AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — The hallmarks of a summer political picnic are there: multiple candidate stickers plastered on polo shirts, two-toned campaign banners tied between oak trees, the Republican faithful spooning melting Culver’s under the afternoon sun.
The familiar crowd knows former state Sen. Nancy Cassis (R), a local official for almost 30 years. They have watched her television ads, can sing her campaign jingle and, most importantly, they know how to spell her name.
“We’re getting so many of your [mail] pieces,” exclaims Lori Knollenberg, daughter-in-law of former Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-Mich.).
“It’s nothing fancy, write in Nancy,” hums Gia Fiestel, a Republican activist.
It’s every other likely Republican voter in the 11th district that is a problem for Cassis. She has a difficult task Tuesday: win the GOP nomination as a write-in candidate by defeating reindeer rancher and veteran Kerry Bentivolio, the only Republican on the ballot. Her campaign estimates she will need at least 40,000 write-in votes to win.
If Cassis faced Bentivolio on the ballot, she would win the nomination in a landslide. But write-in campaigns are unpredictable, and even some of her closest allies are hesitant she can pull it off.
“It’s tough trying to get people to vote,” Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson said. “It’s tough to get people to understand how you do a write-in campaign on [a voting] machine. It’s going to be close, but I hope she wins.”
Cassis’ campaign strategy is threefold: introduce herself, discredit Bentivolio, and teach voters how to write-in her name (officials will accept incorrect spellings). But she has had less than two months to do this.
The saga started in early June, when former Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R) abandoned his re-election bid after submitting error-ridden ballot petitions. Only Bentivolio remained on the Republican ballot, but local party officials viewed him as untested and unelectable.
Bentivolio’s team “see it as a some godsend, as if it was meant to be,” state Rep. Eileen Kowall (R) said at the picnic. “That’s hubris. I see it as criminal stupidity.”
Brooks and other local GOP poo-bahs coronated Cassis to run as a write-in instead. But national conservatives and libertarians, including Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), rallied to Bentivolio’s cause. Third-party groups, including a super PAC run by a 21-year-old college student, dropped almost $300,000 into the race. They obliterated the $200,000 in personal funds that Cassis kicked in to jump start her bid.
A bizarre primary situation became a cataclysmic battle between the local Republican establishment and national libertarian and tea party forces.
On a Saturday afternoon, Bentivolio stands in the corner of the green backyard, just a few yards from Cassis. His aides, including campaign manager Bob Dindoffer, never leave his side.
At first, Dindoffer would only allow Bentivolio to be interviewed if he could approve his quotes. Roll Call declined, but Bentivolio answered a few short questions anyway. He responded to GOP attacks on his role in a low-budget satire film that suggested President George W. Bush planned the 9/11 attacks.
“It shows they have a desperate campaign,” Bentivolio said. “They lie, tell half-truths. There’s a difference between reality and fantasy.”
Within minutes, Bentivolio’s aides cut off questioning. But his evasiveness makes Republicans anxious about what will happen if he becomes their nominee.
“I have a feeling it probably would hand it to Democrats,” said Ronald Dwyer, a local Republican activist. “Unfortunately, Kerry is a first-time candidate with a first-time campaign manager. There’s a question whether he will know how to write a bill, bring it to the floor.”
But Democrats have their own problems in tomorrow’s primary. The party-backed candidate, internist Syed Taj, faces Bill Roberts, a Lyndon LaRouche activist who is also viewed as an unelectable nominee.
If Republican officials have heartburn about Bentivolio, Democrats’ prospects of competing for the seat would evaporate if Roberts becomes their nominee. For example, a recent Roberts campaign poster depicted President Barack Obama with an Adolf Hitler mustache.
Nonetheless, Democrats fear that unaware voters will be more inclined to pull a lever for “Roberts” over “Taj.” That means it’s plausible that come November, a libertarian gadfly will face off with a Lyndon LaRouche supporter who wants to impeach the president.
The whole situation is incredibly strange, especially in a conventional suburban district such as the 11th. Strip malls line the interstate to downtown Detroit. Crime is minimal except on the city border. The school districts are strong.
The redrawn district surrounds northwest Detroit, enveloping some of the city’s Stepford suburbs, like wealthy Birmingham. The presumptive GOP presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, attended a posh boarding school on the new district’s borders.
Typically, a GOP primary would fly under the radar during the pleasant Michigan summer. Several Republicans said they had not heard of either candidate in random interviews across the district.
But McCotter’s retirement and subsequent resignation made headlines. His departure is forcing officials to hold a separate special election on Sept. 5, enraging taxpayers with its $650,000 price tag.
Still, only attentive Republican voters know Cassis — or how to spell her name.
“It might be low turnout,” said Edwin Hillebrand, a Republican primary voter enjoying a late lunch at Bates Hamburgers in Livonia. “I’m leaning towards Cassis, just based on the ads. But I think she’s a long shot.”
“I’ll probably vote for Nancy Cassis because I’m just more middle of the road,” said Craig Stewart, a fourth grade teacher from Canton. “The local Republican establishment is behind her. It just might work.”
A recent survey shows she has a shot, although polling write-in candidates is unpredictable. Bentivolio received only 21 percent, while an unspecific “someone else” candidate received 40 percent. Thirty-nine percent were undecided in the EPIC-MRA survey of 800 likely voters a week ago.
There have been a few write-ins elected to Congress in recent years, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) who was re-elected as a write-in in 2010. Before that, Democratic Rep. Charlie Wilson (Ohio) won a 2006 primary as write-in after failing to make the ballot.
But Cassis does not have Murkowski’s advantages in name identification, money and, most importantly, time. In the waning days before the primary, Republicans worried her efforts were too little, too late.
“Is it fair to say we weren’t up and running on day one? Absolutely,” Cassis said in an interview at Big Boy restaurant in Novi. “I went from zero to 100 in a little over a week. These things take a little bit of time to organize and manage your campaign well from the start.”
Above all, Republicans blame McCotter. The 11th district GOP bench is deep, and any number of candidates could have run for this seat: State Rep. Marty Knollenberg, businessman David Trott, even Ronna Romney McDaniel, the presidential candidate’s niece.
But there’s always next time. If Cassis cannot win, Republicans will probably mount a formidable challenger in 2014 — and his or her name will be on the ballot.