WASHINGTON TOWNSHIP, Mich. — Conspiracy theories and grievance permeated the crowd assembled for Donald Trump’s first rally in Michigan since his 2020 election loss, as an adoring throng of 5,000 cheered his familiar claims that the election was “rigged” and “stolen.”
While party strategists and donors in the state mobilize for a competitive fight over control of the Michigan legislature, Trump’s preferred candidates have struggled to raise funds while Democratic rivals amass cash advantages. Moreover, some Republican leaders say, the spread of election conspiracies is alienating swing voters and undermining public trust of elections.
Meanwhile, activists animated by Trump’s election claims have mobilized to target key election administration positions and challenged their own parties inner workings along the way.
“The party is following the life cycle of a star. It’s becoming denser, hotter, whiter. It’s going to implode,” said Jeff Timmer, a former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party who is a senior adviser to the Lincoln Project. He added, “Even if there were a red wave anywhere in the country, Republicans in Michigan are doing their damndest to defy it.”
The fight for control of the Michigan Republican Party will have two acts this year. Party delegates will determine the nominees for several races at an April 23 convention, where Trump-backed candidates for attorney general, Matthew DePerno, and secretary of state, Kristina Karamo, are widely expected to overcome opposition from party insiders.
Other primary races, including those for Congress and governor, will be settled by voters on August 2. In addition to DePerno and Karamo, Trump has endorsed 10 candidates for the state legislature and has weighed in on five congressional races.
Each of the candidates who appeared alongside Trump at his rally here over the weekend have embraced his debunked claims of widespread election fraud and promised to work to undo the results of the 2020 election. Biden beat Trump by about 150,000 votes in Michigan.
“It is time we storm the convention,” DePerno declared at the rally. “It is time for the grass roots to unite,” he urged. “Our opponents are bleeding support every single day.”
Republican strategists say DePerno is a prime example of problems within the party. The Trump base may love him but, they say, he faces a steep climb in posing a serious challenge to the Democratic incumbent, Dana Nessel, who has been an outspoken critic of Trump’s election claims.
DePerno’s campaign ended last year with $61,180 on hand. By contrast, his primary rival, Tom Leonard, finished 2021 with just over $665,960 in the bank. Nessel, meanwhile, had more than $1.5 million on hand.
“DePerno has shown no ability to raise money on his own and the establishment is very skeptical that he is a viable candidate,” said Jason Roe, a former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party. “If he comes out of this nominating convention the victor and can show polling that shows him competitive against Nessel, people will certainly give him a second look,” Roe said. “But I don’t think he’ll have an easy road ahead of him in doing that.”
The 2020 election is the animating issue of the Republican primary battles, with pro-Trump candidates vowing to rid the party of anyone who doesn’t step into line.
John Gibbs, a former official in the Department of Housing and Urban Development under Trump, has drawn the former president’s support for his primary challenge to Rep. Peter Meijer of Grand Rapids over his vote to impeach Trump for inciting an insurrection.
“I think there’s huge irregularities in the 2020 election, so I would say yes,” Gibbs said during an interview with The Post when asked if the 2020 election had been stolen. Gibbs called Meijer’s impeachment vote “unacceptable” and said it was his top reason for jumping into the race. At the time, Meijer said his vote may have been “an act of political suicide but it’s what I felt was necessary for the good of the country.”
The indignation expressed by many of the activists in the party has drawn increasingly pointed rebukes from Democrats in the state, who have made the anti-democratic shift of Republicans a centerpiece of their midterm campaign message.
“The threats against our democracy are truly a five-alarm fire and in that fire, Michigan is ground zero,” Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said last week during a news conference, alleging a “multiyear, coordinated and sophisticated effort to potentially overturn the results of a legitimate presidential election or other elections.”
More than 250 audits have confirmed the legitimacy of the 2020 election in Michigan. In July 2021, the Michigan Republican Party released its own study finding no widespread voter fraud in the election.
Sen. Edward McBroom, a dairy farmer who represents the state’s Upper Peninsula and was an author of the report finding no evidence of election fraud, said he is “optimistic” about democracy and trust in elections in Michigan despite the conspiracy theories overwhelming his party.
McBroom chairs the state Senate oversight committee, which has been accused of partisan investigations in the past. Last month, he and his Democratic vice chair proposed a bipartisan oversight committee as a solution to waning trust in government. The effort has gained traction on both sides of the aisle but is yet to be enacted.
“I’m very focused on what can we do to preserve the republic and the government we have and at what is eroding confidence in government,” McBroom said in an interview. “It’s about government transparency. It’s about accountability.”
Several strategists in both parties said Trump’s concerted effort to undermine faith in the 2020 election and future contests pose a corrosive threat to faith in elections across the country, with the fight within the Michigan Republican Party seen as a pivotal test site for the resonance of such falsehoods.
“What we’ve seen since 2020 from the Republican Party is very destabilizing for democracy, and the outcome of races in Michigan and across the country, especially in key battleground states for 2024, are going to determine whether we have American democracy 2025,” Timmer said.
While McBroom said the conspiratorial faction of the party may be able to win several races during the April party convention and its August primary, he remains skeptical those same candidates can win the general election.
“They’re definitely having an impact on recruiting candidates, they’re part of online discussions or shouting matches. They’re certainly not an insignificant part of the overall dialogue,” McBroom said of Republican candidates who deny the 2020 election result. “Do I think that there’s a chance that in the end, that they are able to obtain a majority of the popular vote, if that is going to be their focal point of issues? No.”
“Regardless of how people got to this point, whether its conspiracy theories or real or perceived fraud, we have to reassure them they can trust the election or we are going to have controversial elections every two years,” said Roe, who resigned as the party’s executive director after urging Republicans to move beyond Trump’s false election claims.
At the Trump rally Saturday night, audience members has different reasons for attending, including many conservative objections, including opposition to coronavirus mitigation policies and backlash against how issues of race, gender and sexuality are taught in schools. But false claims about the 2020 election unified their outrage.
“I think it was a great rally. His speech was inspiring and uplifting,” said Kathy Kempf a retired nurse from Whitmore Lake in southeastern Michigan. Kempf, 65, expressed skepticism at the legitimacy of the 2020 election, saying “there were a lot of things that were not done properly that could have swayed it the other way.”
Many attendees voiced support for the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory, which posits Trump is in secret battle with a cabal of sex-trafficking elites. “Trump will be back before 2024,” said Jill Wood, 51, a financial executive who traveled to the rally from Columbus, Ohio.
“Everyone knows there was fraud,” Wood said, referencing conspiracy theories about Dominion Voting Systems, debunked videos of people destroying ballots and ballot harvesting efforts. “There’s a lot of treason that’s happened, and those people will be held accountable.”
A previous version of this article incorrectly said that Jason Roe had been fired as executive director of the Michigan Republican Party. He resigned from the position. The article has been corrected.