In Michigan Republican circles, to say that GOP National Committeeman Chuck Yob is controversial is akin to saying that Rudy Giuliani is a New Yorker or Mike Huckabee has a Southern accent. In 17 years on the RNC, former Grand Rapids entrepreneur Yob has appeared to revel in trouble in whatever form it took at any level within the party. When his onetime Michigan colleague, former Republican National Committeewoman Ronna Romney, sought the party’s nomination for U.S. senator in 1994, Yob said of Romney’s strong pro-life stance: “We always welcome converts”—suggesting that Romney (who lost a close primary to Sen.-to-be Spence Abraham) had changed her views. This prompted an angry denial from the candidate. Three years later, after placing fifth in a seven-candidate race to be chairman of the Republican National Committee, Yob dropped into my office to show me a proposed resolution for the RNC’s next meeting that would deny party funds to candidates who did not back a ban on partial-birth abortion. That measure, later sponsored by Texas Republican National Committeeman Tim Lambert, led to an incendiary, much-reported debate at the RNC meeting before it was defeated. Yob, who chaired the Resolutions Committee, voted to send it to the floor without recommendation and then wound up voting against the measure at the full RNC session. (The Michigan man’s mercurial behavior was highlighted in a report by nationally syndicated columnist Robert Novak.)
Yob has always called himself a conservative and ran as one for RNC chairman and later for Congress. But at times, his behavior has bewildered many who would be considered his natural allies. At a combined Southern and Midwestern Republican Leadership meeting in Memphis, Tenn., in ’05, most of the younger, conservative party chieftains made it clear that they favored a party rules change in ’08 to scrap the 1972 requirement requiring a majority of delegates from five states for a candidate to be placed in nomination for President at a national convention and replace it with the old rule that simply required a majority of delegates from one state for nomination. Hearing of the rules change for the first time, Yob declared himself opposed to it.
Yob began as a vigorous backer of such Republicans as Abraham and former Gov. (1990-2002) John Engler, but both wound up bitter enemies and wanted him out of the party position. But Yob has long held on to the national committeeman’s post, in large part because he took it seriously. As the 70-year-old Yob told me recently, “Being committeeman is a full-time job. It involves raising money and going to Lincoln Day dinners and county [party] meetings. Last year alone, I put more than 100,000 miles on my car.”
But even Yob’s travels and contacts finally were not enough. Last week, faced with a stiff challenge for re-election at the ’08 convention, Yob stunned pundits and pols by announcing he was stepping down. In trying to analyze his surprise exit, many concluded that, while many conservatives had given him the benefit of the doubt in the past, Yob had mistakenly made one crucial enemy. And for someone who speaks often of his contact with the grassroots, that’s precisely where the revolt against Yob began.
Shooting at the King and Missing
Sources in the Water Wonderland I spoke to last week generally agreed that Yob had searched hard but unsuccessfully for an opponent to Saul Anuzis, Lansing businessman and self-styled “Kemp-Gingrich Republican,” when Anuzis sought the state party chairmanship two years ago. Although Anuzis won without opposition, the animosity between him and Yob continued and, as one ally of the chairman told me, “Saul could do so much more if he didn’t have to spend 40% of his time on the maneuverings of Chuck and [GOP National Committeewoman and Yob ally] Holly Hughes.” After the ’06 elections, rumors of a coup against Anuzis were rampant and, for a few weeks, Yob ally Dave Dishaw was a candidate for chairman. Although Dishaw faded fast, the chairman’s backers pointed to Yob as the instigator.
While Yob was unopposed for his position in ’04, this year no fewer than five candidates declared for the committeeman’s post, among them seasoned party warhorses such as Ingham County Chairman Norm Shinkle, former Oakland County Chairman Paul Welday and 2002 U.S. Senate nominee Rocky Raczkowski. By far the most intriguing candidate was the Rev. Keith Butler, pastor of an African-American megachurch in Detroit and a past ally of Yob. When Butler sought the GOP Senate nomination in ’06, Yob was one of the few party heavyweights to back him against the establishment choice and eventual candidate, Mike Bouchard. This year, Yob and Butler are among the state co-chairmen of Arizona Sen. John McCain’s Michigan presidential campaign.
Within days of his announcement, Butler had wrapped up the support of 51 out of 83 county chairmen, nine of 15 congressional district chairmen and many state legislators. Moreover, State Atty. Gen. Mike Cox (another state McCain leader) and Anuzis himself weighed in for Butler. Three other candidates for the post dropped out in favor of him, and Yob himself finally threw in the towel—having failed to muster major support from the grassroots he had claimed to speak for.
“Our delegates to the national convention will be selected at the same state convention [February 15] that elects the national committeeman and committeewoman,” Yob told me. “We’re in enough of a battle in Michigan over the presidential race that I felt we couldn’t afford another fight. As long as someone I liked was running, I was prepared to give up the committeeman’s post after 18 years.”
In his postmortem on the race, Anuzis noted that “although I have had my differences with Chuck over the years, I want to thank him for his service and commitment to promoting candidates and our party. He sure managed to make things interesting!”
When then-state legislator Jim Ramstad first won Minnesota’s 3rd U.S. House District in 1990, the district that encompassed the Western suburbs of Minneapolis was considered the safest for Republicans in the Gopher State. Republican Clark McGregor, later a top Washington lobbyist, held it with ease from 1960-70, then fellow moderate GOPer Bill Frenzel held it handily from 1970-90, and then Ramstad (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 70%) never had trouble with election or re-election.
But after Ramstad announced his retirement last week, it was clear the rules had changed. Sources in the district said that the Republican nomination—to be determined by districtwide convention and, if a necessary, a primary—was by no means tantamount to election. George W. Bush barely carried the district in 2000 and ’04, and so far, no fewer than three well-known Democrats are mentioned for nomination. Among them are moderate State Sen. Melissa Hortman of Brooklyn Park (hometown of independent former Gov. Jesse Ventura) and Hubert H. “Buck” Humphrey, IV, grandson of the late Vice President and senator.
What is particularly interesting about the Republican race is that two of the three front-runners for nomination to succeed Ramstad are more conservative than the retiring congressman. Former State House Majority Leader Eric Paulson and Republican National Committeeman and businessman Brian Sullivan (who placed second in the ’02 convention for governor and then deferred to Gov.-to-be Tim Pawlenty) both take right-of-center stances on cultural and economic issues. The third heavyweight GOPer likely to run, State Sen. Geoff Michel (pronounced “Michelle”) is more moderate.
A recovering alcoholic and senior member of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, Ramstad (who last October married for the first time at age 61) would come to receptions at the Human Events offices and regale the staff with stories about being at Boys Nation with the young Bill Clinton (and heard him say he would be President someday) and about being a page for Sen. Milton Young (R.-N.D.) and being invited with other pages to the home of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D.-N.Y.). “Bobby always had time for young people and, even when he disagreed, was interested in what we had to say,” Ramstad said. As to what his brother, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D.-Mass.) was like, Ramstad told me: “About like he is now.”