GOP battle over delegates shaping up in Michigan

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — As the prospect grows for a contested Republican National Convention, a post-presidential primary battle in Michigan’s GOP is brewing over the 59 delegates to represent the state this summer in Cleveland.

Michigan Republicans will gather April 8-9 at a state convention in Lansing to elect their national convention delegates and alternates. It is usually a perfunctory exercise, but this year Republicans jockeying for a ticket to the convention are getting closer attention in Michigan and other states because they might play a pivotal role in selecting the nominee.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Ohio Gov. John Kasich are on a mission to deny New York businessman Donald Trump the minimum 1,237 delegates needed to clinch the nomination. Trump leads with 739 delegates to Cruz’s 465 and Kasich’s 143.

If front-runner Trump can’t win enough delegates after the primaries end June 7, the nomination battle would head to the July 18-21 national convention. It could turn a usually orchestrated coronation of the nominee into a political melee not seen in the GOP since 1948, when then-New York Gov. Thomas Dewey won the nod in three ballots over Ohio U.S. Sen. Robert Taft and Minnesota’s Harold Stassen.

“Everyone can smell that there’s going to be a fight, and everyone wants to be there for the fight,” said Glenn Clark, a Republican precinct delegate from Troy. “These are like the box seats.”

After a first round of convention balloting, Michigan’s delegates would become free agents, no longer bound to vote for the candidate they were sent to the convention to nominate.

“If that happens, you want people who are sort of secret agents, if you will, even if they’re not so secret,” said Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor of a University of Virginia political newsletter. “It’s been a while since this mattered in a way that might make or break someone’s nomination.”

Even though Trump won Michigan’s March 8 primary, he divided the state’s delegates with Cruz and Kasich proportionally based on the statewide vote. Trump picked up 25 of Michigan’s 59 delegates, while Cruz and Kasich split 17 apiece despite Cruz winning their close battle for second place.

Representatives from all three campaigns will likely be screening delegates who pledge their support to one of the candidates to test their loyalty, party officials said.

2016 presidential primary delegate tracker

“I think the biggest fear right now is having people coming in as shills for a particular candidate when ultimately they’re supporting someone else,” said Mike Mitchell, chairman of the 11th Congressional District Republican Committee.

Trump’s campaign has already fueled suspicions about the allegiance of delegates.

Scott Hagerstrom, state director of Trump’s Michigan campaign, sent supporters an email last week seeking information on Republicans who want to be Trump delegates “to determine who these people are.”

“Are they a TRUE Donald Trump supporter?” Hagerstrom wrote. “Many IMPOSTERS that are actually aligned with the establishment will emerge from the woodwork and try to throw off the process.”

Andrew Richner, an attorney who is a Republican regent at the University of Michigan, said he expects a battle at the April convention among delegates and said the party should be more welcoming of Trump supporters.

“My personal feeling is if people want to get involved in the party, we need more people,” Richner said. “Trump did win Michigan. So he is entitled to a certain number of delegates. But my candidate was John Kasich, and he’s entitled to some delegates as well. How this is all going to work out, I think a lot of us are uncertain.”

Electing delegates

Under Republican National Committee rules, each candidate will get a single delegate and alternate from all 14 of Michigan’s congressional districts. Those delegates will be elected at congressional district caucus meetings on April 8 at the Lansing Center.

Only credentialed state convention delegates who were elected at county conventions Tuesday night across the state can vote for national delegates.

Congressional district caucus meetings tend to be where party factions vie for power and control over who is elected a delegate and alternate.

“They don’t really know what they’re going to face there,” said Salvatore Delia, a Republican precinct delegate from Groveland Township in the 8th Congressional District, who is supporting Kasich.

“It does get a little bit heated as well, and some members have no patience for it.”

Trump then will get 11 at-large delegates and Cruz and Kasich each get three at-large delegates as well as alternates, said Steven Ostrow, executive director of the Michigan Republican Party.

Its powerful Credentials Committee will nominate a slate of party activists and leaders to fill the 17 at-large delegate slots during a late night April 8 meeting after the congressional district caucuses, Ostrow said.

That slate will then be voted on April 9 at the full state convention. Party officials will let the Trump, Cruz and Kasich campaigns have input about who fills at-large delegate seats, Ostrow said.

Three of the 17 at-large delegates are reserved for Michigan’s members of the Republican National Committee: state GOP chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel, national committeewoman Kathy Berden and national committeeman Dave Agema.

The Credentials Committee is composed of McDaniel, Agema, Berden, state co-chair Jeff Sakwa, legal counsel Eric Doster, party budget chairman Bill Runco and state Rep. Gary Howell, who is the party’s policy chairman.

Agema has publicly endorsed Cruz. Berden has not said whom she supports.

McDaniel will pledge her delegate vote to whichever candidate has an unfilled at-large delegate seat at the end of the Credentials Committee’s selection process, state GOP communications director Sarah Anderson said.

Sakwa said he will be vying for one of the at-large delegate seats, though he’s not declaring a preference for one of the three candidates yet.

‘Popularity contest’

There will be 2,139 delegates at Michigan Republican Party’s state convention next month, 147 of whom are elected officials, Ostrow said. They’re all eligible to run for a national convention delegate seat or alternate position.

“It’s a popularity contest,” said Robert Buxbaum, a Republican precinct delegate from Oak Park.

Buxbaum thinks there’s “a food fight” in the works for Cleveland, but he’s just going to go to the state convention and vote for delegates “I can relate to.”

“I think I’ll watch it on TV,” said Buxbaum.

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Staff Writer Leonard N. Fleming contributed.

Michigan’s GOP delegates

Michigan has 59 presidential nominating delegates for the July 18-21 Republican National Convention in Cleveland. They are divvied up proportionally based on the statewide popular vote in the March 8 presidential primary:

■Donald Trump: 25 delegates

■Ted Cruz: 17 delegates

■John Kasich: 17 delegates

How delegates are allotted

Forty-two delegates are from the 14 congressional districts and 17 are at-large delegates. Three of the at-large representatives are automatically granted to Michigan’s three Republican National Committee members. Trump, Cruz and Kasich receive one delegate each from all 14 congressional districts. The at-large delegates are allotted this way:

■Donald Trump: 11

■Ted Cruz: 3

■John Kasich: 3

Source: Michigan Republican Party