Susan J. Demas: Hot in Cleveland: How Politicos Survived and Thrived at the Republican National Convention

National conventions are supposed to be a blast. The parties are nonstop and so are the libations. And if you’re brave enough to peek at Craigslist, you’ll find plenty of folks coming into town with some, well, fascinating interests.

 The RNC, 1980

The RNC, 1980

For many political activists, letting loose for a few days in a new city is the ultimate reward for knocking all those doors, stuffing all those envelopes and making endless calls begging people for money.

But there was an unmistakable sense of foreboding heading into this week’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland, thanks to presidential nominee Donald Trump’s penchant for outlandish statements and alienating allies. Activists from across the political spectrum, including white supremacist groups, vowed to descend. The Michigan State Police even dispatched more than 150 troopers to help with security.

Popular Ohio Gov. John Kasich –– who probably would have won the presidential election in a walk –– announced early on he wouldn’t even be going. No living Republican president attended, either.

Trump had trouble filling speaking slots –– a virtually unheard-of problem, as most politicians would gladly knock over their grandmother in a walker to get a few minute on Fox News. At least his wife and kids said “yes,” as did actor Scott Baio, who was last relevant during the era of Aquanet and parachute pants.

Of course, GOP activists and donors enjoyed the circus. Party conventions are always about showmanship and indulging the extremes (just read the party platforms, yeesh). So in that sense, it was fitting to honor the man best known for flash-and-burn antics like “Trump: The Game” and several (now-bankrupt) Atlantic City casinos.

Now that, and his dizzyingly incomprehensible governing agenda, don’t inspire much confidence in his ability to run the most powerful nation on earth –– but that’s a different story.

So it’s not surprising that many risk-averse Michigan Republican politicians like Gov. Rick Snyder took a pass on the RNC. We’re a swing state and the state House hangs in the balance this year. For many, all the free booze in the world wasn’t worth being associated with controversy.

But for those who did make the trek to Cleveland, here’s what they needed to do to have a successful convention:

  • Don’t talk about Trump, unless you’re from a blood-red district. Fortunately, we have plenty of those –– about three dozen in the state House alone. (If you represent a lot of evangelicals in West Michigan, you still may be safer steering clear of the thrice-married, formerly pro-choice nominee). Anyway, who wants to be defending Trump’s latest rant against a Latino judge or his retweet of a neo-Nazi? And avoiding Trump talk has a huge upside. It frees politicians can talk about their favorite subject: themselves.

  • Throw your own shindig. That’s what two potential 2018 gubernatorial candidates did. Lt. Gov. Brian Calley may be a teetotaler, but he knows many of his supporters aren’t. So the LG, who’s been known to rock out on the keyboard at several bars, held a party at the House of Blues. Attorney General Bill Schuette hosted his own soiree the same day at The Viaducts, complete with food trucks featuring comfort food like mac and cheese and bratwurst (Schuette: He’s just like us!). Of course, the AG also had the benefit of earning a Monday afternoon RNC speaking slot. While that’s not worth much in airtime, it gives him big bragging rights. Holding their own functions give politicians the chance to make the convention about them (not you-know-who), gladhand donors and make party activists feel special. It’s a smart play if you can afford it.

  • Solemnly declare the need for party unity. Say it loud; say it proud. Say it even if you don’t believe it (especially if you don’t). Playing the statesman role is always a winner with the media –– and the bar is absurdly low these days. And if you did your part to change the narrative from “Chaos in Cleveland” and “Trump-ageddon,” donors won’t soon forget it.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at Follow her on Twitter here.