Politics & Policy

Primary Problem

Michigan may have to resort to a state convention.

New legal challenges to Michigan’s proposed primary election could have a dramatic effect on the presidential election. Today, Michigan’s Court of Appeals is widely expected to uphold last week’s Circuit Court ruling invalidating Michigan’s presidential primary.

Such a ruling will almost certainly cause the state parties to use caucuses and state party conventions instead of statewide elections to determine party nominees, a move that on the Republican side will virtually eliminate all Republican candidates from contention, excepting Romney and McCain. Further, most observers suggest that if a nominee is to emerge from a state GOP convention, that process heavily favors McCain.

First, some background. With the citizens of Iowa and New Hampshire maintaining their traditional stranglehold on media attention, and asserting undue influence on the presidential nomination process, Michigan tried to shake up their dominance by scheduling a January 15 primary that would occur after Iowa but before New Hampshire.

Of course, things have not gone as planned for state party planners in Michigan, given last week’s Ingham County Circuit Court legal ruling, which tossed out the state’s primary election. Aside from trying to move up the primary, state officials ambitiously tried to change Michigan’s electoral rules at the same time.

For years, Michigan has had an open primary process — meaning that registered Democrats can vote in Republican primaries and vice-versa — about which state parties have made the complaint that the results are distorted. Such was the case in 2000, when McCain won Michigan’s state primary. That year, the Republican and Democratic primaries were held on different dates. Bush lost Michigan despite the fact that the state Republican party — including then-Governor John Engler — overwhelmingly supported Bush. At the time there were reports that Democrat state party headquarters had phonebanks going, calling Dem voters in Detroit telling them to go vote in the GOP primary for McCain and thus screw over Engler. Engler called Michigan Bush’s “firewall.” The loss was a huge embarrassment to him.

Needless to say, many blamed the future president’s loss on Democrats who showed up to vote for McCain. So bitter were they over the results that, after Bush clinched the GOP nomination, factions in the state party tried unsuccessfully to send Bush delegates to the national convention despite of McCain’s victory.

The proposed solution to the open primary problem in 2008 was to have voters request one of two ballots in the primary election. Voters would select either a Republican or a Democratic ballot, thus limiting their options. The state still wouldn’t require proof of party affiliation — making the proposed reform a very loose definition of a “closed primary” — but it was a significant reform nonetheless.

In getting this reform approved through the state legislature, Republicans gathered Democratic support by including a provision giving both parties access to records of who requested which ballot. Instead of making such party affiliation records public information, the information was to be restricted to the parties themselves, providing a font of valuable information for tracking political trends. “The enticement for Democrats was that you were going to get this list of people that voted and nobody else was going to get it,” Kent County Republican Chairman Dave Dishaw told National Review Online. However, “that’s what the judge had a problem with,” he added.

Since the judge has thrown out the proposed process, state GOP chairman Saul Anuzis has been scrambling to get the primary process back on track and time is running out. Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox filed an appeal through the Secretary of State’s office and a ruling is expected at 1:30 p.m. today, Nov. 15.

However, the legal ruling is not expected to break in favor of approving the primary process as written. According to Glenn Clark, the Michigan GOP’s 9th District chairman from Oakland County and state party policy chairman,

That’s kind of common speculation even though our state chairman is not saying it. In our state committee meeting on Saturday — the governing body for the state committee — he seemed to up-play the primary and downplay going to caucus, and everybody in the room was looking at each other and thinking “No, this [the convention] is where we’re going.”

The problem could be resolved with a legislative fix, but Republicans lost the state house in 2006, and narrowly control the state senate. They don’t have enough votes to get the two-thirds majority needed to get any reparative measure to take effect immediately — especially now that a number of the John Edwards supporters in the legislature are maneuvering to let the primary proposal die. Without a primary, Republicans will be forced to decide the nominee at a state convention, while the Michigan Democrats’ back-up plan will likely be a firehouse caucus that Edwards’s campaign thinks will be to its benefit.

Aside from shifting the primary calendar yet again and changing the entire momentum and strategy for the race, a state convention in Michigan will radically change the dynamics for Republicans.

If Michigan’s delegates are awarded by 2,200 dedicated party activists instead of a million plus votes, that means the only two viable candidates remaining are McCain and Romney. Both were organizing in the state early on and have sewn up the allegiance of all the major grassroots activists in the state — exactly who will be fighting convention battles.

