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Can Snyder/Calley ticket survive the Medicaid fight?

Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley is trying to burnish his conservative credentials as the Snyder administration takes on the Tea Party in the Medicaid expansion fight.

“I’m a voice on the inside that comes from the right side of the political spectrum,” said Calley on the Michigan Public Television show “Off The Record.”

Calley is trying to erase the political target on his back. He has become the focal point of Tea Party rage over the push for expanding Medicaid to cover more working poor people and other centrist sins of the Snyder administration, deemed by many Tea Partiers as insufficiently conservative. 

Now, the Tea Party doesn’t really harbor hopes of knocking down Governor Snyder with a primary challenge next year. But it does believe the Tea Party is a necessary element of any coalition to ensure a Republican victory next year, and it knows, that (even if Rick Snyder is pretty much guaranteed re-nomination in a primary election) Calley – or whomever the lieutenant governor candidate will be – has to be nominated at a state party convention.

It is indisputable that the Tea Party elements within the Republican Party have been very effective at getting their people elected as precinct delegates, and then getting those delegates to county conventions, where they select Tea Partiers as state convention delegates.

Three years ago, the Tea Party played havoc with One Tough Nerd’s ticket-building plans. They put up their own candidate for LG – Bill Cooper, a failed congressional hopeful from west Michigan. The convention was thrown into chaos as Tea Partiers made it clear that Rick Snyder’s choice was not their choice. Snyder prevailed, but not without some consternation and complaints about sudden rules changes.

Here’s what one Tea Party delegate had to say back then:

“In politics, you know they do whatever it takes. They scratch. They claw. They bite.” 

Yep. That was one angry delegate. There is an interesting aside to the “dump Calley” movement – and that is these Tea Partiers may be united in the effort but with differing views on the result. Some of them want to deliver a black eye to One Tough Nerd before proving in November that Republicans can’t win without them. Some prominent Tea Partiers have said they will skip the governor’s race on the ballot, or vote for a third party rather than support Snyder. But there are others who say they are trying to save Snyder and the Republican establishment from themselves – that an LG of their choosing will bring home enough conservatives to reelect Snyder.

Also, if they elect enough legislators who are sympathetic to their views, they can deny Democrats the executive office but still essentially wall in the Snyder administration, and keep it from veering to close to the center (or the center left).

Their ability to do that is being tested right now with the vote expected next week on the Medicaid expansion, and this is happening at the same time as these big national campaigns on defunding Obamacare, or encouraging people to sign up.

In the shadow of all that, people are wondering whether Calley – whose official duties include presiding over sessions of the state Senate – will have to cast a tie-breaking vote on this Medicaid expansion. Since Calley’s already on board with the expansion, it probably doesn’t cost him much anyway, although it could stoke some Tea Party anger. 

Which could create ripples that will play out at the Michigan Republicans’ big biennial meet-and-greet on Mackinac Island approaching in about a month. It’s supposed to be a chance to strategize and unify the party leading up to the 2014 election. To win, Republicans need to keep three or four strands of the party together – that’s the classic conservatives and their mix of social, defense and fiscal priorities, business conservatives, the libertarian or “liberty” wing, and the Tea Partiers. 

There are some commonalities among those groups, certainly, but there are also tension points. Medicaid is a big one.

To deal with the fallout of the Medicaid controversy and the threat to Snyder’s control over the GOP ticket, there will very likely be an effort on Mackinac to re-write the state party’s convention rules to make it harder for dissident factions to challenge a governor’s choice for LG. That would certainly provoke a fight that pits the GOP establishment versus the Tea Party.

Since its inception, The Tea Party movement has presented a conundrum for the GOP establishment. The Tea Party can’t win elections for the GOP, but it can try to assert its will by threatening to deny Republicans victory by withholding support by the conservative base. Also the Tea Party has outsized influence at Republican conventions. Because Tea Partiers show up.                   

So we’ll see if this upcoming Republicans’ Mackinac conference is a unity celebration or a GOP version of a tense, awkward family dinner...

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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