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The agony of the GOP

Mar 21, 2016

If you’ve been following the presidential race, you probably know that most of the conservative establishment is in a tizzy over the now-likely nomination of Donald Trump.

The New York Times’ David Brooks, for example, wrote a column this weekend in which he proclaimed Trump was essentially the worst candidate in history, and concluded,

“No, not Trump, not ever.”

Many Republicans are now desperately rallying around Ted Cruz, who finished a distant second in Michigan’s Republican primary two weeks ago.

But they really don’t like him very much either, and they are freaked out by Trump’s prediction that there would be riots and “bad things would happen” if the party tried to deny him the nomination at their national convention in Cleveland this July.

All this agony is less visible in Michigan.

The state has no Republican U.S. senators, and none of our GOP congressmen is a highly visible major player. Governor Rick Snyder is occupied full-time with the Flint water crisis and has been neutralized as any kind of political force. Snyder did give Lt. Gov. Brian Calley his permission to endorse Gov. John Kasich.

Yet Kasich, the only other Republican candidate left standing, hasn’t won anything besides his home state of Ohio. A number of people think establishment Republicans would nominate an independent or third-party candidate if Trump was indeed the nominee.

But the fact is that in Michigan, that just isn’t going to happen, and here’s why. Under state law, to appear on the ballot in November, all a candidate has to do is file 30,000 valid signatures with the Secretary of State.

That’s far fewer than needed to get any kind of proposal on the ballot. But here’s the catch. Those signatures have to be filed no later than July 21st – the last day of the Republican National Convention. To get on as an independent, someone would have to start collecting those signatures pretty much right away, abandoning the Republican Party.

That isn’t happening. 

Most other states have similar rules; in Ohio, would-be independent candidates have to have their petitions certified before the end of May. 

Running as a write-in candidate in Michigan would be much easier – you just have to file a declaration of intent any time up to eleven days before the election. But write-ins seldom get more than a bare handful of votes.

There are two other big potential problems for Republicans tempted to back a substitute candidate. Nobody has ever won the White House running as an independent. H. Ross Perot won nearly 20 million votes in 1992, the most any independent has ever received.

But he didn’t win a single state. And there’s another dramatic struggle going on, the one for control of the U.S. Senate. What if millions vote for some independent presidential candidate and then forget to cross back over for Republican candidates for senate and other races?

That could easily mean a Democratic president could put anyone on the Supreme Court they wanted.

A few weeks ago, I heard someone ask Karl Rove what he would do if Trump were nominated. He said he would still be a Republican – but be very still.

My guess is that most of the party establishment, here and elsewhere, would do the same.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.