LANSING, Mich. – In a state suffering from the country’s highest unemployment rate, and home to the nation’s murder capital in Detroit – with automobile manufacturing expatriated Flint close behind – one would expect Megan Piwowar, media relations coordinator for the Michigan Republican Party, to point out that the state’s governor (Jennifer Granholm) and senators (Carl Levin and Debby Stabenow) are all Democrats.
But Piwowar and the GOP in Michigan have another ace to play, as the state holds its primary election today. “The irony is that Republican voters can really establish their values, ideals and plans for the future. Democratic voters really can’t,” she says. “That’s quite the predicament.”
In a bizarre situation caused by a frontloaded primary season, the Democrats are fielding only New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich as candidates here, and Kucinich has been the only one to campaign in the state.
The decision by the state legislature to push elections in front of the prohibitive national party requirements – and foisted upon state party leaders Mark Brewer (D) and Saulius “Saul” Anuzis ® – brought sanctions, with Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairman Howard Dean deciding to strip Michigan of all 156 of its delegates to the nominating convention in Denver in August.
Having agreed not to participate in state primaries that violate national rules, most of the Democratic contenders, including Sen. Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards, withdrew their names from the ballot. Republican primary voters and independents who decided to participate in their more option-laden race can look forward to half of their initial 60 delegates, as their candidates aren’t obligated to pledge such a withdrawal.
While neither party has ever carried through with penalties like barring delegates to the convention, the current predicament is ugly for Democratic voters who want choices in today’s primary election. No candidate has filed the proper paperwork to accept write-in votes, so where do supporters of Edwards and Obama turn with their vote? Perhaps more crucially, how will the various ideas for solutions to the state’s economic and social issues reach critical constituencies?
Some bitterness toward Clinton for not honoring her agreement to withhold her name from the Michigan ballot, combined with initial support of her rivals, has galvanized a rapidly growing effort to vote “uncommitted” en masse. Other constituencies – among them, a conspicuous lack of endorsement from the state’s still-influential United Auto Workers – may instead weigh in on the contrasting wisdoms of Republicans John McCain, Mike Huckabee or Mitt Romney.
No delegates, no representation
In a progressive district near the state capitol building in Lansing last week, committed Democrat Amber Shinn pondered the unique void her party faces.
Shinn was the field communications coordinator for Gov. Granholm’s successful reelection campaign in 2006 and is currently a PR consultant in business with Democrats around Lansing – part of a wired generation on both sides of the aisle. She sought to explain the predicament Michigan’s Democratic Party finds itself in, having joined a Republican effort to advance the primary date. The original bill sponsored in the Michigan State Senate by Michelle McManus (R‑Leelanau County) passed Aug. 22, 2006. After clearing the State House on Aug. 30 in a bi-partisan vote, on Sept. 4. Granholm approved scheduling the primary today – just one week after the New Hampshire primaries.
“I can see how [any state] would want to be more important than they are already. Everybody would want to move up the queue and be more crucial to the process,” Shinn says. The consequences arrived in the form of a vote at the DNC Fall Meeting in Vienna, Va., on Dec. 1. Candidates were caught in the middle by agreements signed with both the DNC and with state parties in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. By October, most candidates withdrew from the early contests in Michigan and Florida to comply with national party rules.
The consequences have stalled a hot race for the Democratic ticket here in the automobile state. Shinn says if she were advising the Obama or Edwards campaigns, she would encourage the campaign that is currently underway, as local supporters go door to door to push the “uncommitted” vote, while the candidates themselves stay above the fray.
Yet Democratic presidential candidates are taking their voices out of a state that needs them, and Shinn’s former boss Granholm and other state officials have come out in support of Clinton. Others, like revered state party figures Levin and Rep. John Conyers, support the grassroots effort that has propelled the uncommitted vote to 30 percent, according to Detroit Free Press poll, while Clinton still holds sway over 56 percent of Michigan’s likely Democratic primary voters.
Epitomizing the student traditions throughout the southern part of the state, Georg Schuttler, a member of Michigan State University’s campus Democrats, founded the online group Vote Uncommitted Michigan. Schuttler disseminated talking points from what began as a Facebook group, and also puts up fliers, writes op-ed pieces and spreads the word everywhere he sees Democratic Party-related stickers or hears the growing talk of the local democracy debacle.
“Had Clinton not gone back on her word, this whole ‘debacle’ never would have occurred,” Schuttler says. “But instead she decided to remain on the ballot to secure herself a potential default victory. Because of this, supporters of other Democratic candidates were left with no option on the ballot.” While an unabashed Obama supporter, Schuttler is a staunch Democrat whose ire over those he feels are culpable prompted him to act.
“Governor Granholm is partially to blame for this fiasco,” Schuttler says. “Notice that the day after Hillary said she would remain on Michigan’s ballot, Granholm endorsed her. She claims this is because Hillary, by staying on the ballot, is supporting Michigan’s causes. But if this is so true, why hasn’t Hillary visited Michigan since the primary season began?”
Schuttler concluded: “She [Granholm] and the legislature are both well aware of DNC rules, as well as the consequences for breaking them. They effectively gambled away the voices of millions of Michigan Democrats. The Michigan Legislature and Governor Granholm both have blood on their hands in this matter.” (Some speculate that Granholm has her eyes on the Attorney General post if Clinton wins the White House.)
For his part, Kucinich has been the only Democratic candidate visible in the state. The maverick admits to improperly filing paperwork to withdraw. He too is courting the college vote with his far left leanings. But despite his solid labor credentials and his embrace of the vast Arab-American community around metro-Detroit, Kucinich still hasn’t been able to galvanize a voting bloc.
