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Tea Party Taking on Prez Primary: How Much Will it Matter and How Much Will it Cost?

Tea party activists have a three-step strategy for the 2012 Michigan Republican presidential primary. That strategy is turnout, turnout and more turnout.

“The tea party activists are going to be out there voting in full force,” said Gene Clem of the Southwest Michigan Tea Party Patriots. “There are going to be so many . . . it will be like 2010. We're going to come out in enough numbers to swamp the few Democrats who cross over.”

The Republican State Committee on Aug. 13 voted 92-17 in favor of a presidential primary in late February or early March of 2012. A caucus or convention selection process would have arguably given the tea parties a great deal of influence in terms of picking the winner, so the Aug. 13 decision was interpreted by some observers as a victory for the state GOP establishment, which many believe favors former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

The primary is going to be a so-called “closed” primary. This means that in order to cast a vote a person must be willing to declare that he or she is a Republican. Democrats and independents, however, have participated heavily in some supposedly “closed” Michigan primaries of the past. With President Barack Obama running uncontested for the Democratic nomination, a scenario could develop under which many Democrats decide to vote in the GOP contest.

“The classic example was in 2000 when Democrats and independents basically gave Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, the victory over George W. Bush (in the Michigan primary),” said Bill Ballenger, Editor of Inside Michigan Politics. “That's the primary that people generally remember it happening in. But it would be difficult to say whether we'd see that kind of situation this winter.”

Are tea party organizers concerned? Yes. Are they very worried? Apparently not.

“Of course we want to see Republicans choose the nominee. We don't want to see the process infiltrated,” said Wendy Day of Common Sense in Government. “With that said, I don't think it's going to happen. We are going to be very organized from the top, down. I don't think that's so with the Democrats. I think the Democrats are so discouraged. They should be. They earned it.”

Sharon Snyder of the Michigan Tea Party Patriots said, “Yes, I do,” when asked if she had concerns about Democrats and independents exerting influence on the GOP primary outcome. However, her approach to the situation is to say: “Bring on the primary.”

“We are really going to be getting our voters out there,” Snyder said. “I think it's going to be a very high turnout. I really believe a primary is the best way to do this.”

Legislation to provide for a 2012 Michigan presidential primary passed this week in the state Senate and is likely to be taken up soon in the state House. Under the bill — Senate Bill 584 — a “closed” Republican primary would be held no earlier than Feb. 28 and no later than March 6. The final date would be determined as of Oct. 1 by a three-member panel.

Republicans would prefer the Feb. 28 date because local elections are already scheduled for that day. However, they might not be able to do it on Feb 28. Republican National Committee rules prohibit any state other than Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada or South Carolina from holding a presidential selection process prior to early March. The three-person panel is going to decide if that rule has to be followed.

One way the tea parties could almost be assured of controlling the primary result would be if they could rally around one particular candidate instead of splitting up their votes. That does not appear likely at this point.

“I just don't see that happening at the time of the primary,” Day said. “At some point later in the year I think we might see the tea parties really exert their muscles behind someone; but probably not this winter. Right now, with all the scrutiny candidates are under, I'm not sure we would unify behind Ronald Reagan if he were running.”

Clem agreed. Unless the GOP field gets pared down significantly before the primary, it isn't likely that there would be just one tea party candidate.

“It would be helpful to find one candidate to support,” Clem said. “But I believe we are going to win in the general election and it's very important that we get behind the right candidate. There are a lot of candidates and a lot of issues to look at. Right now I think it's pretty open.

“We are, however, trying to get together on the U.S. Senate race,” Clem added. “We'll see if we can decide between Pete Hoekstra or Clark Durant. But I don't see that happening with the presidential race.”

Romney won the 2008 Michigan GOP primary and is the candidate perceived to have the most ties to Michigan, given his father's time here an an auto executive and governor. Ballenger was asked if he expects the Michigan primary to be a “must-win” for Romney in 2012.

“For all we know right now, the GOP presidential race might be as good as over by the time Michigan holds its 2012 primary,” Ballenger said. “It could be a must win for Romney if he's trailing or trying to catch someone else, like Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

“People forget that in 1976, President Gerald Ford won all the early primaries, but then Reagan began winning one after another," Ballenger added. "Ford had to win in Michigan because it was his home state. He came in and they had him do a whistle stop campaign. He ended up winning the primary, but it was close. If he hadn't won in Michigan that year it could have changed history.”

Another contentious aspect regarding the GOP primary is that state taxpayers are footing the bill for it at a cost of $10 million. The state Legislature has already set aside that amount in the budget. 

Democrats criticize the GOP for using those state funds on a partisan political primary during lean times.

“We're very opposed to allocating those funds for a primary when there could be so many other uses for them,” said House Minority Leader Rick Hammel, D-Mt. Morris. “To me, it's not being fiscally responsible. I'd also like to point out that it seems to go against what we're always being told are basic Republican principles.

“It's legitimate for the state to help out with the special election to fill the vacated seat of Rep. Tim Melton, D-Auburn Hills, on Feb. 28,” Hammel added. “That's a local election; and it's necessary. But spending taxpayer dollars on a statewide primary? I think there were better options they could have chosen.”


Michigan Capitol Confidential Coverage of the Tea Party Movement