accountability” and explaining to voters that the crisis was a direct result of the GOP’s governing philosophy. According to Dillon, there are between 12 and 14 state house seats that the Democrats are hoping to flip with this message.

Others are more skeptical about Flint’s impact on upcoming elections. In an interview with the HPR, John Truscott, the president and principal of Lansing-based public relations firm Truscott Rossman, countered that “the election is an eternity away” and that Republicans have “time to recover.” He also noted that in districts farther away from Flint, the issue might have less of an impact on voters. Since the party hopes to pick up seats in far from Flint, Democratic challengers in those races may not be rewarded as much for incorporating Flint into their messaging efforts.

Securing the Governor’s Office

If Snyder’s popularity continues to flounder, it will be extremely difficult for the GOP to win the next gubernatorial election in 2018. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that the favorite for the Republican nomination, Attorney General Bill Schuette, lacks the broad electoral support to do well in the general election. Critics accuse him of using his office to pander to the Christian right, as he has built a reputation as a conservative crusader in debates surrounding social issues in Michigan. In 2013, when Michigan’s ban on gay marriage was challenged in federal court, Schuette argued that the ban needed to be upheld so the state could “regulate sexual relationships” and protect heterosexual couples’ “unique procreative capacity.” Michigan lost the case, but rather than accept the ruling, Schuette took the matter all the way to the Supreme Court, where the justices’ decision in Obergefell v. Hodges struck down gay marriage bans nationwide. He has also filed lawsuits against abortion providers and medical marijuana dispensaries.

Schuette’s high visibility and consistent conservative advocacy have made him the most popular Republican in the gubernatorial election field. Schuette’s political action committee has raised over half a million dollars this election cycle alone, far outpacing the $332,000 brought in by Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley, Schuette’s most likely rival in the GOP primary. In addition, he spoke at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland during its opening day, an honor which indicates the national GOP’s belief that he is a rising star.

Whoever clinches the GOP nomination will have to contend with the Flint question, and there are signs that Schuette may already be distancing himself from Snyder’s administration. In May, he called Snyder’s internal state investigation regarding the Flint water crisis an “obstruction of justice,” and in June he revealed that Snyder’s private attorneys were not providing documents he had requested.

But even while clashing with others in the Snyder administration, he has taken a leading role in the administration’s response to the Flint water crisis. In April, Schuette announced criminal charges against two state officials and one Flint city official for their part in the crisis. And on June 22, he formally sued two engineering firms for allowing the situation in Flint to “occur, continue, and worsen.” These actions indicate that he may be aware of the potential impact of Flint on a future gubernatorial run. However, Truscott warns that Schuette is “in danger of a huge overreach,” noting that Veolia North America, one of the two engineering firms Schuette sued, was not contracted for lead and copper testing in Flint’s water supply.

The Flint water crisis is also likely to impact the Democratic gubernatorial primary, where Ingham County Prosecutor and former Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer has long been viewed as the most likely nominee. However, given the Flint crisis, Congressman Dan Kildee, who represents Michigan’s 5th District, which includes Flint, is now one to watch. Kildee has reportedly begun considering a run after seeing the impact of the current governor’s policies on his city. Like other Democrats, Kildee sees a direct link between the GOP’s governing philosophy and the disaster in Flint, suggesting the governor’s “obsession with austerity” helped create the crisis. He has also urged Snyder to set aside funds from Michigan’s $575 million budget surplus for providing relief to Flint. Thus, the Flint water crisis has allowed Kildee to insert himself in his state’s politics as a champion of environmental and social justice.

A recent survey conducted by Michigan State University found that for the first time in roughly 15 years, residents did not identify “jobs/economy” as the most pressing problem for the state to act on. Instead, Michiganders were most concerned about “infrastructure of cities.” Whether the state legislature is controlled by Republicans or Democrats, and whether the legislation it passes goes to a Republican or Democratic governor, the popular legitimacy of Michigan’s government will hinge on how it responds in the wake of the Flint crisis.

Image credit: Pete Souza/Wikimedia Commons

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