Michigan GOP plots shift in statewide nomination process amid fight over future

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The leaders of the Michigan Republican Party are contemplating holding an endorsement convention in the spring of 2022, a potentially significant shift in how the GOP picks its nominees for attorney general, secretary of state and other statewide offices.

The change, which would advance the selections months earlier than they normally occur, would come at a time of turmoil over the future of the party and the influence of former President Donald Trump. It could remove one level of uncertainty by allowing currently elected GOP delegates to select nominees for key statewide positions instead of possibly new delegates who would be elected by GOP voters in the August 2022 primary.

"We’re in the middle of reviewing the possibility of it," said Mike Hewitt, who leads the Michigan GOP's policy committee.

Michigan State GOP candidates Tom Leonard, Lisa Posthumus-Lyons, Bill Schuette, Mary Treder Lang and Dave Dutch, left, to right, celebrate onstage together at the conclusion of the 2018 Republican State Convention in Lansing on August 25, 2018.

"This is so far from being done that it makes me smile that you’re calling me so soon," Hewitt told a reporter Friday.

However, other Republicans see the proposed change as a near certainty and expect it to be approved by the party's state committee at or before their September gathering on Mackinac Island for the Republican Leadership Conference.

While nominees for governor are chosen by August primary voters, nominations for lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, the Michigan Supreme Court, the State Board of Education and university board jobs fall on partisan convention delegates.

Michigan Democrats currently hold early endorsement conventions for secretary of state, attorney general and Supreme Court, allowing the party to formally get behind candidates months before the August convention where the nominees are officially selected.

For instance, in April 2018, Democratic lawyer Dana Nessel beat Pat Miles, a former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Michigan, at the endorsement convention to become the party's nominee for attorney general. The 2018 Republican nominee for attorney general, then-House Speaker Tom Leonard, didn't win his party's nomination until four months later.

Some in the Michigan GOP, which has stuck with the August convention for making the decisions, contend the Democrats' strategy gave them an advantage in 2018, when Democrats swept the three top statewide positions.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Nessel all won in 2018 and are expected to seek reelection. If the GOP's current process goes unchanged, the Republican nominees to run against Benson and Nessel might not be certain until late August 2022 — a little over two months before the November election. 

Giving the GOP candidates an earlier start would be good, said Norm Shinkle, a member of the Republican Party's state committee.

"It's an idea that a lot of people think is a good idea," Shinkle said.

Jason Cabel Roe, the executive director of the Michigan Republican Party, said party leaders support moving up the nominating convention because they "feel voters deserve more than three months of compressed campaigning to evaluate the candidates on the November ballot."

"Candidates are also handicapped with a very short window of time to raise the funds necessary to get their message out to the electorate," Roe said.

Hewitt, whose policy committee would likely consider any change to the convention schedule, said discussions are ongoing and he doesn't have a written proposal to share publicly yet.

But other Republicans say the party is considering endorsing nominees for secretary of state, attorney general, Michigan Supreme Court, State Board of Education and university board positions at a spring convention next year. Then, the newly elected state convention delegates, who would be chosen by primary voters and at county conventions, would make the nominations official in late August.

The nominee for lieutenant governor would also still be chosen in August, according to Republicans who've been part of the discussions, such as Judi Schwalbach, a Republican state committee member from Escanaba. Schwalbach said as she understands the proposal, the change would be on a one-time basis for 2022.

Schwalbach said she sees the benefit of putting the party on the same schedule as Michigan Democrats. But she said she has concerns about preventing newly elected delegates in August from weighing in on the decisions and about forcing delegates from northern Michigan to travel hours to two conventions instead of one.

"I am on the fence," Schwalbach said. "But I am listening. If I had to vote today, I don’t even know how I would vote."

Jesse Osmer, the former chairman of northern Michigan's 1st Congressional District Republican Committee, said the idea of holding two conventions would be more palatable if party leadership also made participation easier for delegates who have to travel long distances. He suggested possibly allowing for virtual attendance for some delegates.

"I am not necessarily opposed to putting us on a level playing field,” Osmer said. “I want to win, just like any other good Republican.”

Lieutenant governor candidate Wes Nakagiri, left, talks with supporter George McConnell, 65, of Sumpter Township, before the call to order of the 2014 Michigan Republican State Convention. Nakagiri lost to then-Lt. Gov. Brian Calley.

In the past, the campaign to recruit precinct delegates for the August primary has been a focal point for Republicans in battles for control of the party because those delegates have a say in who votes in convention races for party leadership positions.

Among the most high profile examples came in 2014 when conservative Republicans attempted to unseat then-Gov. Rick Snyder's running mate, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, at the convention by supporting Tea Party activist Wes Nakagiri for lieutenant governor. They were ultimately unsuccessful.

The 2018 convention race for secretary of state has made headlines this year after former Michigan Republican Party Chairwoman Laura Cox revealed a "secret deal" between current Chairman Ron Weiser and candidate Stan Grot.

Through the arrangement, Weiser agreed in 2018 to hire Grot on the condition he drop his secretary of state campaign, allowing Grosse Pointe Farms businesswoman Mary Treder Lang to be the party's nominee in 2018.

Last week, the party agreed to pay a $200,000 penalty to resolve a campaign finance complaint over the situation. But Nessel's office said Thursday that it's now reviewing the deal between Weiser and Grot.