The Republican primary battle in State House District 72 (S. Kent County) pits three distinctive styles of conservatism against one another. In the August 5 primary we can begin to see the relative strength of each flavor of the party. Let’s take a look at them.
On one hand there is the conventional institutional Republicanism of Linda Steil. Her almost complete lack of external qualifications means her appeal rests on the continuation of a politics advanced by the chamber and by the Republicans in general over the past 15 years. She is the inheritor of term limits, maximal Supreme Court appointments — the sort that breed the counter action of Reform Michigan Government Now, an anti-tax theology, and generally the policy of government by lobbyist/PACs. Two difficulties arise with such a stance, First, this approach like that of its Democratic counterpart (that’s you, Mark Brewer) is largely responsible for the Legislative meltdown. Second, institutional Republicanism is generally a little sloppy as to its own discipline — they like to travel large (the peak at the finance statement shows a repeated pattern of paying top dollar).
With Justin Amash, we see the Movement Republican or Libertarian in full bloom. It is always nice to be an individualist when you already benefit from the lucky gene pool. His argument for “Principle” is little more than a guise for ignoring community concerns. It is also the viewpoint of the young (and the male): this is the classic style found on many conservative web sites; small wonder too, that Amash likes Ron Paul. Amash represents one approach to the Instititutional approach of a Steil — in essence, they are not pure enough. Oddly, in this idealism and youth, Amash taps the same cultural vibe that Obama hits.
A second alternative to institutional Republicanism is the Social Conservative style of Ken Yonker. This approach emphasizes the community — in its hard form, it is the use of legal proscription to enforce certain mores (Rep. Agema is a walking — or is it, hunting? — example of this); in the its soft form the community-focus takes a pragmatic approach. Yonker’s positions partake of both sides. His school board membership, his business history (considerably longer than the others) give a more practical air to his campaign. Relative to the Institutional, this is a focus on cooperation; relative to the Libertarian, it finally rejects it, but just barely (a fine post at The American Scene explores this tension in the Right).
These are the three organisms alive in the precinct petri dish. So what do we look for?
First, for Democrats, we can look at the results as a sort of marketing study of the Republican base. Short of indepth survey, we will never get a better behavioral test of the relative strength of the opposition. The feedback will be especially useful for those running in Kentwood. For instance, precincts where Yonker wins suggest that community concerns will also play big. The Amash vote will likely track the younger crowd. Where we see it older communities, we’re seeing a very activist true-believer type. So take his vote and look at age. Steil brings in the institutional concern, with more emphasis on state economic issues. This community will expect something like a real policy approach from the Dem candidate — incidentally, a strong suit for Al Abasse, who is taking on the winner.
A second way to view this Petri dish is in terms of broader tensions within the Kent County political life. Amash and Steil are both from Cascade, and so bring with them the sense of the East Side money crowd; they are also of a definite upper-middle class. Now look at Yonker — his backers include a number of the Wyoming gang (Voorhees, Hibma); his background in landscape is pretty solidly middle class, with more than a little of blue collar to it. The campaign sure looks like another classic West v. East duel. Insiders in the campaign think of it less as West v. East (after all, Steve Van Andel is a supporter), than of a local or neighborhood approach v. Establishment/downtown. In the metro region this is a common battle line (e.g. Doyle v. Dean in 2006 was very much downtown v. neighborhood; Michael Sak has always run as the neighborhood guy; etc.). For Dem candidates, watch the Steil/Amash vote v. Yonker vote — this will tell you whether the precinct leans downtown or neighborhood.
In short, for the discerning, there will be plenty to learn on August 5.