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A Republican civil war plays out in Michigan

PETOSKEY – There’s the guy who runs a three-bay auto repair shop who tells an audience of Petoskey voters that he’s running for Congress because he believes the Constitution is in danger.

A few seats down, there’s the senior citizen campaigning for a Michigan Senate seat who tells the audience he had a 3.4 grade point average in college.

But in the center ring at a July 22 candidate forum at North Central Michigan College in Petoskey, it’s Wayne Schmidt and Greg MacMaster. Both are currently serving in the state House. Both are running for the Republican nomination for the 37 District Senate seat. Their contest is an Up North version of a showdown taking place in primaries across Michigan – a battle between tea party and more traditional Republican candidates.

Schmidt boasts more endorsements from GOP establishment groups. MacMaster has more tea party backing. He also earned more applause at this forum, even when his answers and those of Schmidt were interchangeable.

Who wins these contests in Tuesday’s state House and Senate Republican primaries will have a major impact on Michigan for the next two years, with potential influence on issues such as taxes, gay rights, road spending and even what tests our children take in schools.

“This is huge right now,” said Ed Sarpolus, founder of Lansing-based Target-Insyght, a research and political consulting firm. “What you have here is a party within a party.”

Susan Demas, editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a Lansing political newsletter, agrees. She notes, for example, that Republican Gov. Rick Snyder has pushed hard – to this point without success – to add $1 billion in taxes to fix Michigan’s crumbling roads. That task will only get harder if tea party candidates, who are resistant to any tax increase, win the day on Tuesday.

“If there are more tea party legislators, obviously the agenda will be pushed further to the right. That is bad news for issues like road funding. That will make Snyder’s push for a long-term solution that much harder,” Demas said.

On another front, lawmakers balked in June at plans to give new standardized tests aligned to the Common Core state standards to Michigan students next school year, leaving the fate of uniform national test standards up in the air. Demas said demands to scrap Common Core will only grow louder if GOP tea party candidates have a good night on Tuesday.

“That is a real lightning rod issue for the tea party. They despise the concept. I wouldn’t be surprised to see an effort to roll it back,” Demas said of Common Core, which more than 40 states have adopted.

Depending on the results, Demas believes these contested Republican races also could impede the call by some Republicans including Snyder to expand the state’s Elliot-Larsen civil rights to include protections for gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.

Here's a closer look at primary contests that reflect the inner warfare of Michigan's Republican Party:

Wayne Schmidt and Greg MacMaster, state Senate 37th District: This seat includes Traverse City, northwest lower Michigan and the eastern Upper Peninsula, and is a battle of two state representatives and two strands of the party. Incumbent Republican Howard Walker is leaving after one term, leaving the Republican-leaning seat up for grabs between Schmidt and MacMaster. Schmidt's endorsement list includes the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and Right to Life of Michigan. Former TV weatherman MacMaster lists law enforcement officials, military veterans and entertainer and National Rifle Association board member Ted Nugent.

MacMaster accuses Schmidt, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, of considering raising fees or taxes to fix state roads. He opposes any such tax increase.

MacMaster was the only House member to switch his vote on Medicaid expansion in 2013. He voted “yes” the first time the measure came up, but changed it to “no” when the second vote was taken. Schmidt voted for expansion both times.

MacMaster is counting on grassroots support to counteract Schmidt's advantage in funds. Schmidt reported more than $312,000 in contributions as of July 20, with a balance of about $72,000. MacMaster raised about $60,000 with a balance of less than $12,000.

The winner will be favored in the general election in this Republican-leaning district.

Lana Theis vs. Rich Perlberg, 42nd state House district: Americans for Prosperity, the conservative political advocacy group founded by billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, is weighing in favor of tea party candidate Lana Theis in this Livingston County race, with flyers promoting her opposition to Common Core. The flyer notes that Theis “opposes Common Core and its one-size-fits-all approach.”

Theis was a key backer of a failed referendum in 2012 that would have mandated a two-thirds vote in the Legislature for any tax increase. She faces three opponents, including Rich Perlberg, former general manager of the Livingston Daily Press & Argus. The winner will be favored in this Republican district in the general election.

