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Can the GOP maintain that Tea Party love and win mid-term elections?

History suggests that this election year should be friendly to Republicans. That’s because Republicans are more likely to turn out in mid-term elections than Democrats, and the party out of the White House, especially in a president’s second term, tends to have an advantage. With about six and a half months to go before the November election, a lot of Republicans are harboring hopes that this is going to be a good year to be a Republican.

But here’s a question: Which kind of Republican is it best to be this year?

In Michigan -- just like nationally -- there’s some tension between the three threads of the GOP coalition. That’s the  Establishment Republicans, the Tea Party, and the Liberty Movement.

We’ll get a better idea of how big this fight is (and if it’s a fight at all worth talking about) after this coming Tuesday’s filing deadline. We’ll see exactly where and how many Tea Partiers will “primary” an establishment Republican figure, and where the Republican establishment (and by that we mean chamber of commerce Republicans) will try to dislodge a Tea Partier from Congress or the Legislature.

But we are pretty certain there will be at least three congressional primaries in Michigan where that dynamic will play out. One will pit business man Brian Ellis against Liberty wing favorite Congressman Justin Amash in west Michigan.

Also, it appears Tea Party favorite state Representative Tom McMillin will tangle with former state Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop (who used to be a Tea Party favorite) for the seat U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers is leaving. That’s in the 8th Congressional district in the middle of southern lower Michigan.

And in southeast Michigan, there’s 11th Congressional District donnybrook between establishment-backed Dave Trott, who is trying to oust incumbent Tea Partier Kerry Bentivolio -- who won in a fluke two years ago after Congressman Thad McCotter imploded in scandal over faked nominating petition signatures. (And who ever thought we’d be using the phrase “petition signature scandal?” Note to Michigan: Time to up our “scandal” game. We’ve shown we can!)

Bentivolio was always considered a one-off and the metro Detroit business community thinks they can get a member of Congress with more DC pull and star power. And, out of the gate, Bentivolio’s fundraising has been anemic. He has roughly $130,000 in his campaign account, according to the most recent report. Meanwhile, Trott, a bona fide member of the Detroit business class, is topping $1 million.

That means Bentivolio’s throwing up the sandbags against a rising tide to keep his seat. The winner of the 11th CD primary (as is the case in most congressional and legislative districts here in gerry-mandered Michigan) probably wins the general.

By the way, don’t forget legislative races. Like we said, we’ll know more after the Tuesday filing deadline, but we’re already seeing this play out in some Republican legislative primaries. The open 37th district state Senate seat comes to mind. Traverse City and northwest lower Michigan plus the eastern Upper Peninsula. State Representative Greg McMaster is staking out the turf far to the right of state Representative Wayne Schmidt, who’s part of the deal-making in the Legislature on transportation funding.

The Tea Party-Republican Party friendship has hit an “it’s complicated” phase. That’s because, overall, Republicans want to avoid these primary battles as much as possible -- which seems to have happened in the U.S. Senate race. Whether it’s luck or planning, former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land seems to have the Republican nomination locked up without a challenge. No big fights. No hard feelings. No intra-party attacks that will be turned against her in the general election.

So Republicans want party peace. They also want that passion, that fervor, that brought Tea Partiers out in the last mid-terms in 2010. That’s a critical part of the built-in GOP midterm advantage. So, nationally and in Michigan, Republican leaders are saying to the Tea Party, we can win if we stick together, but that means everyone’s got to give a little. The Tea Party’s history is, when we give, we lose on issues that we care a lot of about. 

Historically, Republicans have won by stitching together a coalition of very conservative and center-right voters. Lately, keeping both those factions happy has been a challenge.

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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