Saturday, May 16, 2015

Michigan Republicans Vote Down Proposal to Switch to a Closed Caucuses System in 2016

During the Michigan Republican State Central Committee meeting on Saturday, May 9, the big news was the election to fill the state party's national committeewoman position vacated when current Michigan Republican Party chair, Ronna Romney McDaniel, was elected in February 2015. Perhaps more interesting was an effort that had been brewing in the lead up to the meeting to have the state party reverse course, switching to a caucuses/convention process closed to only registered Republican voters.

The State Central Committee voted in support of a resolution endorsing a March 15 presidential primary last fall. The actual move required action from the Michigan state legislature, which the party got earlier this year. However, the outcome in the legislature was a March 8 date. That left Michigan Republicans with an open primary as mandated by state law in the proportionality window as set by the Republican National Committee. That combination was mostly what the Michigan Republican Party wanted. The date was early enough, but will force them to proportionally allocate national convention delegates to presidential candidates based on the results of the primary. The party had last fall settled on a hybrid, winner-take-most system of delegate allocation.

On the openness of the primary -- who can participate -- the Michigan Republican Party has tended to defer to state law. And that calls for an open primary that leaves the door ajar not only to independents participating but also potentially Democrats. It is that latter conflict that partially gave rise to the proposal to restrict participation to just Republican voters. But as there is no effort in the hopper or on the horizon in the Michigan state legislature to close off the primaries to just partisans (voting in their own primary), the only move would have been to switch from an open primary to a closed caucus.

FHQ said "partially" gave rise to the switch push because the effort was supported and advanced by Rand Paul-aligned members of the State Central Committee, notably District 8 Republican Party chair, Tom McMillin. The grassroots organizing of activists that the Ron Paul campaigns have done over the last two presidential election cycles, it has been argued, potentially gives Rand Paul a leg up in caucus states. This is not a new idea. It has been discussed in the context of the probable Kentucky Republican Party switch from a primary to caucuses (though there are other factors driving that switch as well) and the more recent quiet RNC push to trade out caucuses for a primary in carve-out state Nevada.

The former would theoretically help Paul in his home state while the latter would hurt the junior Kentucky senator in a state where his father finished in the top three in 2008 and 2012.

The attempt in Michigan was to make a move similar to that in Kentucky. However, it was just an attempt at the State Central Committee meeting last weekend. The Michigan Republican Party Policy Committee tabled the proposal with no support but did resolve to study closing the process in future election cycles (Again, that decision is only totally in the state party's control if it switches to a caucus in the future or the state legislature changes the law regarding who can participate. Court challenges to the law by the party are also a possibility.).

Yet, that was not the end of the discussion. The issue was also brought to the floor of the State Central Committee meeting a well by McMillin. The discussion there was not all that different from the one in the Policy Committee. On the floor the proposal to close the nomination system needed a two-thirds vote of the 112 member committee, but supporters could muster only a handful of votes and saw the standing vote on the motion fail.

In the grand scheme of things in this 2016 Republican presidential nomination race, this maneuvering in Michigan will be little more than a footnote. That said, it is indicative of some of the behind-the-scenes efforts made by the possible and announced candidates, their campaigns and proxies on the state level. It is not unusual activity, but keeps popping up in the context of these caucuses versus primaries, pragmatism versus purism discussions within the Republican Party both nationally and in the states over the last handful of years. The extent to which the rules matter ebbs and flows, but political actors perceive them to matter and act accordingly to shape them.

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