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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.