GOP panel OKs mid-March 2016 Michigan primary

Gary Heinlein
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The Legislature's Republican majority wants to hold Michigan's next presidential primary in mid-March 2016, three weeks later than in 2012 to avoid sanctions that would dramatically reduce the number of delegates their state party could send to its national convention.

Legislation by Republican Sen. David Robertson of Grand Blanc, approved Thursday by the Senate's Elections and Government Reform Committee, would move the presidential primary to March 15, the third Tuesday of the month. It's now set for Feb. 23.

Robertson, who heads the committee, said the change is necessary to comply with tough, new GOP party rules designed to end scrambling by state parties to compete for the earliest primary dates and, theoretically, the biggest influence on presidential candidate selection.

"Everyone wants to front-end load their primaries, everyone wants to go first," said Eric Doster, legal adviser to the Michigan Republican Party. Because of that, he said, the parties have "severe penalties" for states whose lawmakers break from the established schedule.

In 2012, the Republican National Committee initially penalized Michigan Republicans with fewer delegates for holding a primary in February. All of the Michigan delegates were eventually seated at the August 2012 Republican nominating convention.

But some Republicans are quietly talking about defying the RNC again and holding a primary on Feb. 23. Others want to join forces with other Midwest states and hold the primary on March 1 or March 8, creating a "Super Tuesday" primary that could effectively decide the nominee if the candidates split some of the early primary states such as Iowa and New Hampshire.

The RNC has adopted rules that say only New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina and Nevada — the traditional early states — can hold national convention delegate selection primary elections, caucuses or conventions before March 1.

Under those rules, Doster said, the Michigan Republican Party could have its delegation at the party's national convention — where the presidential candidate officially is approved — cut from about 60 to 12.

The state GOP's central committee decided last September to bow to pressure from their national party and move from February to March delegate selection.

Democrats, who'd also be affected by the proposed date change, haven't weighed in because they're waiting for possible party rule changes. But Republicans, with big majorities in both legislative chambers, presumably could make the date change on their own.

Democrats currently aren't required to divvy up their national convention delegates' presidential nominating votes according to primary election results. They can do so through delegate-selection caucuses — meetings of party members around the state, as Democrats did in 2012.

So Sen. Judy Emmons, R-Sheridan, wondered if a presidential primary that's essentially meaningless to one political party can be seen by voters as a waste of time and money.

"People complain that the vote doesn't do a lot because you're not voting for the final two candidates for the position," Emmons said.

But Doster said 1 million Michiganians voted in the 2012 state primary in which Michigan native and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was the top Republican vote-getter. He said about 5,000 people took part in Democratic caucuses, where President Barack Obama's nomination for a second term was a foregone conclusion.

"We want the people to participate," Doster said. "We want to have the discussion."

The Election and Government Reform Committee's 4-1 vote sends the two-bill package to the full Senate for consideration next week.

Detroit Sen. Morris Hood voted against the bills, saying Democrats hadn't been consulted about the proposed date change. Hood said the setting of a presidential primary date should be a cooperative effort involving both parties.