If you believe everything you hear, then Republican Scott Brown’s victory last week in a special election to choose Ted Kennedy’s successor as senator from Massachusetts was an Earth-shattering event. But even those of us who are too smart to buy that nonsense must admit that Brown’s victory does kick off a very important election year, especially here in Michigan.

With Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm ineligible for re-election due to term limits, a crowded field of potential candidates has emerged. While the list will certainly be pared down well before the August primary, the muddle that currently exists is very telling of where this state stands politically.

Granholm — a perpetually unpopular governor who miraculously won two terms — inherited a state on the verge of ruin. She stood tall at the helm through what was certainly Michigan’s toughest decade in a long time. She will leave the state in its most famished condition yet, but her failure was really a failure of circumstance.

That unemployment is unforgivingly rampant in the state, and that its most powerful corporations have been brought to their knees is no secret. As a result of the poor economic outlook, Michigan will likely lose electoral votes after this year’s census. As troubling as those situations are, an equally important consideration here is Michigan’s political identity.

Like most of America, Michigan has a reputation for being a little right of center. The influence of labor unions and a large urban center like Detroit often push the state into the blue, but the general perception has always been that this state is closely divided. Today, Michigan has eight Democrats and seven Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives. Even accounting for some skillful gerrymandering, it doesn’t get more even than that.

Considering the events of 2009, it seemed that while Michiganders may retain their centrist values, the state would not go red in a major election any time soon. As the Detroit automakers struggled to survive and the Obama administration considered a bailout, national Republicans engaged in an alarming line of rhetoric that surely dissipated support their party may have otherwise had among blue-collar Michiganders.

Following the strategy of squealing against anything Obama did (not to mention the jobs brought to their own states by foreign automakers), southern Republicans railed against the bailouts for American automakers. As Michigan bled jobs, resources and a sense of well-being, many national Republicans turned their backs, even going so far as to speak of the Big Three’s troubles as necessary and long overdue.

Michigan’s workers surely would never forgive those who hung them out to dry at their darkest hour. And for that reason, it’s hard to imagine even today that Michigan will go red in a presidential election any time soon. But that does not mean that Republicans are a non-factor in state level races in Michigan.

Contrary to what the national media has said about Republican victories in Massachusetts, Virginia and New Jersey, those events will not cause a snowball effect in places like Michigan. If Republicans win the governorship in 2010, it will be because they were smart enough to distance themselves from the national party and remain relevant to Michigan’s suffering middle class. Regardless of national Republican victories, the real factor in Michigan will be who voters trust to turn things around.

On the Democratic side, no one associated with Granholm stands a chance. For that reason, Lt. Gov. John Cherry’s decision to leave the race came as no surprise. That’s also why there has been so much buzz around the race’s potential wildcard, University Regent Denise Ilitch.

Ilitch is exactly the type of hybrid candidate the Democrats need to retain the governor’s mansion. Republicans have hammered Granholm on jobs and her relationship with businesses. Of course, no such allegations can be hurled at Ilitch, an accomplished businesswoman who can couple her familial fortune with her moderate progressivism to be the ideal candidate in 2010.

But Ilitch may not run at all, in which case other contenders like state House Speaker Andy Dillon and Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero will have to step into a similar hybrid position to counter what the Republicans offer. Republicans for their part can do no wrong, so long as they avoid making this a national race.

Regardless of the ultimate outcome, the muddled and disparate nature of the current pool of candidates is indicative of where this state stands at the end of a brutal decade. Michiganders aren’t so worried about what party their potential savior may come from: We just know we need to get it right.

Imran Syed can be reached at galad@umich.edu.

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