Many of Michigan's tea party leaders want to rally around one U.S. Senate candidate, rather than disperse support among several. Efforts are now under way to create a process for choosing which candidate they'll favor.
“Our hope is to do something like the tea parties did in Indiana,” said Cindy Gamrat, head of the Plainwell Patriots Tea Party. “In Indiana they realized that in the last election they had split up their votes and didn't get the result they wanted. This time they decided that instead of just working hard, they'd also try to work smart.
“They got together and provided a framework for selecting a candidate they could all support,” Gamrat continued. “But things are different in Indiana than here in Michigan. In Indiana, they have a Republican senator that tea party voters are unhappy with. That's Sen. Richard Lugar.The Indiana tea parties got together and found a way to decide on one candidate for U.S. Senate. Their candidate is Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock.”
In Michigan, tea party activists agree that the ultimate goal in the 2012 Senate race is to defeat incumbent Democrat Sen. Debbie Stabenow. They want the GOP candidate who challenges Stabenow, however, to represent tea party fiscal principles as much as possible.
“The plan we have is to get together soon and determine how we'll go about this,” said Randy Bishop of the Northern Michigan Patriots. “After we've decided that, we'll pick a Saturday, maybe in November, when there isn't a big football game going on, and vet the candidates.
“We're looking at possibly doing the vetting at the Midland Convention Center,” Bishop continued. “It would be broadcast from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on WMKT in northern Michigan, and available online throughout the state. At some point after all the vetting was done, we'd hold our straw vote and see what happens.”
Bishop explained that the process should take place on a Saturday because, “Most of us are people who have to work during the week to make a living.”
In addition to finding a Saturday in November without an important college football game on the schedule, another of the potential obstacles confronting the plan would be working out the details. According to Gamrat, the Indiana method of rallying around one candidate required that at least 70 percent of the state's various tea party groups be involved in making the choice. What's more, the deciding vote on which candidate would be supported had to reach a 70 percent threshold to qualify as a final decision.
“I think one of the first things we need to do is at least contact all of the groups,” Gamrat said. “Some groups probably won't participate, but I think we should contact them all.
“Doing this could be more difficult here than it was in Indiana,” Gamrat added. “There's less networking in Michigan and more diverse groups and geographical divisions as well as more candidates. I'm actually a little bit nervous about it. It's a little like trying to herd cats.”
Gamrat said Bishop's idea about vetting the candidates made sense for the northern Michigan voters because of the distances involved. But she said also said the target date for the tea parties to choose their candidate should be closer to the beginning of the New Year.
“To me, that might be more realistic,” Gamrat said.
GOP candidates considered realistically to be in the race include former Congressman Pete Hoekstra, charter school executive Clark Durant, former Kent County Probate Judge Randy Hekman, Roscommon businessman Peter Konetchy and American Family Association of Michigan President Gary Glenn.
Other potential candidates include a former Libertarian Party candidate named Scotty Boman, retired autoworker Rick Wilson, and ‘Ron Paul’ candidate Chad Dewey. Dewey's latest website posting, however, says he's running for state representative.
Hoekstra, considered the front runner, has been endorsed by former Gov. John Engler and current Gov. Rick Snyder. Durant has been endorsed by three former heads of the Michigan Republican Party: Saul Anuzis, Betsy DeVos and former U.S. Sen. Spencer Abraham.
According to Bishop, the field of candidates has been narrowed to just four: Durant, Hoekstra, Glenn and Konetchy.
“Realistically, it's down to those four,” Bishop said. “To me, Durant and Hoekstra are really establishment candidates. The tea party doesn't hold debates where candidates can give lame, misleading answers. We want to vet the candidates. We want to ask Hoekstra about his voting record. We want to vet Gary Glenn about our concerns over whether or not he's electable.”
Gene Clem of the Southwest Michigan Tea Party Patriots said he's not sure why Hekman would no longer be on the list.
“I guess I still see it as five,” Clem said. “I'm really not that involved so maybe something has happened that I don't know about. Otherwise, I don't know why Hekman would be off the list. I think it would be really good to try to get as many tea party people as possible agreeing on one candidate,” Clem added. “I think the target date is early January.”
Inside Michigan Politics editor Bill Ballenger said there is still time for the tea party groups to sort things out and possibly rally around one candidate.
“I think there might be concerns because in 2010 the tea parties got organized too late to really have full impact,” Ballenger said. “They were just beginning to organize in the early months of 2010. Before they were ready it was summer and the primary campaigns were under way.
“They're not in that situation right now,” Ballenger continued. “I mean, really, they have time to take a good look at the candidates and see if they can come to agreement about supporting one. I would think that early January would be a pretty realistic time frame.”
Wendy Day, head of Common Sense in Government, said she believes it will be very difficult for the tea parties to rally around just one candidate.
“It would be great. It would be a chance for the tea parties to really demonstrate their muscle,” Day said. “But I think it will be a real uphill battle. Most tea party groups have fierce individuality. Many are very purist when it comes to the candidates they'll support. Some groups are primarily concerned about fiscal and economic issues, while others are more concerned about social issues.
“Last time they missed their best chance in the (2nd Congressional) district to really make a difference,” Day added.
In 2010, the primary election in West Michigan’s second congressional district pitted two establishment candidates against two political outsiders. Then-state Sen. Wayne Kuipers and former state Rep. Bill Huizenga ran against former NFL and U-M tight end Jay Riemersma and successful businessman Bill Cooper. While the two established politicians warded off blows from the outsiders about warts on their respective fiscal records, tea party groups made no substantive effort to unite behind anyone. The very hotly contested race resulted in each of the four finishing with between 20,000 and 27,000 votes. Huizenga eked out a narrow win with a margin of less than 700 votes over Riemersma, and went on to take office after also winning the general election in the strongly Republican seat.
Day’s point is that any united tea party front could have tipped the balance to any of the candidates, given the close finish. It was an example of precisely the dispersion of support that tea parties statewide hope to avoid in the GOP primary for U.S. Senate in 2012. Ironically, the 2nd Congressional district primary became so crowded because the incumbent, Hoekstra, vacated his seat in Congress chose not to run again due to his gubernatorial bid.
Day said that because of the way she schedules her meetings, she's not sure whether her group is considered a tea party group anymore. She said she doesn't know whether she'll be contacted about the effort to get behind just one U.S. Senate candidate or not.