GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Tea party activist Wes Nakagiri, a 55-year-old automotive engineer, wants to crash the Michigan Republican Party’s 2014 victory party. He’d like to push Lt. Gov. Brian Calley aside so that he can stand next to Gov. Rick Snyder while the crowd applauds, the confetti falls and the champagne corks pop, whether Snyder wants him or not.
Nakagiri dreams of leading a conservative revival under the Michigan Republican tent. He is more than ready to fight the Democrats, when the time is right. But first he will have to battle his way through establishment Republicans and his fellow tea party activists.
Nakagiri is campaigning to be selected as the state GOP’s lieutenant governor candidate at the party’s convention in August.
The Michigan Republican Party’s candidate for lieutenant governor will not be selected by Gov. Snyder, who is running unopposed. The lieutenant governor is selected by GOP convention delegates who will be chosen by local precinct delegates who will be elected in the August GOP primary.
So far, Nakagiri and Lt. Gov. Brian Calley are the only candidates. Another candidate could come forward, but that would have to happen by July.
The Snyder-Calley GOP establishment is not about to let Nakagiri on their ticket without a fight. It won’t be the first time they’ve bloodied their knuckles in this kind of a battle.
Even though Snyder ran as a moderate and defeated every conservative in the GOP 2010 primary race, tea party activists still tried to get their own candidate to serve as his running mate.
They were defeated, but it was a wide-open, nasty, public debate.
Snyder wanted and eventually got state Rep. Brian Calley, a little-known Michigan House member when he was chosen to be Snyder’s lieutenant governor.
He has a record to run on this time, a record that he shares with Snyder, a record that includes the expansion of Medicaid in Michigan under Obamacare and the approval of a tax on pensions.
It’s a record that Nakagiri said infuriates conservatives like himself.
However, Calley said on Off the Record, a public television political talk show, that his record is all conservative. Or at the very least, it is a record that shows he has been the “conservative voice in Gov. Snyder’s ear” for the past four years.
Nakagiri knows he won’t be the most popular man in the GOP convention hall on Aug. 23. He is going to have to fight a two-front war to win the nomination. Even some who would seem to be natural allies of a man who says Calley isn’t conservative enough have a problem with Nakagiri.
Todd Courser is one of those on the conservative side of the tent who can’t be called a fan of Nakagiri.
Courser, an attorney who describes himself as an evangelical Christian, is one of a dozen tea party-aligned conservatives running for seats in the state House in the August primary. He tried but failed to unseat Michigan Republican Party Chair Bobby Schostak at the state GOP convention in 2012.
Although his campaign failed, Courser said it jumpstarted the conservative movement from within and outside the party.
“What came out of that was just a lot of energy focused on state party politics,” he said.
Courser said libertarians and tea party activists have worked together for the past 18 months to defeat the GOP establishment – and if not take over the party, at least have a much louder voice within the state Republican Party.
The conservative collaboration has led, he said, to an explosion of political activism.
“In the latter part of the summer and going into the fall there was a noticeable difference with our people running for state House and their county commissions,” said Courser.
His hope is to do much more than merely bring a stronger conservative voice to the Michigan Republican Party.
Courser wants conservatives to take over the state government in Lansing, Mich., or at the very least to shift the power in the Republican-controlled House and give the “conservative movement” more power, and maybe even control of the House.
It is an audacious agenda. However, Courser does not see this as a revolution.
“It is more of an intense fellowship,” said Courser. “It is kind of like a spousal conversation where we don’t always agree and we have to work through those details.”
It is something more than a team of rivals, however Courser said it is worth the struggle because tea party activists and libertarians can’t survive without each other. “But at times it does make for a difficult marriage.”
Even though he talked about conservatives and libertarians coming together, Courser is not backing Nakagiri for lieutenant governor.
Nakagiri has not asked for his endorsement. Nakagiri has not received his endorsement. Nakagiri wrote on his website that he is fine with that.
“I respect Todd’s decision, as it is his alone to make. But I never planned on using his endorsement.”
That’s good, because he won’t get it.
Courser has serious doubts about whether Nakagiri will win.
“Wes has not polled well, has not built up the relationships within the party, and doesn’t have enough money,” Courser said.
Courser also said there is some talk about Wes being a “stalking horse,” blocking the emergence of another candidate, only to withdraw at the last moment, leaving the field wide open for Calley.
He is not the only one who feels that way, and Nakagiri knows it.
“It’s really a ridiculous notion put out by those who are scared by the prospect that I will win,” Nakagiri wrote on his website. “This type of falsehood is nothing more than politics as usual.”
Facing what could become a coalition of conservatives who don’t trust him and moderates who don’t like him or his politics, Nakagiri is using his website to warn his supporters to beware of “convention shenanigans” and giving them a link to a video that explains the rules and procedures of a Michigan GOP convention.
“The rules were not closely adhered to at a couple of state (GOP) conventions or at the national 2012 convention in Tampa,” he said. “I am concerned about what might pop up.”
Courser has his own warning for the Republicans, tea party activists and libertarians who will be inside the Suburban Collection Showplace for the party’s convention Aug. 23.
“These conventions are really the blood sport of politics.”