In fact, because of his advantage in grassroots organizing, one veteran political consultant in the state told NRO bluntly that a state convention process means Romney is in trouble. “Well, that means McCain wins. The Yobs haven’t lost a convention fight in over ten years, and McCain still has a majority of district chairs. Sure, Romney could win there, but it’s tougher,” he said. McCain’s allegedly assured victory is the result of his close ties to Chuck Yob — the Michigan’s RNC committee man and the undisputed master of state conventions. Yob’s son John is McCain’s deputy political director.

Perhaps the defining moment of the last decade in Michigan Republican politics is a legendary episode from 1998, when Chuck Yob stood up to Engler at a state convention and defeated the powerful sitting governor. Yob’s preferred candidate for attorney general defeated Engler’s. (Ironically, the candidate for the GOP attorney-general nomination that Yob edged out was Scott Romney, Mitt’s brother. The episode also indirectly led to the ascendancy of Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm. I wrote about the episode in detail and how it explains the Michigan GOP’s current faultlines last year.)

The event cemented Yob’s reputation for being undefeatable; a candidate aligned with Yob hasn’t lost a state convention battle in over a decade. It’s also widely understood that it’s difficult to win a state convention battle without having the support of the local party in the state’s three most important GOP counties: Wayne, Kent and Oakland. McCain has the support of the chairman in all three. McCain has the support of the chairman in all three. In fact, the 3rd District chairman from Kent is Chuck’s daughter-in-law, Kim Yob. (The aforementioned Dave Dishaw is Kent’s County GOP chair and also supports McCain.)

Romney’s campaign seems worried. Anuzis has been pushing hard for the primary. Though he’s not endorsing Romney in an official capacity, he’s widely viewed as being in the Romney camp. Cox, who filed the appeal to reinstate the primary, was McCain’s former state campaign chairman before a dramatic falling out with McCain on the eve of Michigan’s Mackinac Island straw poll — a move seemingly designed to cause maximum damage to McCain. Cox has a reputation for being hot-tempered and holding a grudge. Bad blood remains between him and the McCain campaign. Though Romney spent hundreds of thousand of dollars and won the straw poll, McCain came in second on a shoe string budget, and his good showing was largely based on the strength of the Yob organization. His speech there was very well received and he’s been surging in the state ever since.

If Anuzis and Cox are scrambling, it’s likely because they’re worried McCain will fare well in a convention. Romney biggest advantage over McCain in the state — and everywhere else for that matter — is his colossal war chest. If the election comes down to a convention hall full of a select number of activists, Romney’s money and ability to blitzkrieg the state with TV ads is completely neutralized.

Aside from handing McCain a gift, a convention does not bode well for the other candidates. Huckabee and Thompson, just weren’t organizing in the state early, and lacked an opportunity to sign on the organizers needed to win a convention battle. Even Giuliani, who leads in national polls, is a non-starter. The hard core party activists tend to be much more conservative than the general Republican primary voters. While Giuliani might win a significant percentage of votes in a primary, a pro-choice candidate simply won’t go anywhere on a convention floor. The McCain campaign already considers Giuliani’s impact on a convention battle negligible. “A pro-choice candidate like Rudy Giuliani would have a very difficult time appealing to conservative convention activists,” John Yob said.

And so it comes down to Romney and McCain, with the advantage seemingly resting with the Arizona senator. It’s very unlikely that a third candidate will win delegates based on the current allegiances of the state’s grassroots activists. However, the results will likely be far from dominant. At the state convention, three delegates are awarded for each of the state’s 15 congressional districts; plus, whoever wins the most delegates gets another 12 “at-large” delegates. But it’s winner take all per district — so McCain could conceivably win eight districts to Romney’s seven or vice versa. Either way the candidate who comes in second is still walking away with a significant number of delegates.

If the primary is rejected as expected today, a county caucus is set to take place on January 17 to determine who will attend the convention, with the actual nominating convention scheduled for January 25.

However, the convention is still far from the preferred process for deciding such an important matter as far as the state party is concerned. As Kent County’s Dishaw said:

The people that benefit most from a convention are the existing power brokers. I benefit, I become much more important in a convention than I do when there’s a million people voting. But I want to win in November. As an activist I wish that we would have a separate primary because I want more people involved and I want to see thousands and thousands of people identifying themselves as Republican so we can use those lists in the fall…Especially in a state like Michigan that is trending Democratic. We need to do all we can to identify Republicans.

Mark Hemingway is a writer in Washington, D.C.

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