Attorney general fight set for Mich. GOP convention

Speaker of the House Tom Leonard, R-Lansing.

Lansing — Michigan Republicans hoping to present a unified front for the fall elections must first decide races for the attorney general and secretary of state nominations Saturday at what could be a raucous party convention.

State Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker of Lawton has spent recent weeks flooding convention delegates with mailers attacking House Speaker Tom Leonard of DeWitt, whom insiders consider the leading candidate for the attorney general nomination.

Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel will deliver a keynote address at the state convention in Lansing. While Gov. Rick Snyder won't be there, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley plans to speak on "party unity" after a bitter primary fight with Attorney General Bill Schuette, who won the party's nomination for governor.

State Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker

But the celebration could turn contentious. GOP delegates will decide whether to suspend the rules and deny party backing to Michigan Supreme Justice Beth Clement in her re-election campaign because of recent judicial rulings that angered activists.

The 2,112 voting delegates also will settle a contested race for the Republican secretary of state nomination between Grosse Pointe Farms businesswoman Mary Treder Lang and Michigan State University professor Joseph Guzman.

The Michigan Democratic Party will host its own nominating convention Saturday and Sunday in East Lansing. Intra-party fights were largely resolved in a March endorsement convention where members selected attorney general, secretary of state and Supreme Court candidates.

Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a potential 2020 presidential candidate, will deliver a keynote address at a convention that will also function as a celebration for gubernatorial nominee Gretchen Whitmer. 

Both parties will pick their statewide nominees for key education seats. They include two State Board of Education posts and two open slots on the Michigan State University Board of Trustees, which came under fire last year for its initial response to the Larry Nassar sexual assault scandal

Attorney general barbs

Schuitmaker’s recent rush of mailers in the GOP attorney general race included a 14-page magazine that promoted her over seven pages and bashed Leonard over seven others. She argued he was so focused on his own political ambitions that he failed to focus on his job as House speaker.

Leonard argues the attack mailers are misleading and suggests they’ve backfired by turning off delegates who know him through more than a decade of involvement in grassroots Republican politics. 

“I believe Sen. Schuitmaker has grossly underestimated the intelligence of our hard-working delegates,” Leonard said. “They are not buying the half-truths and lies.”

While Leonard has personally avoided mud-slinging, Schuitmaker alleges his allies fired first through articles on “fake news” websites like Conservative Intel, which is owned by Leonard campaign consultant John Yob. She defended her mailers.

“The truth is not negative,” Schuitmaker said. “I’m distinguishing myself on my proven record versus his.”

A private-practice attorney before winning election to the state Legislature in 2005, Schuitmaker touts sponsorship of laws to combat the opioid crisis by requiring pharmacists to check patients’ prescription histories before prescribing controlled substances and work on criminal justice laws that earned her an endorsement from the Michigan Fraternal Order of Police. 

“I’ve been across this great state and met a lot of wonderful grassroots Republicans that share my vision for the attorney general’s office, who think we have to have a rule of law constitutional conservative that will protect what’s important,” she said.

Leonard calls himself the most experienced candidate in the race, highlighting his work as a state assistant attorney general and assistant prosecutor in Genesee County. He was first elected to the Legislature in 2012 and became House speaker in 2017.

"We ran a positive campaign focused on the issues, and (delegates) are taking note of that," said Leonard, who boasts a long lists of endorsements, including U.S. Reps. Jack Bergman, John Moolenaar and Paul Mitchell.

In the House, Leonard helped push civil asset forfeiture reform legislation that would require a conviction for police to confiscate property, a package that has not been acted on in the Senate. He touts his work on a deal to eliminate driver responsibility fees seen as a double penalty on residents who lost their driver’s licenses if they were unable to pay.

Leonard also held a vote on an income tax cut plan that failed amid budget concerns voiced by Snyder. Conservatives praised the effort, but Schuitmaker argues Leonard could have built the cut into the state budget if he was serious about it.

“I think it was the first sign he was pandering to delegates,” she said.

Leonard has said knew the tax cut vote would fail but wanted the public to know where their lawmakers stood. He slammed Schuitmaker’s claim he’s focused too much on his own campaign instead of helping ensure House Republicans retain their majority.

“There she goes again spewing lies, things that are simply not true,” Leonard said. He noted he’s given roughly $200,000 of his campaign funds to the House Campaign Committee this cycle. “Sen. Schuitmaker has not given her caucus a dime.”

