BY JACK LESSENBERRY
— Last weekend, one of the biggest internal battles in Michigan Democratic Party history ended, not with a bang but a towel, the one thrown in by longtime party chair Mark Brewer.
After a nasty campaign fought largely with mass e-mail bombs, the incumbent withdrew from the race once he saw he couldn’t muster the votes to keep his job. But though attention was strongly focused on the Democrats all last week, something happened at the state GOP convention on the same day that may, in the long run, be even more significant.
First, the Democrats: For weeks, an epic battle had raged between Brewer, the party’s leader since 1995, and Lon Johnson, a much younger man whose candidacy had two big selling points.
For one thing, he is married to Julianna Smoot, a former White House social secretary with close ties to the President - and impressive fund-raising skills. For another - well, he isn’t Brewer.
The 57-year-old lawyer, the longest-serving party chair in the nation, had worn out his welcome with the union that had been his biggest backer, the United Auto Workers. The Teamsters, too. wanted Brewer gone, as did the entire Democratic congressional delegation. But when he was approached behind the scenes about retiring gracefully, he dug in his heels.
For weeks, he fought to keep his job. The teachers’ union stayed in his corner, as did a number of local party officials.
Other Democrats, however, said a change was long overdue. They noted that Brewer has long had a penchant for expensive and wasteful schemes. Five years ago, his Democrats spent huge sums to get a proposed amendment on the ballot that would have rewritten a huge chunk of the state constitution.
But the courts tossed it off, saying a constitutional amendment could only address one issue at a time. Democrats also wasted money trying to get a phony “Tea Party” on the ballot.
The party chair’s end was probably sealed last November, when Democrats failed to recapture the Michigan House of Representatives, even though President Obama and U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow easily won the state.
Worse, efforts to pass a constitutional amendment supporting collective bargaining lost badly. Weeks later, during a lame-duck session of the legislature, Republicans rammed through a bill making Michigan a Right to Work state.
Those who wanted a new chair rallied around Johnson, a 41-year-old from the downriver area south of Detroit who now lives in Kalkaska. Johnson lost a race for a seat in the Legislature last year, and is little known statewide.
But in addition to being a fresh face and his White House ties, he is technologically savvy, in a state and party where even basic Internet literacy is beyond some of its members.
But though the Brewer-Johnson struggle got nasty at times, odds are that it will be quickly forgotten. Democrats always have been a brawling lot.
Republicans, on the other hand, strive for order and unity, especially in public. They need to present a united front.
Bobby Schostak, who is completing his first two-year term as chair, was seeking a second. He should have had no difficulty. He had the strong support of the governor and other top GOP officials. But he was opposed by Todd Courser, a little-known Tea Party activist and lawyer from Lapeer, in Michigan’s thumb.
Yet Courser very nearly won. In the end, Schostak barely squeaked by with 52 percent of the convention delegates. When the results were announced, many Courser supporters simply left.
Not, however, Courser himself, who then delivered a bizarre prayer which seemed to be more a personal dialogue with God. His campaign literature made it clear that his candidacy was all about restoring “conservative Christian principles.” On his website, he posted this before the convention: “Please pray that God moves in our state this coming weekend.” After he lost, Courser stood before the convention and emotionally seemed to be accusing God, saying “I don’t know why You called me (to run) five weeks ago.”
He then repeatedly added “Save not just our party, save our country. Help us, help us to save the country. I beg your mercy on our country.“ Some of his fellow convention delegates were uneasy with all that. For one thing, it may seem odd to think God is heavily invested in local internal political squabbles.
And there is clear evidence the GOP’s increasing focus on religion and social issues is costing them votes. For many years, the Libertarians have run presidential candidates who traditionally get three or four hundred thousand votes nationwide.
Last fall, however, the Libertarians tripled that, getting almost 1.3 million. These voters tend to be people who like Republican economic ideas, but have no use for their stand on social issues.
They didn’t cost the GOP victory in 2012. But if their vote totals keep increasing, they eventually will be a factor.
Republicans in Michigan, as elsewhere, could soon be in a position where in order to please their base, they have to do things which guarantee they can’t possibly win statewide elections.
If so, that will make Democrats very happy.
Jack Lessenberry has taught journalism at Wayne State University since 1993. He is Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst, is ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade, a former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News, and hosts the weekly public affairs show “Deadline Now” on WGTE-TV in Toledo. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.