Wendy Day vs. Henry Vaupel, state House District 47: The Koch brothers’ AFP is spending money in this Livingston County based district as well, promoting tea party activist Wendy Day with identical flyers touting her stand against Common Core. Day helped organize Michigan's first tea party rally in Lansing in 2009. Day has four opponents, including Henry Vaupel, a township supervisor. The winner will be favored in the general election.

A spokesperson for AFP told the Livingston Daily it had spent more than $1 million in 28 state House races and one state Senate race.

Gary Glenn vs. Karl Ieuter, state House District 98: Ardent anti-gay activist and tea party-backed Gary Glenn squares off against insurance agent Karl Ieuter in this Midland-based district. The seat is open because Republican House Floor Leader Jim Stamas is term limited.

Glenn has built name recognition as president of the anti-gay American Family Association of Michigan, a group he has headed since 1999. He was a principal backer of Michigan's constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, approved by 59 percent of voters in 2004. He has campaigned against gay rights ordinances in multiple Michigan cities. He opposes expanding the Elliot-Larsen civil rights act to include protections for gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.

In 2011, Glenn criticized Holland area furniture maker Herman Miller for supporting a Holland gay rights ordinance and for saying gay workers are an important part of a diverse work force: “What ridiculous folly to suggest that only those individuals who engage in homosexual behavior given all of its severe medical consequences constitute the best and the brightest.”

Glenn ran for U.S. Senate in 2012, earning support from various tea party groups before dropping out three weeks before the August primary.

He backs a state constitutional amendment to install a part-time Legislature and was a staunch backer of Michigan's right-to-work legislation passed in 2012. He opposes Common Core. He also favors implementation of a universal tuition tax credit that would offer half the per-pupil allowance for attendance at a public or private charter school.

Ieuter, vice president and co-owner of a Midland insurance group, has never run for office before. He has stuck to conservative generalities, saying his campaign is about “jobs, family and community.” He also said he stands for “smaller government and less regulation.”

He lists endorsements from the Michigan Association of Police Organizations, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the Michigan Townships Association. Both candidates received a stamp of approval from Right to Life of Michigan.

They are about even in fundraising. Glenn raised nearly $160,000, with a balance of about $45,000. Ieuter raised about $150,000 and also had a balance of about $45,000. The winner will be favored in the general election in this Republican-leaning district.

Justin Amash vs. Brian Ellis, U.S. House 3rd District: Two-term incumbent Justin Amash has done plenty to rankle certain elements of the GOP establishment. In January 2013, Amash was among leaders of a failed coup against House Speaker John Boehner. He was among 12 Republicans who voted against him. He also voted for the government shutdown over Obamacare, a tactic that establishment Republicans viewed as a fool's errand.

Richard Studley, president and CEO of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, told the Detroit Free Press there were “good companies in that district, large and small, who say the congressman is unhelpful or unresponsive.”

But Amash earned kudos from libertarians for leading the effort in July 2013 to limit the National Security Agency's bulk surveillance program, an amendment that narrowly lost in the House. He also defended National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden as a “whistleblower. He told us what we needed to know.”

Displeased with Amash, powerful West Michigan businessmen including Bissell CEO Mark Bissell and Meijer Inc. President Mark Murray lined up to back Brian Ellis, a financial adviser and former East Grand Rapids School Board member.

“The Republican establishment has lost confidence in Justin,” Bissell said at a fundraiser earlier this year. GOP U.S. Sen. John McCain went a step further in 2013, calling Amash a “wacko bird.”

Amash has the backing of Amway President Doug DeVos.

Amash raised more than $1.6 million, as of July 16, leaving him with nearly $780,000 cash on hand. Ellis raised $1.7 million, which included $1 million in loans by Ellis to the campaign. He had about $460,000 in cash on hand. Amash appears to have a substantial lead in the polls.

The winner will be heavily favored in this Republican district in the general election.

Mike Bishop vs. Tom McMillin, U.S. House 8th District: Former state Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop faces a tea party challenge from state Rep. Tom McMillin of Rochester Hills in southeast Michigan.

Though Bishop and McMillin have tea party roots, McMillin has tried to link Bishop with establishment politics that (as McMillin portrays it) smack of compromise.

