Six candidates set to barnstorm Michigan GOP activists

Melissa Nann Burke, and Chad Livengood

Six of the Republican presidential candidates who sparred in Wednesday’s main debate will descend on Mackinac Island this weekend to drum up support for their White House campaigns among nearly 2,220 registered Republican activists and donors.

Clockwise from top left: Bush, Cruz, Fiorina, Walker, Paul and Kasich

It’s the most GOP presidential candidates to commit to attending the Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference since the biennial 2007 confab, when seven White House hopefuls spoke to 2,100 attendees. This year’s 2,180 registered participants break the previous record set in 2007, Michigan GOP Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel said.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush leads off the proceedings with a solo Friday night speech. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker starts Saturday’s meetings with a breakfast speech, followed by lunch addresses by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and dinner speeches by former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.

The White House hopefuls who will visit Michigan’s tourism mecca still represent a little more than a third of the super-sized GOP field of 16 candidates actively campaigning for the nomination.

“We wouldn’t have been able to accommodate all 16 candidates,” McDaniel said. “I think the island may have sunk. ... It still may be a bit of a circus.”

The 31st conference gives the White House hopefuls the opportunity to begin building a coalition of support with less than six months before Michigan’s March 8 presidential primary, GOP consultant Jamie Roe said.

“I think it’s a smart move for those who have decided to come,” Roe said. “It’s an opportunity to come in here and make a difference.”

All of the Republican candidates were invited to speak, but some chose to campaign in other states, and others did not respond to the state party’s invitations, McDaniel said.


The event provides different opportunities for the candidates. It gives Walker, whose poll standings in Iowa and nationally have been plummeting since the first debate in early August, a chance to regain momentum in a neighboring state.

For Kasich and Fiorina, whose poll numbers have been climbing, the conference is an opportunity to build on their momentum.

The gruff and blunt Ohio governor said he has no plans to change his approach to wooing Michigan’s most engaged Republican voters this weekend.

“I’ll show up and be who I am and then that will be the end of it,” Kasich told The Detroit News in a recent interview. “Either they’ll kind of like what I tell them and who I am and what my record is, or they won’t.”

For Bush, whose stock has dropped in recent months, the weekend event is an opportunity to build on Michigan advantages that include having the largest fundraising amount among the candidates in the state.

Bush supporters intend to tout the son and brother of two former presidents as a candidate with a record of accomplishment in Florida, cutting taxes, building up a rainy-day fund, creating jobs and fostering an expansion of school choice programs.

“Those are bread-and-butter conservative issues that I think resonate with Republican activists,” said Attorney General Bill Schuette, who is chairing Bush’s Michigan campaign. “We want to highlight his record and also, you know, build relationships with every sort of activist you can describe and define in the Republican brand.”

Notable no-shows

The Detroit News and, a Lansing-based government and political publication, are co-sponsoring a straw poll to gauge support for each presidential candidate among the registered conference attendees.

Absent from the conference lineup are the two candidates leading in most national and state-level polls: billionaire tycoon Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon and Detroit native Ben Carson.

“Of course, you’re not going to see Trump or Carson. They’re not after the Republican Party leaders. They’re after the anti-establishment vote,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

Sabato said it’s also not a surprise that U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida will skip the Mackinac gathering, since he is focused on Nevada, South Carolina and other southern primaries. “Plus, it’s not an easy place to get to,” Sabato added.

Rubio’s campaign isn’t ignoring Mackinac, however, sending supporter Rick Harrison, a Las Vegas businessman and star of the History Channel’s reality series “Pawn Stars.”

The whirlwind schedule of six presidential candidates shuffling in and out of the Grand Hotel in less than 36 hours is a turn-off to some party regulars, said GOP consultant Tom Shields, president of Marketing Resource Group.

“It used to be sort of an opportunity for the grassroots to get together,” said Shields, who will be attending his 21st Mackinac GOP conference. “Now it’s more of a platform (for) people to come and speak to Republicans rather than recognizing the work of grassroots activists.”

Reaching Midwest through Mich.

Walker initially had a prime-time speaking slot at Friday’s conference dinner, but this week his campaign said the timing would conflict with events in South Carolina and Iowa. Conference organizers instead made room for him to speak at a breakfast Saturday.

“A candidate who is slipping needs to take every opportunity that they can to stop that,” said David Dulio, who chairs the political science department at Oakland University.

Both Walker and Kasich are competing for the Midwestern vote, and “the benchmark that gets set for candidates in their home region is typically quite high,” Dulio added.

“They’re hoping that if they can make it as far as Michigan, which is no guarantee, that their attention to the state, and the state’s familiarity with them having governed a nearby state — and as someone who’s come to the Mackinac conference — will help them out.”

Different appeal

Cruz is likely to try to engage with the party’s evangelical Christians in the absence of other religious conservative candidates such as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee or former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

Saul Anuzis, who chairs Cruz’s campaign in Michigan, expects Cruz will emerge as the “Bible-based,” conservative challenger to the candidate selected by the Republican establishment.

“I think Ted Cruz is in the strongest position today to be that conservative challenger,” Anuzis said.

“If that’s the case, Michigan will have a very important role to play. Are people going to go with the conservative challenger, or are they sticking with the establishment status quo? We’ll see.”

Rand Paul said he is trying to show he’s the type of Republican who would be competitive in a general election in Michigan, in part by proposing anti-poverty, education and criminal-justice reform programs in urban centers such as Detroit.

“The general election is going to be won by someone who can get the nontraditional Republican voter,” Paul said in an interview.

“A lot of states that we have trouble winning are industrial states around the Great Lakes. If you look at it demographically, it’s primarily that we have trouble with African-American voters.

“And I think they won’t consider us until we show that we care about what affects them, that we care about their day-to-day lives, and care about finding them jobs, making their lives easier and preventing the government from unfairly catching and snatching them up in the war on drugs.”

The man helping organize Fiorina’s nascent campaign in Michigan is hoping the former technology executive can tap into the same group of disenchanted voters from whom Trump and Carson appear to be pulling their support.

“There’s a lot of folks looking for a game-changer, they’re looking for something new — not business as usual,” said William Runco, a health care consultant and former Wayne County judge and state representative.

“I’ve talk to tea party folks who really like (Fiorina). I’ve talked to establishment folks who really like her. I think she’s got a broad appeal.”