Elections board allows replacement candidate for Congress

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — The Michigan elections board declined Monday to review former “Little House on the Prairie” actress Melissa Gilbert’s withdrawal as the Democratic nominee for a congressional seat, allowing her to be replaced over Republicans’ objections.

Gilbert dropped out of the 8th Congressional District race in May, citing worsening head and neck injuries from 2012 accidents. But she remained the lone Democrat on the August primary ballot because the filing deadline had expired for the seat, which represents an area that stretches from Lansing to Oakland County in Detroit’s northern suburbs.

Local Democratic leaders chose a replacement, Macomb County assistant prosecutor Suzanna Shkreli, of Clarkston. She is to face freshmen GOP Rep. Mike Bishop, of Rochester, in November.

The district leans Republican, but Democrats are hoping the inexperienced Shkreli will benefit if GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump does poorly at the top of the ticket.

Michigan law lets political candidates withdraw after winning a party’s nomination only if they move out of the state or are “physically unfit.”

State Elections Director Chris Thomas characterized Gilbert’s withdrawal for medical reasons as a “question of first impression” because a primary winner last did so 60 years ago. The law, he said, gives political parties the authority to decide whether a candidate can withdraw and provides “absolutely no role” for the secretary of state’s office or the elections board.

“If this person can’t campaign because they’re physically unfit, it’s hard to argue that the party ought to be stuck with that person if that person wants off,” Thomas said.

Members of the bipartisan board agreed and declined to intervene at the request of the Michigan Republican Party.

GOP lawyer Jason Hanselman had urged further investigation, saying “this process requires more than just rubber-stamping a party’s request.”

“Allowing the party to manipulate the election process opens the door to gamesmanship in future elections,” he said. He asked what would prevent a scenario in which a veteran congressman wins a primary, announces his retirement and conspires with “party bosses” to replace himself with a family member.

Before leaving the race, Gilbert — whose fame and fundraising prowess had buoyed Democrats — was forced to disavow her 2009 comments that questioned sentencing fugitive filmmaker Roman Polanski for statutory rape for having sex with a 13-year-old girl during a 1970s photo shoot.

State GOP spokeswoman Saran Anderson said the party was exploring its legal options and “not ruling anything out at this point.”

The Michigan Democratic Party, in requesting that Gilbert be replaced on the ballot, submitted health insurance records and a letter from a spine doctor saying it would take 12 weeks or longer for her to recover from a scheduled Aug. 8 surgery.

Norm Shinkle, one of two Republicans on the four-member elections board, called on lawmakers to revisit the law.

State Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon, who called the 8th a “swing district in the right year,” dismissed concerns about chicanery and cautioned against passing new legislation because of “something that happens extremely infrequently.”

“These are pretty isolated and unfortunate circumstances, particularly for Melissa, who’s got to struggle through the process of recovering from a pretty significant spinal surgery,” he said.

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Follow David Eggert at http://twitter.com/DavidEggert00 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/author/david-eggert .

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