McMillin calls himself a “a solid, consistent conservative who would never cut deals with the likes of Jennifer Granholm,” faulting Bishop for helping pass a service tax and income tax hike under the Democratic governor in 2007 to fill a $1.8 billion budget hole, and Bishop's role in replacing the Single Business Tax with the Michigan Business Tax. In 2011, Gov. Rick Snyder signed a bill to replace the MBT with a 6 percent corporate tax, cutting the state's business tax by $1.7 billion.

McMillin is backed by FreedomWorks, a Washington D.C.-based lobbying group linked with the tea party, and by U.S. 3rd District U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, a tea party and libertarian favorite. Both candidates have a stamp of approval from Right to Life of Michigan. Bishop has backing from 8th District Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, who is retiring to take a job in radio. Bishop is also supported by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Michigan Farm Bureau PAC, the Police Officers Association of Michigan and Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson. The last is not a surprise: Patterson once said McMillin “hailed from the Taliban wing of the party.”

Bishop reported about $480,000 in receipts with more than $280,000 in cash in hand. McMillin had about $215,000 in contributions but less than $65,000 in cash on hand.

The winner will have the edge in this Republican-leaning district in the general election.

Kerry Bentivolio vs. David Trott, U.S. House 11th District: One-term tea party incumbent Kerry Bentivolio won this seat northwest of Detroit through the back door in 2012, when GOP incumbent Thaddeus McCotter failed to turn in enough nominating signatures and abruptly resigned a month before the primary. Bentivolio, a one-time Santa Claus impersonator and reindeer farmer who filed for bankruptcy in 1992, was regarded until then as little more than a political gadfly.

While he has won endorsement from the California-based Tea Party Express, his campaign has been hit with internal strife. His campaign manager quit at the end of May, barely two months after his 2012 campaign manager sued Bentivolio, claiming he is owed more than $150,000 in unpaid wages, bonuses and expenses.

He faces wealthy lawyer David Trott, who enjoys backing from much of the GOP establishment but carries baggage of his own. He is chairman and CEO of Trott & Trott, the largest foreclosure firm in the state. In 2011, the firm received scrutiny for handling legal paperwork for the eviction of 101-year-old Detroit resident Texana Hollis after her son had fallen behind on tax payments linked to a reverse mortgage.

He is backed by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and GOP stalwarts that include former presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Trott had about $3.4 million in receipts. He donated nearly $2.2 million of his own funds to the campaign, plus a $250,000 loan. He had about $1 million in cash on hand. Bentivolio had about $525,000 in contributions and about $125,000 in cash on hand.

A July 15 poll by Lansing-based EPIC-MRA showed Trott with a 22-point lead. The winner will be favored in the general election.

John Moolenaar vs. Paul Mitchell, U.S. House 4th District: This is less a tea party-establishment showdown than a fight between a political insider and an outsider with deep pockets, as state Sen. John Moolenaar and GOP donor and wealthy businessman Paul Mitchell compete to succeed retiring U.S. Rep. Dave Camp. The 15-county central Michigan district stretches from Wexford through Ogemaw counties to the north and includes Clinton and Shiawassee counties to the south. Moolenaar enjoys the backing of Camp, GOP Attorney General Bill Schuette and Right to Life of Michigan. Roscommon software consultant Peter Konetchy, who ran for U.S. Senate in 2012, does not appear to have the funds to challenge Moolenaar or Mitchell.

Mitchell – little known to district voters when he announced in April – has run an aggressive campaign fueled almost entirely with his own money. He reported $3.18 million in receipts, with $3.17 million of that coming as candidate loans. He had about $1 million in cash on hand. Moolenaar had about $525,000 in receipts and just over $140,000 in cash on hand. Konetchy had about $25,000 in receipts and less than $3,000 cash on hand.

A poll by Epic-MRA of Lansing in July indicates Mitchell's big spending may be paying off, with Mitchell leading Moolenaar 50 percent to 27 percent. He had spent about $1.2 million on media buys alone as of July 16.

“In an open seat like this, when you spend that much money, it can have a tremendous impact,” said Bernie Porn of Epic-MRA.

Ron French contributed to this report.

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