MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. - Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder all but declared his re-election campaign Friday, telling Republicans they can be proud of his record even as he defended signing a key component of the federal health care law unpopular with his own party's base.
"We are winning folks, and we should be darn proud of it and we need to tell people about it," he told GOP leaders and activists gathered for their every-other-year conference on Mackinac Island. He held up a long list of claimed successes such as job creation and called suggestions that he might not stick with government service "hogwash man."
"We're going to keep going and we're going to reinvent our state," Snyder said to loud applause.
Just before his speech, the crowd watched a Snyder campaign video calling him "one successful nerd," a follow-up to his 2010 "one tough nerd" campaign moniker. He also asked for money from supporters in an email and said to stay tuned. An official announcement is expected early next year.
His remarks came amid intraparty tension four days after he signed a bill providing Medicaid health insurance to hundreds of thousands of low-income adults under the federal health care overhaul.
Many in the traditional business wing of the party embrace the first-term governor, a former computer executive and accountant who signed a right-to-work law and cut corporate taxes. But some in the tea-party wing are angry about the Medicaid expansion, a tax on retirement income and other decisions.
Still, no "surprise" GOP challenger emerged Friday, though the search continues. At least one, maybe more, already plans to challenge Snyder's likely running mate, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, at a nominating convention next year.
Snyder brought up the Medicaid law, saying he can prove to Republicans that it is a good thing.
"We're not just following the federal government. We're blazing the Michigan way," he said.
The crucial question may be whether conservatives who have pressured Republicans on legislative votes and successfully upset the apple cart at party conventions can influence a statewide primary or general election. Will their angst with Snyder mean anything in 13 1/2 months?
"No," said former Michigan Republican Party Chairman Saul Anuzis. "The political reality is that there's always been people who sat out because they were disenchanted. That's a pretty small group and I would argue probably not very sophisticated with respect to the politics."
He still expects a strong effort to challenge the governor will be mounted but questioned if organizers understand the logistics involved and funding needed. Activists have every right to "harass" Snyder and Calley over Medicaid expansion, he said, but in the end the GOP is a center-right coalition. He said critics would be shortsighted to risk fracturing and sending Democratic candidate Mark Schauer to the governor's office.
Todd Courser, a Lapeer lawyer who almost defeated state GOP chairman Bobby Schostak in February, on Thursday accused Snyder of walking away from the conservative base in an attempt to win over moderates and liberals.
"He is completely vulnerable to a credible, funded, conservative challenger and that challenger would be the beneficiary of the union vote crossing over in a Republican primary," Courser wrote in an email to supporters.
At times treading carefully, others Republicans dismissed the talk as nothing more than that. Even some more aligned with tea-party interests doubted Snyder has to worry much about being outflanked from within.
"He's done a lot of good things. I just totally disagree on the issue of Medicaid expansion -- I think there's no question most people do," said Republican National Committeeman Dave Agema. "However, I don't think there'll be a primary. I think he'll win and I think he'll be the next governor."
He credited Snyder for signing the right-to-work law making union fees optional in unionized workplaces and naming emergency managers to run broke cities such as Detroit.
The Schauer campaign, however, said a new direction is needed.
"When Rick Snyder took office, Michigan had the fifth-worst unemployment rate in the nation, and we now have the fourth worst," campaign manager BJ Neidhardt said in a statement. "If Snyder calls that a comeback, his dashboard must be broken. The truth is, Snyder slashed school funding and raised taxes on seniors and working families to pay for a $1.8 billion corporate tax giveaway that has failed to create `more and better jobs."'
Since 1953, Michigan Republicans have met biennially at the historic Grand Hotel. The event attracts potential presidential candidates and about 1,500 attendees.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and South Dakota Sen. John Thune were scheduled to speak later Friday night. On Saturday, the lineup includes Govs. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana along with Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.
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