August 20, 2014 at 1:00 am

Michigan GOP braces for tea party showdown

Conservative factions at state convention seek to replace Calley on Snyder's ticket

Calley (Dale G. Young / The Detroit News)

Michigan Republicans are gearing up for a showdown at their state convention Saturday that could unite the GOP for the general election or embarrass Gov. Rick Snyder by exposing deep ideological divisions.

At stake is the renomination of Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, who faces a challenge from Hartland tea party leader Wes Nakagiri over the way Snyder and Calley have governed since voters handed over complete control of state government to Republicans in 2011.

Calley’s allies have been working for nearly a year to recruit and elect delegates to the state convention who will pledge their support for the incumbent and muscle out tea party sympathizers who might vote for Nakagiri on Saturday in Novi.

Conservative factions of the Republican Party have considered blocking Calley from rejoining Snyder on the ballot to punish the governor for pursuing higher gas taxes to fix state roads, endorsing Common Core education standards and embracing Medicaid expansion and creation of a health insurance marketplace — key tenets of the federal Affordable Care Act.

“Rick Snyder’s done a very unique job of making people very happy and very upset in the same day and the same party,” said Wendy Day, a Howell tea party activist. “There is a coalition of delegates that are up for the challenge to have their voices heard through this fight of Calley and Nakagiri.”

Calley, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has never publicly opposed the governor on major policy decisions, but routinely says he is “the conservative voice” inside the Snyder administration.

Nakagiri contends Calley has not done enough to stop the encroachment of the Affordable Care Act, Common Core and other policies viewed as liberal that Snyder has embraced.

“If this were a debate made solely on my stand on the issues … my vision for the office of lieutenant governor … contrasting that to the incumbent, I would win readily,” Nakagiri said.

But Nakagiri, an automotive engineering manager, has found that gaining support at a party nominating convention for a statewide office is not just about winning the hearts and minds of conservative activists.

The Calley campaign and the Michigan Freedom Fund — the political organizing arm of the wealthy west Michigan DeVos family — have made a concerted effort to recruit reliable Republican delegates who are not beholden to tea party or so-called patriot groups viewed as hostile to Snyder and ideologically rigid.

It’s the largest such effort since the late 1990s, when then-Gov. John Engler and Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson sought to purge the party’s convention of delegates who were members of the Michigan Militia, said Greg McNeilly, president of the Michigan Freedom Fund.

“It’s not a DeVos-specific thing,” said McNeilly, a Republican political strategist. “Most of the major donors in Michigan want to see candidates who can win for their ideas, and that’s candidates who know that addition, not subtraction, is the path to victory in Michigan politics.”

Another convention battle involves the two slots for the University of Michigan Board of Regents. Former Michigan GOP Chairman Ron Weiser is running for nomination along with former UM Regent Dan Horning and Ann Arbor cardiologist Rob Steele, but opponents have created a website called rinoron.com that argues Weiser is a “Republican in name only.”

GOP leaders became alarmed last year after state party Chairman Bobby Schostak nearly lost his re-election bid to Lapeer tea party activist Todd Courser, who won a Republican state House primary on Aug. 5.

Precinct delegates recruited

The precinct delegate recruitment efforts have included robo calls to the homes of recruits to gauge their support for Calley and targeted mailings in some competitive primary races for delegate slots that often just get a handful of votes in some places.

“I must have gotten 10 calls,” said Steve Willis, chairman of the Clinton County Republican Party.

Some Republicans are worried about the consequences for Snyder’s re-election bid against Democratic challenger Mark Schauer if fellow Republicans denied him his choice in Calley for another term.

“If you do this, you just shoot yourself in the foot and give Schauer ammunition,” said Chris Hill, a GOP precinct delegate from Commerce Township.

McNeilly said the fallout could “add some energy to the Schauer campaign” and dominate headlines about the governor’s race through Labor Day.

“You can’t sugarcoat it — it would be a disruption,” said McNeilly, who ran Dick DeVos’ 2006 gubernatorial campaign. “But it won’t have lasting impact. It’s gone by the time the absentee ballots drop.”

But Ed Sarplous, a Lansing-based analyst who has worked for Democratic candidates in the past, said a Calley loss would raise questions about Snyder’s “one tough nerd” image and dampen Republican turnout in November.

Candidate rules changed

Nakagiri’s bid to dethrone Calley has faced procedural hurdles as well just to get on the convention ballot.

Last year, the state party’s executive committee changed the rules for becoming a convention candidate for statewide office, requiring Nakagiri and others to get the blessing of four of the 14 congressional district committee chairpersons or signatures from 21 state committee members. Nakagiri turned in 33 signatures.

The GOP also doubled the number of precinct delegates elected in the Aug. 5 primary to 6,500, flooding county convention halls last week with new voters, many of them recruited supporters of Calley and a handful of governor’s office staff members.

“If they knew in their heart of hearts that I had no chance and that I was toast, I don’t think they would go to all of this trouble,” Nakagiri said.

A combination of elected officials, precinct delegates and “hard-working Republicans” make up the 2,135 delegates eligible to vote at the state convention.

Joan Fabiano, a tea party activist from Holt and Nakagiri supporter, said the GOP establishment has “stacked the deck in favor of Brian Calley.”

“It’s this kind of behavior that helps divide the party and I think makes a mockery of the process,” she said.

Party loyalist cast aside

The political trench warfare has alienated some longtime party loyalists.

Willis, of Bath Township, was recruited to be the Clinton County GOP chairman three years ago by the past chairman, Tom Leonard, who is now a state representative from DeWitt.

But Willis said he was cast aside last week when Calley’s forces — led by Leonard’s wife, Jenell, a top Calley aide — dominated a county convention and denied him one of the county’s 19 delegate seats.

Willis and his wife, Sheri, won alternate spots instead, but aren’t planning to attend the convention.

“I’ve got kind of a bad taste in my mouth right now for politics,” said Willis, who spent 32 years in the Legislature’s bill-drafting offices. “I knew there was a lot of stuff that went on (in politics), but I didn’t know it was this bad.”

clivengood@detroitnews.com
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Nakagiri (David Guralnick / The Detroit News)