Politics 2003Week of May 5


With less than ten months to go before the New Hampshire presidential primary, Democrats and Republicans in Michigan have apparently agreed on when they will pick delegates to national conventions in Boston and New York respectively. But just how they handle the selection process remains to be seen.

Last week, Sen. Carl Levin (D.-Mich.) and Democratic National Committeewoman Debbie Dingell suddenly dropped their months-old crusade to launch their states’ delegate selection process before the historic first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary. Levin and Dingell acquiesced, sources in the Water Wonderland told us, primarily because of pressure from the AFL-CIO to leave New Hampshire first, as it has been for generations. Accordingly, New Hampshire voters will trek to the polls next February 4th and, three days later, Michiganders-battalions of teachers from the Michigan Education Association (MEA) and the assembly-line workers from the United Auto Workers (UAW) being among the largest of the participants-will attend the local caucuses that commence the process culminating in a state convention that chooses delegates to Boston.

Although state law has provided for presidential primaries underwritten by taxpayers since 1972, Democrats have long been gun-shy about participating and, in fact, have only thrice chosen their delegates through primaries-in ’72, ’76, and ’92. More often than not, Water Wonderland Democrats have opted for the caucus-convention avenue of delegate selection and Michigan is now the largest states to choose their delegates by a non-primary means. Pundits and pols agree that this is due to their being “burnt” in their first-ever primary, when the controversial George Wallace won a flat majority of votes cast in 1972. Historians almost always point to the fact that Michigan has no party registration and that Republicans, led by then-State Sen. Jack Welborn, came over in droves to support Wallace against left-wing opponents George McGovern and Ed Muskie. (Four years later, with many moderate and conservative Democrats crossing over to vote in the more exciting GOP contest between favorite son Gerald Ford and challenger Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter edged out more left-of-center opponent Mo Udall in the Democratic primary by less than one per cent of the vote; in 1992, with his nomination almost a fait accompli, Bill Clinton won the last Michigan Democratic primary over a stronger-than-expected second place showing by Jerry Brown.

Choosing the more restricted means of delegate-selection by caucus, Michigan Democrats have almost always gone for the more leftist candidate for president: Ted Kennedy over Carter in 1980, Walter Mondale over Gary Hart in ’84, Jesse Jackson over Michael Dukakis in ’88. Moreover, the caucus system also makes it easier for Democrats to cross over and vote in the Republican presidential primary; such crossover voting in 2000 was a key ingredient in John McCain’s dramatic upset over George W. Bush.

In contrast, Republicans have only once in three decades chosen the caucus route over that of primaries and, as state GOP spokesman Greg McNeilly recalled to me last week, “that was in 1988, and we are still feeling the wounds from that today.” Indeed, the process that began with the choice of precinct delegates actually began well over a year before the election year started; the convention that eventually selected delegates to New Orleans split like a giant amoeba, with angry backers of Pat Robertson charging that the establishment GOPers behind the elder George Bush had shut them out and sending a renegade delegation to the national conclave; the supposedly non-partisan Freedom Council, designed to get more people involved in the process and operating with tax-exempt status, was later charged with being a mere front for Robertson’s Michigan campaign and that its donations were illegally co-mingled with political dollars (Robertson would years later put an end to the charges by accepting a judgment of the Federal Election Commission that levied him with the largest fine in FEC history).

So given that history, it was nothing nothing short of stunning to hear McNeilly tell me that, under the aegis of State Party Chairman Betsy DeVos, “all of our Republican leaders are in favor of not having a presidential primary” and choosing their delegation to New York by convention for only the second time in 32 years.


The motivations are simple, McNeilly explained. Since George W. Bush is a cinch for renomination, he told me, “there is no contest and thus no need for a primary.” Moreover, echoing an argument made in numerous other states in which taxpayers underwrite presidential primaries, McNeilly pointed out that Michigan is gripped by a bone-chilling $250 million deficit and ending the primary would save the taxpayers $6-to-8 million.

With Republicans holding majorities in both houses of the state legislature, defunding of the presidential primary appears to be a certainty at this point. Whether Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm will sign any measure that ends the primary is unclear-although it would not seem unusual for her to go along with it, given the Democratic Party history of abjuring primaries in favor of a caucus.

If there is any disagreement among Republicans, it is about cancellation or elimination of the primary. DeVos and some other party leaders, according to McNeilly, want the proposed legislation to cancel the primary with the provision that it be resurrected in ’08. But there is also a group among the Republican leadership-notably Republican National Committeeman Chuck Yob-who want the primary eliminated outright, he added. Such elimination would guarantee that the Republican caucuses would be particularly significant and hardfought in ‘08, when a second-term President Bush would be barred from running again and has no obvious heir.

Other observers say that the differences between the “cancel” and “eliminate” sides are matters of mere semantics, that even if it eliminates the primary, the legislature could revisit the issue anytime in the next four years. However, as is the case in other states now considering deepsixing presidential primaries, Republican sources privately say that once the party organization recovers the clout of nominating national delegates that it lost when primaries rapidly became law in the 1970’s, they will be very reluctant ever to let it go again.


(In response to numerous requests from readers, here is a list of the U.S. Senate seats that will be decided next year. Senate elections will be held in 34 seats next year, with 14 seats held by Republicans and 20 by Democrats. So far, two of the incumbent senators have announced their retirements in ’04-Republican Peter Fitzgerald of Illinois and Democrat Zell Miller of Georgia.)

Alabama Richard Shelby-R
Alaska Lisa Murkowski-R
Arizona John McCain-R
Arkansas Blanche Lambert Lincoln-D
California Barbara Boxer-D
Colorado Ben Nighthorse Campbell-R
Connecticut Christopher Dodd-D
Florida Bob Graham-D
Georgia Zell Miller-D
Hawaii Daniel K. Inouye-D
Idaho Michael Crapo-R
Illinois Peter Fitzgerald-R
Indiana Evan Bayh-D
Iowa Charles Grassley-R
Kansas Sam Brownback-R
Kentucky Jim Bunning-R
Louisiana John Breaux-D
Maryland Barbara Mikulski-D
Missouri Christopher Bond-R
Nevada Harry Reid-D
New Hampshire Judd Gregg-R
New York Charles Schumer-D
North Carolina John Edwards-D
North Dakota Byron Dorgan-D
Ohio George Voinovich-R
Oklahoma Don Nickles-R
Oregon Ron Wyden-D
Pennsylvania Arlen Specter-R
South Carolina Ernest Hollings-D
South Dakota Tom Daschle-D
Utah Robert Bennett-R
Vermont Patrick Leahy-D
Washington State Patty Murray-D
Wisconsin Russell Feingold-D