When Rick Snyder announced he was running for governor in July 2009, he was almost unknown outside Ann Arbor. Though he holds three U-M degrees and was well respected in business and technology circles, even here he could pass unnoticed on the street.

That changed last January, when his first TV spot ran during the Super Bowl. Focused on Michigan’s economic struggles, the ad proclaimed Snyder “one tough nerd” with a plan for revitalizing the state. Created by Hollywood-based Strategic Perception, whose clients include former president George W. Bush, senator John McCain, and California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the ad got Snyder attention statewide.

Yet even after it ran, the computer exec turned venture capitalist lagged badly in the polls. He refused to discuss abortion, gay marriage, or other social issues dear to the Republican base. He skipped all but one of the GOP gubernatorial debates and stiff-armed the media, devoting most of his face time to small “town hall meetings” and private fundraising events. Yet in August’s primary, he beat his closest rival by 100,000 votes.

Snyder’s campaign is so tightly controlled that in many ways he remains an enigma, even in Ann Arbor. Yet in a September poll, a majority of prospective voters statewide said they expect to vote for him in the November general election–his Democratic opponent, Lansing mayor Virg Bernero, was more than twenty points back. Barring some nasty revelations or a strong strategic play by Bernero, Rick Snyder is poised to become a real local rarity–an Ann Arborite who wins the governor’s office.

For much of 2010, the GOP primary looked like a two-way contest between Grand Rapids congressman Pete Hoekstra and Michigan attorney general Mike Cox. Neither would comment for this story, but apparently neither recognized Snyder’s quiet surge until it was too late. “He kind of walked right up the middle while the other candidates were tarring and feathering each other and mostly ignoring him,” says Bernie Porn, president of the Lansing polling firm EPIC-MRA.

Snyder’s campaign wouldn’t comment about either his primary win or his general election strategy. But Porn and others say that his campaign has been fueled by old-fashioned town halls, newfangled technology, and high-priced talent from Hollywood and Washington, D.C. Last year, when his campaign was still in its formative stages, Snyder paid at least $350,000 to John Weaver, a veteran Republican campaign advisor who worked for both George W. Bush and John McCain. And he’s continued to spend heavily on consultants in fund-raising, image, use of social media, and more.

Snyder and his advisors have made smart decisions, created a catchy moniker, and turned his political inexperience into an asset by framing him as an outsider with the skills needed to “reinvent Michigan.” And to shape and spread that message, he’s dipped deep into the personal fortune he built as an executive at Gateway computers and expanded as an Ann Arbor-based venture capitalist. Snyder raised less than either Hoekstra or Cox in the primary, but spent more than both of them combined–$7.6 million, including almost $6 million of his own money.

Snyder “was able to get his message out more effectively to the four corners of Michigan,” said L. Brooks Patterson, the Oakland County executive and veteran Republican who briefly considered a run for the governor’s job. “His business approach was a new theme that worked.”

Snyder spent almost nothing on print–the only newspaper ad showing up in his latest campaign report is $450 for a full-page ad in the Farmington Hills-based Muslim Observer–and only 30 percent of his budget went to TV spots. That’s much less than the norm of 50 percent or more, says Rich Robinson, executive director of the nonprofit Michigan Campaign Finance Network, but still amounted to $2 million–by far the biggest TV budget in the primary. “I think a major consideration for Snyder [winning] was that he only had to share airwaves with Cox, who was obsessively focused on Hoekstra, until the last month of the campaign,” says Robinson.

Cox may have underestimated Snyder because much of his campaign was invisible: while Cox, Hoekstra, and their interest-group surrogates battled each other with attack ads on television, Snyder fielded an army of door-to-door canvassers to deliver his message personally to carefully selected voters. Using a software program called Walking Edge running on GPS-equipped smart phones, they knew exactly what houses to target, and what pitches would be most effective with each voter.

Walking Edge was a factor in GOP senator Scott Brown’s surprise win in Massachusetts last year, but “Rick’s campaign pushed the envelope” further, says Josh Geleris, a former McCain political aide from suburban Washington who markets the program through a Grand Rapids company. “A lot of observers remarked on Rick’s voter turnout in the primary,” says Geleris. “You’ll see that again in the general [election].”

Snyder is following the same playbook this fall. He’s continuing to run TV ads and promoting his proposals to simplify business taxes and reduce regulation in small “town hall meetings,” but as the Observer went to press, he had not yet agreed to debate Bernero.

Porn, the pollster, says that’s a smart move–“Snyder is not particularly impressive as a speaker or as a debater.” But Bernero called Snyder a “wimp” for dodging debates, and Michigan Democrats have mocked his running mate, pointing out that as the state rep, lieutenant governor nominee Brian Calley was the architect of the Michigan Business Tax that Snyder has criticized repeatedly.

Snyder, meanwhile, remains focused on the economy. In September, he was running a TV spot starring his youngest daughter, Kelsey, a braces-wearing Greenhills student. “He’s the only businessman running,” Kelsey declares, “so he’s the only one that knows what he’s doing.”

The two candidates are not just from opposite parties, they have opposite personalities. Snyder is low-key and analytical, with a strong track record in business but no experience in politics. Bernero is a longtime politician who served in the state House and Senate before making a name for himself as “America’s angriest mayor” with his fiery advocacy of the auto industry bailout.

They also have different levels of resources. Bernero collected just $1.2 million for his primary run, compared to Snyder’s $8.1 million primary war chest, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network’s analysis.

Cash alone doesn’t guarantee political success, as Amway heir Dick DeVos proved with his failed $21 million gubernatorial bid in 2006. But it confers a huge advantage, and unlike Snyder, DeVos faced Jennifer Granholm, a strong, well-financed incumbent.

Going into the fall campaign, “Snyder is better known than Bernero” with something like 85 percent name recognition, says Bill Ballenger, editor of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics. In mid-September, an EPIC-MRA poll for the Detroit Free Press and television station WXYZ showed Snyder leading among likely voters by 53 to 29 percent.

Since Snyder’s opponents mostly ignored him in the primary, Ballenger says, Bernero might still be able to gain ground by questioning “what kind of record he had as a businessman.” After growing fast in the 1990s, Gateway crashed in the 2000s and was eventually sold to an Asian company. Already the Democrats are running TV ads alleging that “Rick got rich while thousands lost their jobs” at Gateway.

Many expect the race to tighten up in October. Still 24 points is a commanding lead–especially since Porn predicts that Snyder will be able to outspend Bernero two-to-one in TV ads leading up to the November 2 vote.

“He’s somebody new–he’s not tainted with the complicity with the way things are now” in the state, says Washtenaw County Clerk and Register of Deeds Larry Kestenbaum, a Democrat. And, unusually for a twenty-first-century Republican, Snyder doesn’t stress social issues like abortion. While those issues mobilize conservatives, they also motivate liberals to turn out in opposition, and can turn off independents.

Kestenbaum, who is also a political historian, notes that only one Ann Arborite has ever been elected governor of the Wolverine State. That was Alpheus Felch, who served in 1846-47 before moving on to the U.S. Senate. More than 160 years later, Rick Snyder, the enigmatic venture capitalist and self-proclaimed “tough nerd,” is poised to be the second. ■