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GOP-Tea Party battle becomes an uncivil war

“Screw you as far as weak Republicans, dude… I said, ‘screw you’ as far as calling me a weak Republican.”

“Quote of the week” goes to state Senator Howard Walker in a throw-down at a Republican luncheon in northern Michigan. The “screw you” was directed at a Tea Partier giving grief to Walker over the recent expansion of Medicaid to the working poor in Michigan.

Senator Walker, liberated by the fact that he is not seeking reelection, spoke his mind - and the mind of many establishment Republicans - who are getting fed up with a Tea Party that says “no” to everything.

"No" to a new international bridge in Detroit.

"No" to the Common Core student measurement standards.

"No" to more transportation funding.

And, the list goes on.

The Tea Party is threatening primaries against Republican politicians who vote against them on those issues and they intend to use their convention clout to try and dump Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley from the Republican ticket next year. The Republican establishment meanwhile is responding with a ‘not so fast’ and ‘we want our party back.’

Toward that end, last weekend the Michigan Republican Party launched its precinct captain outreach. A couple hundred volunteers hit about 12,000 doors in an effort to recruit new blood or reinvigorate some of the old guard that’s dropped out during the Tea Party era.

Precinct captains or precinct delegates are actually elected officials. They are chosen by voters to serve as a liaison with the party. Many voters have never cast a ballot for a precinct delegate. There are 4,853 precincts in Michigan and, usually, no one runs.

But, every now and then, an insurgency like the Tea Party comes along and rediscovers the precinct delegate. The precinct delegates go to county conventions and are instrumental in selecting people to go to state conventions. We’ve seen what the Tea Party can do at a Michigan Republican convention, like the one last February that very nearly ousted state GOP chairman Bobby Schostak.

This type of scene has played out before – for example, in 1987, when supporters of Pat Robertson and Jack Kemp took over; first, at the grassroots, then, almost seizing control of the state party. The fight went to court and there were even dueling state Republican conventions in Grand Rapids.

So, now, Michigan Republicans are coming back to attend to their neglected grassroots, to stop a reprise of 1987 (or, what veteran political journalists sometimes call “the good old days”).

Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley wants to fend off a convention challenge to his re-nomination next year. Calley says he’ll be doing his own personal outreach to recruit precinct delegate candidates. We could actually see some contested races for these hyper-local seats.

Looking ahead to this weekend, there will be even more interplay between the Republican establishment and the Tea Party in Michigan, as members of the GOP gather for their biennial conference on Mackinac Island. Their goal: to strategize and unify before next year’s election when Governor Snyder will almost certainly run for another term.

And, let’s use this moment to once again dispatch to the dustbin the idea that One Tough Nerd has been reticent about his intention to run again. He’s said he’ll put off a formal announcement until next year, but everything else says he’s running. But, again, the Governor has a grassroots problem. Despite having signed a law to make Michigan a right-to-work state, he’s more of a Republican moderate.

While a primary challenger for Governor Snyder has not emerged yet, Tea Partiers continue to dream of primary mischief. Some have even suggested a strange bedfellows alliance with conservative Democrats who want to poke the Nerd in the eye over right-to-work and the income tax on pensions. They’d have to convince those otherwise Democratic voters to abandon their own primary because Michigan doesn’t allow cross-over voting. You have to vote in one or the other. (But Democrats, at this juncture, aren’t facing contested gubernatorial or U.S. Senate primaries.)   

And, we have seen this happen before - some think Democratic mischief-making was partially responsible for John McCain’s upset Michigan primary victory over George W. Bush in 2000.

So, Rick Snyder might want to get to work on those grassroots and not be one of those millionaires who expects someone else to take care of the lawn.

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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