All Eyes Look to Michigan: A Report From the Presidential Hustings

Michigan is “Hard America.” From our Upper Peninsula mines and forests, our farms and small towns, and Detroit — known as “Hockey Town U.S.A” or the “Arsenal of Democracy,” springs a determined work ethic, self reliance tempered with a sense of community, and what Michigan native Russell Kirk referred to as traditional patriotism. No wonder our Macomb County was epicenter, the home of, the “Reagan Democrat.”

Michigan is also the only state with a shrinking economy. We are struggling to transition from a big unit economy dominated by big government, big labor and big business. It is home to high tech corridors, research universities, pockets of affluent suburbia and emergent health science centers in Grand Rapids. No wonder neither party has been able to lay claim to the allegiance of this diverse stew of Michigan voters for long. We are perfect test case for any Republican who needs to win back the American swing voters.

Michigan’s primary comes on the heels of Iowa and New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation caucus and primary. Just days before South Carolina and two weeks before Florida, Michigan will be one of the bellwether states heading into Februrary 5, aka “Super-Duper Tuesday.”

The Michigan Legislature enacted into law a proposal to move up Michigan’s primary to Jan. 15, 2008, from its original date of Feb. 26. Michigan Democrats, led by U.S. Senator Carl Levin and Democratic National Committeewoman Debbie Dingell, have long challenged the right of New Hampshire and Iowa to claim uncontested “first in the nation” status.

Michigan Republicans proposed holding their primary on Feb. 5 and announced two years ago our intention to move our primary earlier to play a greater role in the presidential selection process. With a Democratic governor and state House of Representatives, the Democrats gave Republicans an option: stay with a primary on Feb. 26 and go it alone (as Democrats would hold their own caucus) or negotiate with them to move up the primary to Jan 15.

Michigan Republicans, along with most Republican presidential contenders, requested that we have an open primary where any registered voters could cast a ballot for the candidate of their choice. The ruling body of the Michigan Republicans, our State Committee, voted almost unanimously to pursue a primary on Feb. 5 — or earlier, if needed — to get legislative support from the Democrats. We knew such a move risked losing 50 percent of our delegates and alternates, but having a primary and getting more than one million Republicans to vote on our side was a risk worth taking.

Moving Michigan’s primary to follow Iowa and New Hampshire produced huge benefits. Every presidential contender has made coming to Michigan a major part of his overall primary strategy. Senator John McCain and Governor Mitt Romney put together impressive ground games throughout the state, recruiting and hiring political talent statewide. Senator Sam Brownback, Governor Mike Huckabee and Congressman Tom Tancredo made early trips into Michigan. Once Mayor Giuliani signaled his intentions, he became a frequent visitor as well, campaigning on behalf of Republican candidates last fall.

Michigan Republicans passed rules providing for delegate apportionment by primary results in each congressional district — rather than a state-wide “winner takes all” result — and then a “proportional” apportionment for our at-large delegates. This created an incentive for candidates to campaign in each congressional district and build political organizations there that helped invigorate and build our party during the off year.

We were able to raise millions of dollars for our state candidates and local parties. Romney and McCain became fixtures in our state campaigning on behalf of State Senate and State House caucuses. And during this last election cycle, Giuliani joined Romney and McCain to give our candidates and party a boost that clearly helped Michigan Republicans hold back the anti-Republican electoral tsunami of 2006.

Polls throughout 2006 showed Giuliani and McCain leading among Republican voters. Romney ran consistently in a third place position until Fred Thompson entered the race. As we moved into 2007, the polls started showing Giuliani ahead but Romney and Thompson moving up, while McCain’s deteriorated in conjunction with his national fall in the polls.

In the last few months Romney has been gaining steadily in the polls, and he and Giuliani have exchanged the lead back and forth in the last four statewide polls conducted in Michigan, respectively. Thompson and McCain seem to be competing for a distant third place position.

As McCain moved most of his operations out of Michigan and elsewhere to concentrate on New Hampshire and South Carolina, Giuliani began hiring staff and visiting more often. Romney continued to build his grassroots operations as well as put together the stronger field operation on the ground.

I think it’s safe to say the Michigan primary is a race between Romney and Giuliani for first and second place, at this point. Romney appears to be trending upwards as he campaigns tirelessly statewide. Giuliani’s operations are starting to emerge, but he has yet to put together much of a ground team. McCain is coming back to Michigan and trying to rejuvenate his early grassroots supporters and make an effort to have a solid showing here. The remaining presidential candidates have little or no ground operations underway in Michigan.

Michigan is still the home of the “Reagan Democrat,” those conservative, Labor Democrats who broke with party leaders to help put Ronald Reagan in the White House. With Michigan’s fiercely independent voters, McCain won the 2000 primary here over George W. Bush. Giuliani has led in the polls for almost a year and seems to have some genuine support among Republican primary voters. Romney has come on strong as his grassroots efforts and strong campaign operation kicks in going into the final months before our primary.

Careful observers will recall that Romney’s father, George Romney, served as Michigan governor and his mother, Lenore Romney, was our nominee for the U.S. Senate. That “goodwill” and name ID seem to be paying off in the polls and just about every activist over the age of 50 probably remembers the senior Romneys, which can only help in Governor Romney’s efforts statewide.

Michigan will be the first industrial, large state to hold a primary. This will give America voters a chance to see how the various candidates fare in a state that is more demographically representative of the nation at large. In presidential elections, Michigan is always a key battleground and, although the state that has trended Democratic over the last 4 presidential cycles, both parties will battle hard for our electoral votes in 2008.

Arguably, if you can win in Michigan, you can win anywhere.

Michigan has a large African-American population. It has more union households than any other state. Its core voter base is independent. Republicans must do well among all of these voters if we are to keep the White House in 2008.

Michigan’s early status has clearly benefited our state, its political leadership and our party. We hosted one of the nationally televised debates as well as benefited from the early campaigning of leading Republicans over the last few years.

Iowa and New Hampshire will set the stage for showdowns in the bigger states of Michigan and Florida, which have the real potential to affect the 20-some primaries nationwide to be held on Feb. 5.

The eyes of the country will clearly be on Michigan the night of Jan. 15, and for good reason: The winner of our primary quite likely will be the next President of the United States.


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