DETROIT — Are clever Democratic activists really going to cost Mitt Romney his home state on Tuesday? Or is the grassroots plan to use Michigan’s open primary as a means to humiliate the candidate most see as the biggest threat to President Obama in the fall just a red herring?
Romney’s allies aren’t worried. Democrats and Obama’s campaign aren’t getting involved. And yet, activists think they just might pull this thing off.
Welcome to the Michigan primary sideshow that just might play a part in the main event.
Republicans tried to tamp down on crossover voting when they designed the Feb 28 primary, but the peculiarities of the state rules made that effort basically futile. Democrats will allow members of their party to vote in Tuesday’s primary and still participate in the March 5 Democratic caucus, so Democrats can ask for GOP ballots on Tuesday with impunity. Crossover voting is a rich part of the Michigan primary tradition (this Detroit News column explains the tit-for-tat crossover efforts both parties have engaged in over the years pretty well), and so was born Operation Hilarity, the DailyKos-led effort to drive progressive voters to the polls for Santorum and serve up a loss to Romney.
The plan gathered some national press, especially after the state Democratic party sent out a letter that appeared to urge Democrats to take part. The letter was based on a YouTube clip of Republican state Senators daring Democrats come on over and vote GOP.
The two Senators in the clip — Rick Jones, a Romney supporter and Arlan Meekhof, who backs Santorum — told me Friday they were being sarcastic and responding to Democratic complaints about taxpayer money going to fund the Feb 28 primary. Neither senator was too worried Democrats taking them up on their offer will have much of an effect on the primary.
“Absolutely not. I think it’s totally not going to happen. It was a few party bosses running their mouth and I don’t think they’re going to have any effect on the regular common man out here,” Jones said. “I think that if there’s any crossover voting by the mainstream, independent, blue-collar worker here in Michigan, they’re going to go for Mitt Romney.”
Meekof, whose chosen candidate stands to benefit from Operation Hilarity succeeding, didn’t put much stock in the idea either.
“If they’re going to do it, it wouldn’t be any more than what they have done previously,” he said. “I don’t buy the fact that they’re going to have a huge impact on [the primary.]”
For their part, Democrats say they’re not involved in organizing crossover votes at all.
“We believe Republicans should nominate Republicans and Democrats should be able to nominate Democrats,” Michigan Democratic party chair Mark Brewer told me. The party isn’t spending any time or money on getting Democrats to vote.
Obama’s campaign in Michigan isn’t going anywhere near Operation Hilarity. An official told me the campaign is “not involved” in organizing crossover votes in any way.
That said, Brewer claimed the anti-Romney Democrats will come.
“There will be crossover voting next Tuesday,” he said. “People are people; it’s happened here for decades. But it’s not something we officially encourage and there’s no organized effort to make it happen.”
Hilarity forces don’t expect their turnout to be huge — but with a potentially razor-thin margin between Santorum and Romney Tuesday, it doesn’t have to be.
“My expectations are modest — maybe a couple of thousand of votes for Santorum,” DailyKos’ Markos Moulitsas told me. ” But given how close the race has become, that may be all we need to swing this thing away from Romney.”
He said the official effort is still pretty small. “I haven’t seen any real organized effort, just me rabble rousing and the Michigan Democratic Party email,” he said. DailyKos will “hit our Michigan activism list (about 8,500 strong) and talk about it on various media outlets,” but Moulitsas said “it’s not as if there’s a bigger coordinated effort pushing this as far as I know.”
Still, Moulitsas thinks the Democrats are more behind the effort then they let on.
“It’s obvious that [the Obama campaign] and [pro-Obama super PAC] Priorities USA want the same thing, given they’re on the air with anti-Romney spots in the state,” he said. “So if their ads help depress Romney-leading independents, and our effort generates those few thousand votes for Santorum, those combined efforts could potentially give us exactly what we hope for next Tuesday — a painfully drawn out nomination process for the GOP.”
I asked Brewer if he worried that Romney could blame a loss in Michigan on Operation Hilarity and therefore mitigate the huge damage to his image losing his home state would bring.
“I think they’ll try, but that’s no more than a desperate effort to hide a real fundamental weakness. He is very flawed as a candidate and I think people will quickly see through that,” Brewer said. “He should win here in a walk next week. And if he doesn’t, then you know sure they’ll be finger-pointing and trying to blame us.”