Many Michigan Republicans spent the weekend on Mackinac Island, where they enjoyed fine dining and cocktail receptions, listened to the campaign pitches of five presidential candidates, and plotted the future of their party.
And it was done mostly without the rancor that’s marked other Republican gatherings in recent years.
There was a personal tiff that turned into a bar scuffle between staffers working on competing presidential campaigns that made some headlines and weekend newscasts, but when it came to hard feelings over real political differences, well that seemed in short supply.
“I think that’s still an under-current, but we’re learning to get along together,” said Gene Clem, a leader of Michigan’s Tea Party movement who’s worked over the years to roil the state Republican establishment. “And I think people have accepted that there are two, maybe competing wings, I dunno, but I think there’s a continuum from moderate to right wing.”
At any Republican gathering, candidates will offer conservative solutions for whatever ills face the state and the nation. But at this event, the focus seemed to be a lot more on the solutions than arguing over who is the most conservative.
Of course, the Mackinac event had to compete with the ongoing drama surrounding former state Representatives Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat. The two Tea Party Republicans filed to run for their old seats after being forced out of the state House. Courser announced on CNN as the conference was getting underway.
But with five presidential candidates on hand, it wasn’t difficult to keep the attendees’ focus on 2016 politics and their hopes of winning back the White House.
“We’re trying to choose someone who can best beat the Democrats, but we also want somebody who won’t preserve the status quo –who will actually make government smaller,” said Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) in a well-received speech.
Paul won an unscientific straw poll by the Detroit News and the political newsletter MIRSNews.com of the 22 hundred people who had the time and the money to make the conference. The runner-up was former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who was greeted like a rockstar, pressed in by crowds wherever she went.
If conservative bona fides weren’t at issue, one way the presidential candidates tried to distinguish themselves was as disruptors capable of shaking up the status quo in Washington. And Fiorina said that’s her:
“Pick your issue, your cause, your festering problem. The political class has failed us all, not because they’re bad people, but because they’ve been in this system for so long.”
Ohio Governor John Kasich, Senator Ted Cruz, and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush also competed for the attention and the allegiance of Michigan Republicans. Bush told the crowd his family history is no liability when it comes to running the country, and especially when it comes to foreign policy.
“I know how to do this,” he said, “because, yes, I am a Bush.”
Michigan Attorney General and Bush supporter Bill Schuette said he expects the crowded GOP field to begin winnowing soon.
“This primary today is a version of Mad Max and Thunderdome,” he said. “Sixteen people enter, one person leaves.”
He says the discussions will get more serious as more people get closer to settling on a candidate to support.
“That’s what this campaign is about say, after the summer of Trump, and then we’ll roll into the caucuses and the primaries and let the activity begin, so to speak.”
Michigan’s Republican and Democratic primaries are on the calendar for March 8th.