Rick Snyder: Businessman, Nerd, Michigan Governor?

In an election season littered with millionaire and billionaire candidates, one self-made tech executive from Michigan stands out. Samuel P. Jacobs talks to Rick Snyder, a rich nerd for governor.

Republican businessman Rick Snyder holds a news conference to announce his gubernatorial candidacy in Dearborn, Mich. on July 21, 2009. (Detroit News, Charles V. Tines / AP Photo)

On both coasts, über-wealthy candidates are making waves this summer in electoral contests. In California, Democrats are sweating two Silicon Valley billionaires: Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina is within three points of Senate stalwart Barbara Boxer, and former eBay Chief Executive Meg Whitman has given fits to veteran office-seeker Jerry Brown in their race for governor. In Connecticut, professional-wrestling executive Linda McMahon has proven a tough antagonist for onetime Democratic golden boy Richard Blumenthal. And Jeff Greene, America’s 355th wealthiest man, is changing the calculus of an already-kooky Florida Senate race.

Like Michael Bloomberg’s approach to politics in New York, there is a more than a hint of plutocrats-know-best in Rick Snyder’s campaign pitch.

But in the Rust Belt, far from the hedge-fund acres of Greenwich and the manicured lanes of Orange County, another wealthy candidate is trying to pull out a victory. Rick Snyder, the 51-year-old former head of Gateway computers, is seeking to buck the Republican Party establishment in Michigan by winning the GOP nomination in the race to succeed Gov. Jennifer Granholm, the term-limited Democrat. With less than a month to go before the Aug. 3 primary, three candidates are jockeying for the lead: Snyder faces Rep. Pete Hoekstra, who has a prominent profile on national-security issues, and state Attorney General Mike Cox. Polling suggests that the Republican nominee will be well-positioned to win the general election.

Snyder’s net worth might be peanuts compared to the billionaires out West, but he’s no pauper. At its height, Gateway generated $6 billion a year in revenue. After leaving the company, Snyder started a $100 million venture-capital fund in Ann Arbor, the largest in state history. He’s since started an additional fund.

And he’s proven his willingness to spend real amounts of his money in the service of his candidacy. In 2009, he spent $2.6 million the campaign. “I viewed it as a startup,” Snyder told Michigan’s Dome magazine. A big chunk of that money went into his initial ad push, which was effective in presenting the former CEO in a better light than his Republican opponents.

Like the self-funded candidates on the coasts, Snyder comes with a PowerPoint-ready explanation for why former executives belong in the state house or Congress during these shaky economic times.

“From the business world, a lot of us have built great experience sets,” he says. “In politics, they look at you like you are like from another planet. We talk about outcomes, deliverables, and transparency. We have been using those concepts for decades. We couldn’t stay in business if we didn’t show real outcomes.”

Among the Information Age tycoons on the ballot across the country, two distinct personality types have emerged. Whitman and Fiorina are caricatured as bullies. McMahon and Greene are portrayed as eccentrics. In introducing Snyder to Michigan voters this winter with an ad called “One Tough Nerd,” the campaign sought to avoid both stereotypes. Snyder made his millions not by being mean or nuts, according to the campaign, but through sheer, geeky brainpower. In a move seemingly stolen from Revenge of the Nerds, the guy with the nasally voice and V-neck sweater announced that he was here to save the Motor City and the rest of the state, which is now foundering with 14 percent unemployment.

“Growing up… Rick Snyder started reading Fortune magazine when he was 8. By 23, he completed college at the University of Michigan and his MBA and his law degree,” a narrator said, in an advertisement directed by McCain veteran Fred Davis.

In another spot, Snyder drills the Supernerd message home.

“Nerds get results,” he said. “Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett. Shoot, Clark Kent saved thousands of lives.”

In a race which has been all about jobs, Snyder has a huge advantage over his competitors who worked in Washington or Lansing: He’s actually created jobs before. And given current national sentiment about career politicians, it won’t hurt that he’s a relative political outsider, either.

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But Snyder’s time in the private sector has left him with a different kind of baggage. While Snyder was on the board of Gateway, the company’s workforce contracted from 21,000 American workers in 2000 to 7,400 workers in 2003. Some of the lost jobs were shifted overseas. Getting tagged as part of the unemployment problem in Michigan—a state that has been devastated by the loss of industrial jobs to foreign countries—could be fatal.

“He’s buying the election and shipping jobs to China,” says the Michigan Democratic Party’s James Tramontana.

When presented with the challenge, Snyder says, “It’s not an accurate statement.” He quickly parries with the number of jobs lost in Michigan over the last decade.

Like Michael Bloomberg’s approach to politics in New York, there is a more than a hint of plutocrats-know-best in Snyder’s campaign pitch. He has refused to undergo the normal campaign ritual of filling out questionnaires from interest groups, and recently declined to participate in debates with opponents, instead seeking to send his message to voters through those sharp television ads and town-hall meetings.

“From a governance point of view, I can look anyone in the eye and say I have no baggage. I’m a self-made person. I have no special interests,” Snyder says.

Another way to look at the message is this: If I’m wealthy enough to buy your vote, my vote can’t be bought. This has worked in some places and failed in others. Of the 51 self-funded millionaires or billionaires who ran for House or Senate seats in 2008, only 14 won the general election.

Snyder says he’s confident he will come out on the winning side.

“My conversion rate, once voters hear I have the right message,” he says, “is great.”

Spoken like a true nerd.

Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.