Politics & Policy

McCain’s Last Best Chance

Michigan's primary gift to the Arizona senator.

On Tuesday, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm signed a bill into law pushing her state’s presidential primary all the way back to January 15 from February 5, making Michigan the first major presidential-primary state — ahead of New Hampshire.

The Wyoming GOP moved its own caucuses to January 5, but the state’s size and solidly red status don’t threaten to draw too much attention. By contrast, Michigan has a very large population and is an important swing state. Further, the state is in the worst economic shape in the country, drawing added attention to the significance to the state’s primary.

Meanwhile, the national primary schedule is still very much up in the air. Political observers have long claimed that ever-increasing media coverage has turned New Hampshire and Iowa into the Schrödinger’s cat of the political process; places where corn farmers and townies sneer at the mention of any candidate they haven’t personally met. But both states value their status as the first primary states tremendously and are threatening to move their dates up if necessary.

But Michigan’s emergence as an early primary state could have some major ramifications — not the least of which would be that an early primary for the Wolverine State opens up a significant window for the currently-on-life-support McCain campaign.

McCain won Michigan in 2000, despite the fact that the entire state Republican Party apparatus was behind George W. Bush. The senator’s organization was “a joke,” Thomas Ginster, a long-time aide to then-Governor John Engler, told me in an article I wrote for The Weekly Standard last year on Michigan’s presidential politics. Engler was backing Bush in 2000, and McCain’s victory is often cited as a major reason why Engler was never offered a significant position in the Bush administration.

Of course, McCain won largely due to unusual circumstances and Michigan’s lax primary laws. Michigan has an open primary. The state doesn’t keep track of voter affiliation, so anyone can vote in either primary merely by requesting either a Republican or Democratic ballot. In 2000, the Republican and Democratic primaries happened to occur on different dates. That year, the GOP primary was flooded with support for McCain, coming from an unlikely source — Democrats. “Engler, who was a lightning rod conservative, came out and said Michigan was going to be the firewall for Dubya, and so all the independents and Oakland County women and Democrats came out,” is how Bill Ballenger, editor of well-regarded Inside Michigan Politics newsletter, described McCain’s victory to me last year.

Eerily similar circumstances may just be shaping up again; the national Democratic party is threatening to pull out of the Michigan primary if they hold it in advance of New Hampshire. According to party rules, the DNC can take away all of the state’s convention delegates if Michigan doesn’t play by their preferred calendar. The RNC can only take away half of the state’s delegates — which may still provide enough of an incentive for the state to hold the GOP primary early, even if the DNC ends up holding the state caucuses on a later date.

“We don’t want a repeat of 2000 when we had Democrats and independents raiding our Republican primary because they didn’t have any other contest to vote in,” Ballenger told National Review Online regarding Michigan’s upcoming primary date. McCain’s previous win in the state and supposed “maverick” appeal that pulls in large numbers of independents and Democrats might continue to help him here. However, McCain’s positions on immigration and the Iraq war are also likely to reduce that outsider appeal that so helped him in 2000.

Fortunately for McCain, his organization in 2008 is far from the “joke” it was in 2000. After Bush lost the Michigan primary in 2000 — and after he had a hold on the party nomination — Engler tried to play fast and loose with the state party rules in order to send Bush delegates to the national convention in place of McCain’s rightfully earned delegates. Chuck Yob, Michigan’s controversial RNC committeeman and arguably the biggest kingmaker in the state, intervened on McCain’s behalf to make sure that McCain delegates got sent to the convention.

As a result, Yob and McCain have been close ever since and it’s paid huge dividends in Michigan. “John McCain has the strongest grassroots organization in Michigan,” boasts Jon Yob, Chuck’s son and the Michigan state director of the John McCain for President campaign. That may be a bit of a boast, but it’s not far off the mark either. McCain is allied with the majority of Republican Party county chairman in Michigan and has number of key supporters including the state’s attorney general, and, most importantly, the Yobs.

With the Yobs backing him and a rock solid grassroots organization behind him, McCain could pull a surprising showing in Michigan. Particularly if it remains a solid four- or five-way race going into Michigan, with McCain, Romney, Giuliani, Thompson, and possibly Huckabee all siphoning votes. One could conceivably win the primary with 30 percent or so of the vote, and a victory that early on, however narrow, could be all that the McCain needs to be taken seriously again. The media narrative of his campaign rising from the ashes would also be compelling.

On the other hand, McCain’s major competition in the state is from local boy Mitt Romney. Romney’s father is the former governor of the state, and his family remains very influential there. Romney’s organization in the state is very strong; it could be argued that Romney’s grassroots campaign in the state isn’t as well-developed as McCain’s, but Romney’s campaign is being run by the Sterling Corporation, an extremely competent and influential group of political consultants with close ties to the state party chairman, Saul Anuzis. It would be presumptuous to underestimate their resources, and to assume that the strength of McCain’s grassroots in the state is a definitive advantage. Romney could quite easily (and many think he will likely) come out on top, and certainly the Romney campaign is better funded.

Further, even though Romney seems to lag at third in national polls behind Giuliani and Thompson, he’s running ahead of everybody in Iowa and New Hampshire. If Romney wins in Iowa and then Michigan before heading into New Hampshire, his momentum could be unstoppable. But McCain needs to win Michigan just to be taken seriously — unlike Romney who might have real momentum. In the end, McCain stopping — or at the very least cutting significantly into — Romney in Michigan may ultimately not benefit McCain, but one of the other front-runners looking for someone to put a halt to Romney’s early primary state momentum.

As of right now, McCain has everything to lose if he doesn’t win Michigan, while Romney has everything to gain by a victory. And what makes all of this truly interesting is that McCain and Romney’s respective campaign people in Michigan are engaged in all-out blood sport against each other.

The Yobs and the Sterling Corporation have a longstanding, internecine feud going back to 1998 when Chuck Yob maneuvered against Sterling Corp. consultants at the state political convention to prevent Mitt Romney’s brother from being the party’s nominee for the attorney general in the election that year — a move that paved the way for Jennifer Granholm’s election to state attorney general and eventually governor. Suffice it to say: The Yobs are unusually motivated to pull off a McCain upset at a time when other campaign consultants would just be doing their best to rack up their billable hours before the inevitable hammer drops on the fledgling campaign.

Again, the primary schedule is still very inchoate; it’s not likely that New Hampshire will let its status as the first primary be easily usurped. And many uncertain factors will have to align for this scenario to play out in such a way that the McCain campaign benefits dramatically. But given the position that the McCain campaign is in, they need to be thinking Hail Marys, not screen passes. For the time being, the prospect of Michigan primary on January 15 looks a lot like an open receiver way down field.

– Mark Hemingway is an NRO political reporter.

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