GOP picks presidential delegates, Rob Steele for RNC

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — With the prospects of a contested national convention looming, Michigan Republican leaders urged unity Saturday during a state convention where activists elected delegates who will help select the party’s presidential nominee.

“This is a chance for people to come together, and it’s a long way to Cleveland still,” Gov. Rick Snyder told reporters after delivering opening remarks at the convention.

State party Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel actively worked to tamp down potential controversy over the delegate selection process by seeking pre-approval of an at-large slate from each of the three active GOP presidential campaigns.

“We recognize that we had record turnout in Michigan. We want to make sure that the party represents the will of the voters,” said McDaniel, who will serve as an at-large delegate for New York businessman Donald Trump.

Trump is guaranteed 25 of Michigan’s 59 delegates because he won the state’s March 8 primary, but delegate elections at this weekend’s state party convention were closely watched — and occasionally contentious — to the possibility of a brokered national convention July 18-21 in Cleveland.

If Trump is unable to secure the 1,237 delegates required to win the nomination on the first ballot, delegates would become unbound and could support any candidate of their choice, including U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

U.S. Rep. Justin Amash , Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, and West Michigan power broker Betsy DeVos headline the at-large delegate slate finalized Saturday in an up-or-down vote at the Lansing Center.

Calley and DeVos will head to Cleveland as pledged delegates to Kasich, while Amash is pledged to Cruz. Romney McDaniel is a Trump delegate.

Former state House Speaker Rick Johnson, also picked as an at-large Trump delegate, downplayed the possibility that the New York businessman could lose the nomination in a contested convention.

“I believe that Trump will either be at 1,237 (delegates) or very close, and there’s no way you’re going to take the trophy from the NASCAR winner and give it to somebody else that wasn’t in the race or finished second or third,” he told The Detroit News.

Johnson thinks the party will eventually rally around Trump, who he endorsed early in the race last year.

“The Republicans that are pitching a fit will be voting Republican in November,” he said.

Steele Wins RNC Race

Ann-Arbor cardiologist Rob Steele on Saturday won election to become Michigan's next Republican National Committeeman, defeating Mark Gurley of Rockford, who entered the race with the endorsement of outgoing incumbent Dave Agema.

Current Committeewoman Kathy Berden of Snover won re-election over Sonjalita Hulber. She was first elected last May after Romney McDaniel stepped down to become state party chairwoman.

Steele appealed to various factions within the Michigan GOP whose differences were magnified during the tenure of Agema, a tea party favorite who sparked controversy with a series of controversial statements about gays and Muslims.

“The enemy is not in this room and the enemy is not in a room in Cleveland at the national convention,” Steele said in his victory speech. “We have a common enemy: The leftist progressives that want to control our lives.”

State Rep. Gary Glenn, R-Midland, called Steele a “strong conservative” as he nominated him for the unpaid position.

“It is a testimony to the fact that we have won the philosophical debate that both of these candidate to represent Michigan share our passion for free markets and free enterprise, limited government and constitutional principles and traditional family values,” Glenn said.

Steele has grown his presence in the state party in recent years. He lost a 2010 Congressional run against then-U.S. Rep. John Dingell in 2010 and came up short in his 2014 bid for the University of Michigan Board of Regents.

Agema, who decided not to seek re-election, told The Detroit News on Friday he was frustrated by “top down management” from RNC Chairman Reince Prieubus, arguing that leadership had moved the GOP to the political left.

“Now the party says they want a bigger tent, but what they didn’t understand -- and I think they do now – is they have pissed off the grassroots,” said Agema. “That’s why you have Trump and Cruz as the top two candidates, not the establishment people.”

Agema called the state convention “huge” because of the delegate selection process and the potential for “establishment” Republicans to try nominate more traditional GOP candidate at the national convention. He’ll serve as an at-large delegate for Cruz, who he endorsed.

“The question here today is are these delegates really for who they say they are, or are they waiting for the second vote where they can flip and put somebody else entirely in?” he said. “That’s the million dollar question. That’s why these delegates are so important -- to get the correct delegates in.”

District delegates

In addition to the at-large slate, Michigan Republicans elected another 42 delegates Friday night in a series of occasionally-rambunctious congressional district caucuses, where some pledged delegates indicated they could support another candidate if the national convention goes beyond the first ballot.

Tim Brown of Westland was elected as a Kasich delegate in Michigan’s 13th Congressional District but told The News he is a Cruz supporter. His wife won election as a Cruz delegate.

“We’re pledged delegates for the first vote,” Brown said. “After that we can vote for who we like... I’m a Cruz fan.”

Steve Boron, also of Westland, was elected as a Trump delegate in the 13th but repeatedly told The News he would be “unbound” after the first ballot. He declined to say whom he might support if the national convention goes to a second round of voting.

Dennis Marburger, who won election as a Trump delegate in the 9th district, said he intends to support the businessman at the convention unless or until he releases his delegates.

“I think the most likely thing is that if the party doesn’t play it straight – and four years ago they didn’t – it’s going to be a disaster,” Marburger said of the national convention.

Daniel Bernard, who endorsed Cruz and won election as one of his pledged delegates, said it is difficult to predict how the convention will play out three months from now.

“It completely depends on the nature of the contest, which we won’t know until after the first ballot,” he said when asked how he would deal with a contested convention. “Is it a case where they’re tied? Where one is just a couple votes away from claiming victory?”

Scott Hagerstrom, state director for the Trump campaign, said he was pleased with the district-level delegate elections. Many of the delegates pledged to Trump signed a pledge to support him “on every ballot” at the national convention.

“We’re very, very happy. It couldn’t have gone smoother,” he said.