Lansing — Former state Reps. Cindy Gamrat and ex-Rep. Todd Courser were defeated in two special Republican primaries Tuesday that were triggered by their scandal-plagued departures two months ago from the Michigan House of Representatives.
The tea party duo were vying for the GOP nominations to fill the seats they vacated on Sept. 11, when the Republican-controlled House ousted Gamrat and Courser resigned to avoid an all-but-certain expulsion for misconduct and misuse of taxpayer resources related to their extramarital affair.
In Lapeer County, Gary Howell, a county school board member and road commissioner, prevailed in an 11-candidate Republican primary field with 27 percent of the vote, according to unofficial results.
Lapeer County GOP chairwoman Jan Peabody finished second with 21 percent, followed by auto engineer Chris Tuski of Hadley Township in third place with 21 percent of the vote.
Ian Kempf, a Lapeer County commissioner, followed closely behind Tuski with 18 percent of the vote, while Courser trailed far behind in sixth place with 4 percent. Peabody lost the August 2014 primary to Courser.
In west Michigan’s Allegan County, Mary Whiteford of South Haven won the GOP nomination with 52 percent of the vote among eight Republican candidates.
Allegan County Commissioner Jim Storey came in second at 24 percent and Gamrat edged out fellow tea party member Bill Sage for third place, 9 percent to 8 percent. The special primary was a rematch for Whiteford, who lost to Gamrat in the August 2014 primary.
The winners of both GOP primaries in Allegan and Lapeer counties will be the favorites to win their March 8 special general elections because both areas are traditionally Republican strongholds.
Courser and Gamrat’s likely losses in Tuesday’s primaries cap a roller coaster three months in Michigan politics that began Aug. 7 when The Detroit News first reported on audio tapes proving Courser orchestrated a bizarre cover-up of a Capitol romance with Gamrat.
GOP House leaders forced the pair from office after Courser admitted to sending fellow Republicans an anonymous email claiming he was caught having sex with a male prostitute behind a Lansing nightclub.
The scandal and failed cover-up was on the minds of voters who showed up Tuesday at the polls.
“Todd Courser did something wrong, then tried to cover up what he did wrong and made it even worse than it was,” said Lapeer resident Shari Goff, 42, who voted for Arcadia Township Clerk Sharna Cramer Smith. “He brought us a lot of negative attention. We’re a nice community, and I wish people could see us the way we really are.”
Earlier in the day, Gamrat lowered expectations of her chances of winning the primary beforevoting at her precinct in Gun Plain Township just outside of Plainwell.
“I’m at peace with however it turns out,” Gamrat said. “We had a lot of hurdles and obstacles to overcome in a very short period of time. It just depends on who comes out to vote today.”
For several Allegan County voters interviewed at the polls Tuesday morning, Gamrat’s personal indiscretion was forgivable but the ensuing cover-up attempt was not.
“She had her chance and she blew it,” said Bernard Wolf, a 54-year-old dairy farmer and trucking company owner from Gun Plain Township.
Wolf said he voted for Gamrat last year, but chose Whiteford this time. “(Gamrat) has been an embarrassment to this district,” he said.
Joe Dec, a retired military veteran from Plainwell, said he voted for Gamrat because he didn’t see much difference between Gamrat and her opponents.
“Why not pick somebody who’s going to be watched closely?” Dec said. “I think people deserve second chances. I don’t think it was that big of a deal.”
Lapeer County race
Peabody, 54, is the Lapeer County Republican Party chairwoman and a former nurse from Lapeer. She lost the August 2014 Republican primary to Courser by 351 votes.
Voters interviewed at mid-day in the city of Lapeer said they were determined to make sure Courser wouldn’t get another year in the Legislature. Their comments were heavily laced with resentment toward the short-term lawmaker for the negative attention they said he has brought their area.
Lapeer Mayor Bill Sprague, a Democrat, said he crossed over and cast a primary election vote for Howell to help “put the embarrassment of Mr. Courser behind us.”
“There comes a time with stuff goes beyond bordering on the ridiculous and he’s there now,” Sprague said.
Howell is a 68-year-old farmer and retired lawyer from North Branch who chairs Lapeer County’s road commission and intermediate school district board.
“Gary’s willing to consider both sides, willing to work with both parties and he would serve the interests of the people of this county very well,” said Sprague, 60.
The Republican primary winner will face Margaret Guerrero DeLuca of Imlay City, who won the three-candidate Democratic primary with 85 percent of the vote.
DeLuca, a former Imlay City mayor, was the 2014 Democratic nominee and lost the general election to Courser, 55 percent to 45 percent.
Allegan County race
In Allegan County, Republican leaders and outside groups coalesced around Allegan County Commissioner Jim Storey and Whiteford, a former emergency room nurse who co-owns a wealth management firm with her husband in South Haven.
Whiteford, 50, lost the August 2014 Republican primary to Gamrat, 41 percent to 29 percent in a four-candidate field.
Jim Krul, 57, of Gun Plain Township, said his vote for Whiteford was a vote against Gamrat.
“I wanted to make sure that Gamrat was not re-elected,” he said. “She would have been marginalized.”
The GOP primary victor will face Democrat David Gernant, a retired judge.
Some local Democrats who turned out Tuesday to vote for Gernant, who was unopposed, were not optimistic he could defeat the GOP nominee in March.
“This is a pretty red county,” Democrat Rick Knowlton, 68, said after voting at the Gun Plain Township hall. “I give it a slim chance.”