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Medicaid Will Be Key Issue In Contested Senate Primary Up North

State Representatives Wayne Schmidt (left) and Greg MacMaster both want the GOP nomination for the 37th state senate seat.

Disagreements among conservatives will be on display in a northern Michigan primary during the coming year. Two experienced Republican lawmakers are running for the 37th state senate seat. The recent Medicaid vote is already emerging as a central issue in a race that will highlight some of the differences between Governor Snyder and the right wing of his party.

The primary is almost a year away but campaigning began Monday when Wayne Schmidt officially announced his candidacy. He started in Traverse City, overlooking Grand Traverse Bay from the Top of the Park, and planned to be in Newberry in the Upper Peninsula by the day's end. Stops were planned in all the major cities of the 37th district, like Petoskey, Cheboygan, and Sault Ste. Marie.

Schmidt is in the middle of a third term in the Michigan House of Representatives and represents Grand Traverse County. He's moderate compared to GOP lawmakers from more rural districts up north, and he doesn't mind the label.

"That says that I'm taking a common sense approach to things," he says. "I just don't lock in ideologically to one way of thinking, that I'm willing to take tough votes not just stick my finger in the wind and see what happens."

Referendum on Medicaid expansion

One tough vote this year was the expansion of Medicaid. It actually went through the house twice. The change is expected to provide health coverage to another 320,000 Michigan residents when it goes into effect.

Attending Schmidt's launch event were the heads of the two major business associations in Traverse City, the Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce. The head of the chamber, Doug Luciani, praised Wayne Schmidt for standing firm in favor of the Medicaid expansion. He says it's crucial to reduce the number of people without insurance in Michigan.

"Ultimately the people that end up paying for those uninsured are businesses, the people that have insurance and buy insurance," says Luciani.

In recent years, the senator from the 37th district has always been a Republican from Traverse City. Right now it's Howard Walker, who is not seeking reelection. When Walker won the primary in 2010, almost 40% of the votes were cast in Grand Traverse County.

Tea party backlash

The tea party could be a factor this year. Its leaders have a radio station now, based in Petoskey. Randy Bishop and Brian Sommerfield host the show "Your Defending Fathers" on Patriot Voice Radio Network for three hours each weekday morning. Bishop ran for state senate himself in 2010 and has been organizing the tea party movement since. The FM broadcast reaches most of central northern Michigan though it falls short of Traverse City.

Patriot Voice listeners are livid with Republicans who voted to expand Medicaid and those are voters Greg MacMaster hopes to appeal to. MacMaster is from Kewadin in Antrim County and is in the middle of his second term as a member of the Michigan House of Representatives. He too would like the Republican nomination in the 37th Michigan Senate District.

MacMaster voted against the Medicaid expansion earlier this month and was on Patriot Voice Radio this week to discuss various legal and political strategies that might yet thwart what critics call "Obamacare". He told Sommerfield and Bishop: "I will fight to my last breath to find a way to get rid of it."

Greg MacMaster has been accused of pandering to the tea party since he announced his senate ambitions but he rejects the label of a tea party candidate. He describes himself as a conservative Republican who votes on what is best for Michigan. He says he is not bound to predetermined solutions.

One looming issue in Lansing is how the state will pay to fix its roads and bridges. Governor Snyder has pushed for new fees or taxes but some in his party are taking a firm stance against asking for more money. MacMaster says he's not ruling anything it out.

"It will be my last choice, raising taxes overall," says MacMaster. "I think our government needs to do a better job at spending our money responsibly and we're getting there."

The latest ranking from Inside Michigan Politics pegs Greg MacMaster as more conservative than about half of his Republican colleagues in the house. Wayne Schmidt's voting record put him further down the list, more conservative than about a quarter of the group.