There are some big stakes in the primary elections less than two weeks away, and fierce fights over congressional and legislative nominations are getting a lot of attention.
Not that it’s likely to boost what is usually anemic turnout in the primaries, and that’s despite the reality that most seats are so firmly partisan that the primary is actually the decisive election that really determines who goes to Lansing or Washington.
Like other politicos, we’ve paid a lot of attention to the face-off between the Republican establishment and the GOP’s Tea Party wing. And while that fight is playing out in some state House and Senate races, and some big Congressional races, it’s also playing out locally. Very locally.
We’re talking about the humble precinct delegate.
You’ll find the vote for precinct delegate at the very bottom of the ballot. If they’re there at all. There are more than 4,800 voting precincts in Michigan - the state’s smallest political subdivision. Any qualified voter can run to be a precinct delegate and represent their little corner of Michigan at a party’s county political conventions. Those conventions decide who attends the Republican state party conventions that nominate candidates and choose party officers.
The position is also called precinct captain. On the partisan ballot, it might also fall under “delegate to county convention.” On the Republican side, there are more than 15,000 delegate slots, and most go unfilled because nobody runs. So, usually, anyone who wants to be a precinct delegate pretty much walks into the position.
But every now and then, there’s an insurgency.
It happened in 1982 when supporters of anti-tax crusader Richard Headlee’s campaign for governor swamped the also-rans and briefly took over the Michigan Republican Party. It happened again in 1988, which led to a mano-a-mano fight between supporters of Vice President George H.W. Bush and Pat Robertson and Jack Kemp for president.
The point being, these precinct delegate races can have big real world political consequences – both higher up the ballot and when it comes to policy-making. At stake in this year’s Republican precinct delegate contests - the political future of Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley, and who’s going to run the state Republican Party going into the future.
Calley and Governor Snyder’s Republican Party have been busy recruiting candidates to try and bring an end to the GOP convention in-fighting that’s already toppled Republican National Committee members, very nearly cost state Republican Chairman Bobby Schostak his job, and four years ago very nearly denied Snyder his choice of Calley as running mate.
It appears (in part because of a vigorous precinct delegate recruitment drive) Calley’s not very threatened at this point. There will be a formal convention challenge by one Wes Nakagiri, but that threat seems managed.
But it’s also a fight to tamp down the constant insurgency that’s roiled Republican state conventions for the past four years.
So there are 475 contested Republican precinct delegate positions and some of the tools of bigger campaigns are being used to both win those races and make sure their candidates get the votes to take the unchallenged positions.
This is a very professionally managed operation, and we even have (pause for dramatic effect) a “shadowy group.”
An independent 527 group called the “Michigan Advocacy Trust” managed by a well-known Republican attorney in Lansing has been sending out glossy brochures supporting specific candidates for precinct delegates.
One long-time party activist told us: “In all my years of being a Republican, I can’t remember ever getting a mailing for precinct delegate.”
The brochures tout the named candidates’ conservative cred, but typically they’re from the more moderate pro-Snyder wing of the Republican Party.
And that’s just one of the organized efforts to support what is really the Republican establishment’s efforts to restore control over a party that’s been riven by dissension.
Now that doesn’t mean Republicans don’t want that Tea Party support. In fact they still need it. But they want it on their terms -- with candidates and elected officials who, in particular, will support infrastructure projects like road funding and the Detroit international bridge -- stuff that’s been blocked or slowed down by the Tea Party’s influence. Also, to back away from selecting party leaders like Republican National Committeeman Dave Agema, whose incendiary rhetoric on gay rights and Muslims have complicated efforts toward a more-inclusive “big tent” GOP.
Call it “The Establishment Strikes Back.” They want to tip the balance of power within the GOP back in their favor.