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Michigan Republicans get choosy in GOP presidential primary

The Michigan presidential primary is underway. And by that we really mean that the ‘endorsements primary’ is underway.

You’ve got a friend

With 162 days until Michigan voters decide who they want to be their Republican and Democratic presidential candidates, the focus right now is really on the Republican side of things. 

That’s because the prevailing assumption remains in the Democratic ring that, rightly or wrongly, Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee. (Although, of course, an enterprising Michigan Democratic with political clout could take a gamble on Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, or Jim Webb.)

But with 14 candidates in the running on the GOP roster, endorsements can make a big difference right now. There’s a nice piece by the political thinkers at FiveThirtyEight on the endorsement primary that explains how, when party officials coalesce early around a candidate, that candidate typically wins. And that’s because in the early stages, powerful endorsers like governors, senators, and members of Congress can help attract support. They’re opinion leaders. They can add gravitas and respectability.

Endorsers can also bring along an organization of donors and volunteers that can matter later on in the campaign. The right endorsements can be a shortcut to building a grassroots organization in a state or a region.

Michigan backers

When it comes to endorsements here in Michigan, Governor Rick Snyder and Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley are hanging back - waiting until it gets closer to Michigan’s March 8th primary. It’s interesting to note that although that article mentioned above by Five Thirty Eight focuses on governors, senators and representatives, in Michigan, it could be argued, that Attorney General Bill Schuette is the highest-value Republican endorsement.

Unlike Rick Snyder, who’s shown a certain disdain for the game of politics, Schuette revels in it. The Republican base loves him and he has really been the main GOP party builder during the Snyder years. In large part because Schuette’s been busy building an organization for the 2018 race for governor, when term limits retire Rick Snyder, and Schuette will likely run.

“Long-distance runners’ vs. ‘longshot frontrunners”

Schuette boosted the value of his endorsement by getting in early and throwing his name and organization behind former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, which is not a big surprise. Schuette has a long history with the Bush family and the Bush family has a long history in Michigan.

Republican Governors Bill Milliken and John Engler both supported Bushes in their presidential bids. And Schuette’s betting that Jeb will hang in past his early low poll numbers in the face of the Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina phenomenon (who was endorsed this past week by retiring Michigan Congresswoman Candice Miller, who some are speculating could make a 2018 gubernatorial run).

That group - Trump, Carson, and Fiorina - is the one that Larry Sabato and the University of Virginia’s very respected “Crystal Ball” call the “longshot frontrunners.” Meantime, Bush, Senator Marco Rubio, and Governor John Kasich are in the Crystal Ball’s “long-distance runners” tier.

So maybe in 2018, depending on who wins the presidential primary, the winner can return the favor by showing a little help with a well-timed gubernatorial endorsement.

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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