In a recent campaign ad, over the sounds of an angelic choir and in front of images of pristine country roads, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder plugs his economic record. "We're on the road to recovery for every Michigander," Snyder says. "You might not feel it yet, but you will soon."
As campaign pitches go, it's not exactly "Morning in America," Ronald Reagan's famed synopsis of the country's economic recovery in 1984. And it highlights a key problem that endangers Snyder and another neighboring GOP governor, Wisconsin's Scott Walker, this autumn. For all the talk of the two governors' potential as national Republican figures, we may never find out unless they can convince voters in 2014 that they have helped rebuild two improving, but slow-moving, Midwestern economies.
Despite an unemployment rate lower than the national average, Walker can't escape the echoes of an unmet pledge to create 250,000 jobs in his first term, while Michigan voters aren't optimistic the state will return to its past prosperity.
Voters recognize things are moving in the right direction, but Democrats are seeking to capitalize on areas where people feel a disconnect between positive economic indicators and tangible improvements in their everyday lives.
Bernie Porn, the director of Michigan's EPIC-MRA poll, said Snyder's line is "almost admitting what [his opponent] is claiming, that people think the economy is improving but don't think it's positively affecting them."
"He picked the one road in Michigan that looked good," Porn added.
Polling in both states shows that voters believe their state's economies are turning around—but they aren't willing to give Walker or Snyder full credit. That has helped Snyder's opponent, Democrat Mark Schauer, pull into a very close race with the governor. In polling for USA Today and Suffolk this month, 51 percent of Michigan voters said the state's economy had improved over the last two years. But those same voters still gave Schauer a small lead within the margin of error.
Schauer is trying to convey that Snyder's reforms leave behind everyday people. The former congressman and state legislator focuses his attacks on Snyder-signed corporate tax cuts paid for with higher income taxes, $1 billion in education cuts, and new taxes on pensions, all of which he argues disproportionately impact the middle class.
Meanwhile, 54 percent of Wisconsinites surveyed by Marquette University Law School in August thought their state was headed in the right direction, but only 47 percent of likely voters approved of Walker and would vote to give him a second term. Forty-nine percent said they would vote for his Democratic challenger, former Trek Bicycle executive Mary Burke, who is running neck-and-neck with Walker after some early skepticism about Democratic chances.
Burke has taken Walker's jobs pledge and run with it, continually pointing out Wisconsin's last-place ranking in Midwest job growth and using her private-sector experience to frame herself as a job creator. Walker frequently points to the 100,000 jobs created since he took office, but that is well short of his goal and Democrats say the new opportunities tend to be low-wage ones.
Neither Republican is shying away from attacks on their states' economies. In one ad Walker defends the jobs pledge by saying, "We set big goals, we met most of them, and we're not done yet," adding, "We won't stop until everyone who wants a job finds a job."
The central role of jobs in both governors' reelection campaigns highlights noteworthy discipline on the Democratic side, which has eschewed its past focus on cultural and (especially) labor issues for a different playbook this year.
Just a few years ago, Democrats were up in arms in both states over new laws that limited collective-bargaining rights for public employees and their ability to collect union dues. The acts ignited dramatic protests at capitol buildings in both Michigan and Wisconsin. In Wisconsin, organized labor built it into momentum for recall elections aimed at Walker and other state Republicans in 2012.
But the Walker recall effort failed, as did Michigan Democrats' effort to enshrine collective bargaining in the state Constitution later that year. While the issue galvanized the Democratic base, party strategists recognized it wouldn't tip the scales in a tight statewide election. Marquette's August poll found 46 percent of voters favored keeping Wisconsin's antiunion Act 10 in place, slightly more than the 44 percent who would reverse it.
Former Michigan Republican Party Chairman Dave Doyle says he has noticed right-to-work's conspicuous absence from Schauer's campaign, even though the Democrat has pledged to repeal the law if elected. Burke has been more cautious in her criticism of Act 10.
"That issue barely comes up," Doyle said. "It's odd."
"There are more people employed today than a year ago, or two years ago, or three years ago or four," Doyle continued. "It's hard to make the argument if you're a union that this has had a devastating impact."
Doyle also believes unions are "downplaying the impacts" for the sake of projecting a positive image over one that might imply organizational weakness or ineffectiveness due to the new laws.
In the end, both races will hinge on how strong backlash is against each incumbent, significantly more so than the strength of their opponent's campaigns. Schauer and Burke remained largely unknown to voters as recently as a few months ago, and both Democrats' fundraising hauls pale in comparison to those of Snyder and Walker.
"In a nutshell," Porn said, "When Schauer was running even with Snyder when nobody knew who he was," back in 2013, "that was a reflection of the incumbent."
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.