GOP lacks consensus picks to defeat Courser, Gamrat

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The education policy lobbying arm of west Michigan’s powerful DeVos family is aiming to defeat former Reps. Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat in two special GOP primaries on Nov. 3, but Republicans don’t have consensus choices on who should succeed them.

The Great Lakes Education Project, a group founded by the DeVoses, has endorsed former pediatric emergency nurse Mary Whiteford over Gamrat, ousted by fellow lawmakers last month for misconduct, and six others vying for the 80th District Republican nomination in Allegan County.

In Lapeer County, GLEP is backing nurse Jan Peabody over Courser and nine other Republicans vying for the seat Courser abandoned on Sept. 11 to avoid a House expulsion for misconduct. Last year, GLEP’s efforts to help Peabody prevail in a primary against Courser came up short by 351 votes.

GLEP sent potential Republican primary voters mail advertisements Monday attacking Gamrat and Courser for using taxpayer resources to cover up their extramarital affair, as determined by an internal House investigation.

Calling Courser “disgraced,” the group also criticizes him for repeatedly being late on paying his property taxes and defaulting on a loan to his accounting and law firm.

Gamrat’s expulsion from the House and Courser’s resignation triggered the need for the special election to fill their seats — and both former lawmakers are now trying to get their $71,685-a-year jobs back.

“From our perspective in this short race we have two priorities: Anyone but Courser, anyone but Cindy,” said Gary Naeyaert, executive director of GLEP. “We picked the two who were runner-ups last time who are good on the issues that we care about.”

Courser and Gamrat are both trying to use GLEP’s opposition to suggest it’s part of a plot by the GOP establishment to keep them out of Lansing.

“(GLEP) will use dirty politics in the race to ensure that their endorsed candidate, who will do their bidding once in the Legislature, looks clean and gets elected,” Gamrat wrote in an email Saturday to supporters. “It is how Lansing buys elections and hand picks candidates who will go along to get along.”

Courser sent a campaign email Monday warning voters that GLEP would be sending them mail “filled with the dirtiest ... politics on the planet.”

“I oppose their efforts and have stood AGAINST their Liberal agenda over and over again,” Courser wrote about the conservative group, which mostly advocates for expanding options to let parents choose among traditional public and charter schools.

GLEP’s attempt to boost Whiteford, a financial consulting firm co-founder from South Haven, and Peabody, the Lapeer County Republican Party chairwoman, comes as other Lansing-based lobbying groups are still studying the candidates. Local political jockeying is well underway in both districts.

In Allegan County, tea party activist Bill Sage is touting the endorsement of Dave Agema, Michigan’s controversial Republican National Committeeman.

Former Gov. John Engler and three former area legislators — Wayne Kuipers, Bob Genetski and Fulton Sheen — are supporting Allegan County Commissioner Jim Storey over Whiteford, Gamrat, Sage and others.

Storey, a veteran of state government, said political strategists who want to coalesce around a single candidate have a misplaced concern about Gamrat’s support after revelations of her affair with Courser.

“There’s no evidence of that to me on the ground,” Storey said.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, who represents neighboring Ottawa County, could become influential in that race because of disdain for Storey, who ran the campaign of Meekhof’s 2010 GOP primary opponent, Brett VanderKamp.

Meekhof, R-West Olive, described Storey’s campaign tactics as “bloody.”

“A lot of things that were done by my opponent’s side were not well received,” said Meekhof, who endorsed Whiteford last year but hasn’t taken sides yet in the upcoming primary. Meekhof said he won’t support Gamrat or Storey.

In Lapeer County, GLEP sent out two mail advertisements this week: One attacking Courser and another touting Peabody as a “principled conservative” who will “control Lansing’s spending and stop tax increases.”

“I feel I have the most recent name ID coming off the last election,” Peabody said.

But GLEP’s backing of Peabody isn’t the only endorsement. Fifteen-year Lapeer County Commissioner and Eastern Michigan State Fair Manager Ian Kempf of Imlay City is touting the endorsements of the other six county commissioners as well as all of the fair board members.

“I personally think it’s more meaningful to have the support and endorsement of the folks who have worked with you over the last 20 years than it is to have the endorsement of some organization from the west side of the state or Lansing,” Kempf said.

Other outside groups may soon get involved in the races, especially after polling data suggested Courser and Gamrat still have a shot at winning.

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee is studying candidates in both fields, but did not send a questionnaire to Courser or Gamrat, president and CEO Rich Studley said.

“The former lawmakers were ineffective and have an unimpressive voting record and really disqualified themselves from any further consideration as a result of their own inappropriate conduct,” Studley said.

Right to Life of Michigan and the Michigan Farm Bureau also could influence both primaries, but have not yet made endorsement decisions.

With less than a month before the election, the candidates with campaign experience are likely ahead of the competition, Naeyaert said.

“Some of these candidates are starting with more yard signs than others,” he said. “And in a four-week campaign, that matters. This is an instant campaign – just add one water.”