GOP on the ground
Across the aisle, the Republicans’ surprise contender Huckabee actually held a narrow lead in Michigan in the Rossman poll conducted nearly a week ago, though Romney and McCain both hold leads in more recent polls.
With a strictly grassroots effort, the ex-governor of Arkansas continues to innovate. In Birch Run, near Flint, he played a bass guitar on stage after directly opposing New Hampshire winner McCain’s economic vision for the state. Meanwhile, McCain served his bitter coffee at a town meeting in Clawson (a small, right-leaning neighborhood in wealthy Royal Oak – part of Detroit’s hodgepodge of so-called “white flight” suburbs”). Huckabee scoffs at the Arizona Senator’s declaration that Michigan should hear “the truth that some of these jobs aren’t coming back.” His retort is simply that “cars have to be made somewhere.”
Huckabee topped off his canvassing on Friday by appearing in St. Johns, a small community just north of Lansing, in the heart of this blue-collar state, at a faith-based home-schoolers’ boys basketball game. Before the Chariots and the Warriors tipped off, the former minister spoke stirringly of a Christian football film, Taking on the Giants, using the miracle metaphor for his campaign, which he claims is tantamount to the Biblical story of David and Goliath – coupled with an undercurrent of school reform that helped create jobs in his own state. Economic themes were key, and to a certain degree, Huckabee pledged to examine international trade agreements, to which McCain and Romney have also paid lip service. Any promises to lift the state back to prominence and prosperity are well-received, of course.
The site of the basketball game, the Rodney B. Wilson Junior High School, is surrounded by a myriad of Christian denominational churches and directly across the street from the Clinton County Courthouse. Bells rang from a seemingly different steeple in the square every 15 minutes, indicating some sort of harmonious moment. Ira Scates, a moved volunteer, spoke of his work for Huckabee and the strength of prayer in politics.
“I’ll make 2,000 phone calls tomorrow,” Scates said emphatically. “He’s twice the man I expected.” Scates went on to describe an epileptic fit that struck one of the approximately 350 who came out to pack the small gymnasium’s bleachers. During a phone call, supporters had reportedly huddled around and prayed, and a miraculous recovery was bestowed upon the wife of the panicked man on the phone. Scates related this story, and talked of the home-schooling option as a way to “keep liberal ideas from getting pushed into kids’ heads.”
Yet Huckabee has come under fire from all sides of the contest. Even Fred Thompson has attacked Huckabee’s credentials, especially on foreign policy, whereas Romney and McCain have both lashed out against the “fair tax” proposed by Huckabee.
As for Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and 2002 Winter Olympics luminary seems a step behind in echoing any attack that his opponents fire back. Lost in misty history with his father’s legacy as the state’s former governor, Romney has a mixed-message problem. He has business credentials to please the conservative economic interests, stretches in the auto industry with collars both blue and white, ties to the state as his birth home, and campaign stops as far north as the tourism destination Traverse City in northwest lower Michigan, and as far west as St. Joseph in the state’s southwestern corner. Yet Romney’s message is scattered and he often retraces the steps of McCain or Huckabee.
McCain was the first to lead the charge through Grand Rapids, a GOP outpost and home of former president Gerald Ford. The issues are clear, and with generalities replacing specific policy as the hours before the vote dwindle, Romney followed, stumping in the metro-Detroit area, where his roots and strength lies. There, McCain has a lot of base support to overcome, and newer poll data suggests that Romney holds a 27 – 22 percent lead over McCain statewide. The Detroit Free Press-Local 4 Michigan Poll shows Huckabee trailing with 16 percent, and still other polls show McCain with a narrow lead. The revered war veteran’s growing crowds and possible appeal across the aisle with the dearth of Democrat-contender options may propel a late surge for “Johnny Mac.”
Even though McCain’s Clawson stop was packed, Ron Paul and Barack Obama quietly seem to be the most visible names in terms of signs and stickers. Paul supporters stood quietly outside Clawson High School, a reminder that more war is a tough sell in what’s being dubbed “a one-state recession.” Democratic consultant Shinn has experience with the quick mood changes in Michigan, where a fickle and angry population has already turned on Granholm.
“McCain’s a threat. Especially (in remote rural regions north of the more populated south-central region of Michigan), if you consider some of their ballot proposals that have won in the last year,” says Shinn. The outlying communities in northern Michigan are less populous but much more conservative. When they are passionate about an issue, they push through legislation. As examples, Shinn cited recent legislation that aided hunters’ rights, even though the cause was unpopular in gun-weary southern Michigan, and also a 2006 statewide referendum banning affirmative action in public institutions.
Republican gains in November?
Meanwhile, Shinn seemed to think that Clinton was best served to stay away as well. “She’s so polarizing,” Shinn says. “Because of the unique situation that we have right now, I don’t see her needing to do much at all. There are so many other states where she so desperately has got to pound the pavement and pour those resources into.” Clinton has appeared recently in California and Nevada, as well as South Carolina.
As for Michigan’s lack of delegates and lack of representation in the primaries, Shinn foresees other gripes, but ultimately, Democratic reemergence when it counts in November. She points out that folks have donated to campaigns that won’t visit here until the general election, and yet party supporters still contribute from a state whose representation is potentially lost.
“I don’t think what (candidates) say today will matter in November. What they say in August is what’s going to matter in November. A lot of those people that haven’t made up their minds, that are undecided, and a lot of independents will go back and forth,” says Shinn.”They’ll remember this, but a lot’s going to happen between now and then. It might tick off some people, but I don’t think it will be what moves a big chunk.”