Taking on Democrats' Nessel

The Republican nominee will take on attorney Dana Nessel of Plymouth Township, a favorite of the progressive left best known for representing a same-sex couple who successfully challenged Michigan’s gay marriage ban. She won the Democratic Party endorsement over former Grand Rapids U.S. Attorney Patrick Miles, who had been backed by labor unions. Nessel was endorsed by the United Auto Workers this week.

Leonard said he’s well-positioned to take on Nessel because of his fundraising edge over Schuitmaker and his statewide network of GOP allies. Schuitmaker noted she’s won elections in competitive districts, a skill that could be valuable in a mid-term election that experts argue may favor Democrats.

While Leonard and Schuitmaker have characterized her a "radical" liberal, Nessel said she thinks their opposition to abortion rights and marijuana legalization are the "extreme" positions, long with their support for President Donald Trump. 

"I am all at once entertained and horrified that they both hold themselves out as the party of law enforcement while at the same time wrapping themselves in the flag of Donald Trump," she said, suggesting they are vowing to fight public corruption while "competing to be the biggest supporter of corrupt government."

Clement revolt unlikely

Clement, appointed last fall to the state Supreme Court by Snyder, heads into the convention facing push back from Republicans frustrated by some of her recent court votes. They include her support of a 4-3 ruling in a high-stakes case allowing a proposal for a non-partisan redistricting commission to make the November ballot. 

Beth Clement, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s chief legal counsel, was picked to become a Michigan Supreme Court justice on Nov. 17, 2017.

As an incumbent, Clement will appear on the ballot even if she is denied the Republican nomination. Sending another candidate to the ballot would require a two-thirds vote of the convention delegates, which appears unlikely heading into the event.

"I can honestly say I don't know of anything afoot at this time, but the delegates are in charge of the convention," said Tony Daunt, an alternate delegate and executive director of the conservative Michigan Freedom Fund. 

“In speaking with delegates over the past few weeks, there’s certainly a lot of angst about the decisions that she has been a part of. It’s not just the Voters Not Politicians decision. There’s been a number of times in the last eight months ... where she was very clearly siding with the liberals on the court.”

Wes Nakagiri, a Livingston County delegate and grassroots favorite, had suggested nominating his wife Donna, who clerked for federal and state judges, over Clement. But he said this week there does not appear to be a critical mass of support for the idea.

“I don’t see the energy or desire to do anything, and I don’t want to go and do something that is going to have little chance of success but at the same time leave people in the party fractured,” Nakagiri said.

Republicans are expected to formally nominate Justice Kurtis Wilder, who is also seeking re-election after Snyder appointed him in May 2017. Democrats will nominate appellate attorney Megan Kathleen Cavanagh and University of Michigan professor Samuel Bagenstos to challenge Clement and Wilder.

Secretary of state contest

After Shelby Township clerk Stanley Grot last week withdrew from the Secretary of State race, the GOP nomination will go to Guzman or Treder Lang, who both say they want to build on work done by current Secretary of State Ruth Johnson.

Treder Lang, a certified public accountant backed by former Secretaries of State Terri Lynn Land and Candice Miller, has campaigned on a plan to increase election training and certification for poll workers, expand kiosks at Michigan-based companies such as Meijer, and continue cleaning up voter registration rolls. 

“I have the modern day set of skills that are necessary to move us in the right direction to continue the comeback in the state of Michigan," she said, noting 15 years of experience in computer security.

A faculty member in Michigan State University’s Department of Human Resources and Labor Relations, Guzman wants to deliver “smarter, better, faster” transactions and processing at the Secretary of State’s office. The Okemos Republican also wants to remove online user fees and opposes increasing the Secretary of State’s budget for the department’s existing duties.

“I’ll make sure we deliver an election system to the voters of Michigan that inspires complete confidence, regardless of party, race, geography or any other factor,” Guzman said.

The former Michigan co-chair of the Trump campaign, Guzman holds a doctoral degree in economic analysis and policy from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and was a former employee of the Department of Defense.

Guzman challenged Treder Lang Tuesday to a last-minute debate to inform delegates about their visions for the department. In a Facebook post response, Treder Lang said delegates already knew her plans thanks to 11 months of statewide campaigning.

Benson, the presumptive Democratic nominee who also ran for secretary of state in 2010, has raised more campaign cash than both GOP candidates combined. Her early endorsement has freed the former Wayne State University Law School dean to focus on a general election strategy.

Benson on Tuesday unveiled a new election security plan to discourage election equipment hacking by making it a felony crime, join the Electronic Registration Information Center collective to more accurately cross-check voter registration data with other states, implement "risk-limiting" post-election audits and improve poll worker training, recruitment and accountability.

"I believe the security of our elections is critical to the security of our democracy," Benson said."