By Greg Stempfle
Last week John Tatar filed his petitions to run for Governor, setting up a contested Libertarian primary against Bill Gelineau. I wanted to find out when was the last time such an event happened. When was the last time a party besides the Democrats and Republicans had a contested primary for their governor nomination? It turns out this is unprecedented in the history of Michigan.
The morning Tatar filed, I went to the Library of Michigan in Lansing and looked up old primary and general election results in the Michigan Manual, a very exhaustive source of state government information published annually by the Michigan Legislature. From previous trips, I already knew that since 1932 only six times has a so-called minor party qualified to run candidates in the Michigan primary election, and only twice, has one of these parties run a candidate for governor. The first was the American Independent Party (AIP) in 1970, who qualified for the primary based on the strength of Presidential candidate George Wallace in 1968. Their governor candidate, James McCormick, won his party’s uncontested primary with 100 votes against 21 write-in ballots. The second time will be the Libertarian Party in 2018.
Before 1932, all political parties in the state ran candidates in the primary election. This would mark the first year that political parties were divided into so-called major parties who nominate candidates in the primary and so-called minor parties who nominate candidates at a caucus or convention. I went through these results looking for contested governor primaries as far back as 1906, and found none. In 1906 and earlier, there are no results from primary elections. I did an internet search to see if 1908 was in fact the first year there were primaries in Michigan. An article from 1916, “The Operation of the Direct Primary in Michigan” written by Arthur C. Millspaugh, confirms there were no gubernatorial primaries before 1908, except for an uncontested Republican primary in 1906 .
During the 12 elections from 1908 to 1930, the following third parties ran candidates for governor in the number of primary elections indicated, all of whom were nominated in those uncontested primaries: Prohibition (12), Socialist (11), Socialist Labor (9), Workers (3), National Progressive (2), and Farmer-Labor (1). Note the term in office for Governor used to be two years and would not become four years until the 1963 Michigan Constitution.
Including Tatar and Gelineau, 42 Libertarians filed to run in the 2018 primary, including county and township races. The 34 Libertarians running for state and federal office surpasses the 26 candidates the AIP ran for state and federal office in their 1970 primary. The last time before 2018 that a third party had a primary was the Reform Party, which qualified based on Perot votes during his second run for President in 1996. However, they fielded only seven candidates in their 1998 primary.