Michigan Rep. Thaddeus McCotter spent much of this cycle as the butt of late-night jokes. But no one on Capitol Hill is laughing at the Republican’s latest gaffe — botching his ballot petition for re-election and forcing a write-in campaign.
Republican operatives are privately livid with McCotter, who spent much of last year trotting around the country for his quixotic presidential campaign, for jeopardizing an otherwise-safe seat and potentially costing valuable resources.
The five-term lawmaker’s campaign turned in less than a quarter of the requisite signatures to seek the GOP nomination in the 11th district. On Tuesday, McCotter announced he would forge ahead with a write-in campaign for his party’s nod on Aug. 7.
“You’re not going to have a community who’s going to come behind him on this,” former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land (R) said. “I’m sure some folks who supported Congressman McCotter in the past aren’t happy. Are they going to be there to support him? I don’t know.”
Now Republicans must decide whether to allocate serious resources to save McCotter — a former acolyte of Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and quirky loner.
Publicly, House Republicans pledged to support McCotter’s write-in campaign. Majority Leader Eric Cantor told Fox News on Tuesday that he would back McCotter’s write-in campaign. National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) will help McCotter “raise the resources he needs,” committee spokeswoman Andrea Bozek said.
McCotter welcomed House Republican leaders’ support in a phone interview. He said he has not asked for their financial help — yet.
“I intend to honor that trust and confidence,” McCotter said. “I welcome their help if necessary as determined over the coming weeks.”
But McCotter will have to join the Patriot program, the NRCC’s incumbent retention program, which requires meeting specific campaign benchmarks.
Privately, House Republicans acknowledge that is a hurdle for McCotter. They are concerned with his fundraising and campaign infrastructure — faults that became more evident with his ballot mishap.
It doesn’t help that McCotter has not been a team player for House Republicans in recent cycles. He hasn’t made a significant donation to the NRCC since 2008, even though he has not had a competitive re-election race yet.
“I imagine this will be a nose-holding exercise of having to help someone help themselves,” one top House GOP aide said. “The NRCC, despite his lack of participation, is still a membership-based organization.”
Republicans expect McCotter to win re-election easily if he’s their nominee. The GOP-controlled state Legislature made the district safer for Republicans during redistricting last year.
Before this incident, McCotter’s likely general election opponent, internist Syed Taj, didn’t even make the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Red to Blue program for its top 63 challenger candidates.
But McCotter’s campaign will prove challenging for House Republicans in multiple ways. The NRCC has not supported a write-in candidate since Shelley Sekula-Gibbs sought the seat of former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) in 2006. And in Michigan, no one has won a write-in campaign for Congress in recent history.
First, McCotter must file his intent to run as a write-in candidate by July 27. Michigan election law does not require the voter to write in the name of a candidate perfectly, but the voter’s intent must be clear.
To secure the GOP nomination, McCotter must receive more votes than the lone Republican on the ballot, teacher Kerry Bentivolio, a perennial candidate.
Additionally, McCotter must have a certain number of write-in votes to qualify as the nominee. The secretary of state’s office determines that threshold as at least 0.15 of 1 percent of the total population of the district.
Republicans estimated McCotter could need 25,000 to 41,000 write-in votes to do that. McCotter received 43,303 votes when he ran unopposed in the comparable 2008 GOP primary.
“I’m working under the assumption that because we’ve never done one, it’s going to be the hardest [race] we’ve ever done,” McCotter said. “We’re not only running against an opponent, we’re running against the ballot itself.”
McCotter might have even more company in the race.
State Sen. Mike Kowall (R) dropped his primary challenge against McCotter in January, throwing his support behind the Congressman’s re-election. But in light of McCotter’s embarrassing signature snafu, Kowall said he has been encouraged to launch his own write-in campaign.
“I’ve been approached,” Kowall said Tuesday. “I was in parades all weekend, and I had people yelling at me, saying ‘Where do I sign a write-in petition?’”
To prepare for the write-in effort, McCotter said he plans to reach out to recent winners of such contests. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) won a general election write-in campaign after losing her party’s nomination last cycle.
But McCotter’s petition botch was more reminiscent of another write-in candidate from the past decade: former Rep. Charlie Wilson (D-Ohio).
In 2006, Wilson failed to get the 50 signatures required to get on the Democratic primary ballot, falling only a few short of the requirement. House Democrats quickly rallied behind Wilson by sending staff and other resources to eastern Ohio to help him in the open-seat race. He won the nomination by a margin of more than 28,000 votes and went on to win in November.
It’s too early to tell whether the NRCC will have a similar all-hands-on-deck response for McCotter. In some ways, the McCotter campaign’s mistakes were more egregious, although the signature requirement is higher.
In Michigan, candidates need 1,000 valid signatures to qualify for the primary ballot for Congress. But the secretary of state’s office deemed only 244 signatures valid out of the 1,844 that McCotter’s campaign filed.
An initial review of McCotter’s petitions showed many duplicate signatures, according to a spokeswoman from the secretary of state’s office. The problems with his petitions were so serious that state Attorney General Bill Schuette launched a fraud investigation into the signatures.
McCotter indicated he had no knowledge of the problems with his petitions until the secretary of state alerted him Friday. But Michigan insiders say the situation doesn’t inspire much promise for his prospects in a write-in campaign.
“If McCotter was this disorganized and incompetent,” said Bill Ballenger, publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, “I don’t hold out much hope for him.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.