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‘Well that was crazy’: Michigan GOP divided over election falsehoods

The nomination of two Trump devotees for top jobs has exposed a rift over how far to go in backing the former president’s claims.

Kristina Karamo, a candidate for Michigan secretary of state, attends a gathering to watch votes tallied during a GOP convention in Grand Rapids, Mich., on April 23. (Emily Elconin/Reuters)
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MIDLAND, Mich. — Long-simmering divisions within the Michigan Republican Party have spilled into public view in recent days, exposing a rift over how far to go in embracing former president Donald Trump’s false claims about election fraud and raising fears within the party that it won’t be able to unify before the November midterms.

The immediate trigger for the escalating feud came last weekend, when the party nominated a pair of leading proponents of Trump’s stolen-election theories for two of the state’s top offices.

The selection at the state convention of Matthew DePerno for attorney general and Kristina Karamo for secretary of state proved to be a breaking point for some in the party establishment, which has been waging a sustained struggle with upstarts who see themselves as more zealously committed to Trump and his agenda.

Within days, a member of a powerful party committee resigned, a normally unanimous vote to certify convention results yielded dozens of defections and a Trump-backed legislator vying for control of the state House of Representatives was expelled from the Republican caucus.

The schism between those who continue to aggressively focus on claims of election fraud and those seeking to move the party on to other issues has come to light in other states, notably in Georgia, where it has dominated the GOP primary for governor.

In Michigan, party leaders increasingly fear it could darken otherwise bright Republican prospects in November, potentially giving Democrats an advantage in key congressional races and in the contest for the state’s job jobs.

“Republicans should be poised for tremendous gains across the country,” state Republican committee member Tony Daunt wrote in a blistering resignation letter that followed the victories for DePerno and Karamo. “But not here in Michigan. Not now.”

Daunt’s resignation offered a potent signal of just how deep the divisions run. Daunt has been considered a close ally of the DeVos family, fixtures of the Michigan Republican establishment. Betsy DeVos was Trump’s secretary of education.

But in his letter, Daunt slammed the party for what he described as excessive fealty to Trump and to the cause of proving supposed fraud in the 2020 election.

“Feckless, cowardly party ‘leaders’ have made the election here in Michigan a test of who is the most cravenly loyal to Donald Trump and litigating the results of the 2020 cycle,” Daunt wrote in his letter.

In an interview, Daunt said his frustration has been building for a long time, and that the outcome of the convention was the final straw.

About 2,000 party delegates voted last Saturday at a Grand Rapids convention center to make Karamo and DePerno — both endorsed by Trump — the Republican nominees for jobs near the top of the state’s government hierarchy. The Republican nominee for governor will be chosen in an August primary.

Neither has held elected office before. Both rose to prominence by pushing baseless conspiracy theories about election fraud after Trump lost Michigan by nearly 150,000 votes in 2020.

A Kalamazoo-area attorney, DePerno spearheaded a November 2020 lawsuit filed against Antrim County over an election night tabulation error — quickly corrected — that Trump supporters have seized on in their efforts to perpetuate unfounded claims of election fraud.

He has raised tens of thousands of dollars on the back of the Antrim County lawsuit, which has been rejected in court. As a candidate, his fundraising has been far less successful and dwarfed by the war-chest of his Democratic opponent, incumbent Dana Nessel.

Karamo, who would serve as the state’s top election official if she were to win the secretary of state race against Democratic incumbent Jocelyn Benson, also gained notoriety by pushing conspiracy theories. The Oakland County Community College instructor served as an observer in Detroit during the 2020 absentee ballot count, and claimed she witnessed fraud.

Trump has said the pair are key to his plans for the next presidential election, when Michigan is expected to again be pivotal.

“This is not just about 2022,” Trump said during a rally to support their candidacies in early April. “This is about making sure Michigan is not rigged and stolen again in 2024.”

Top Michigan Democrats have already begun framing the 2022 race as a showdown over democracy, and the presence of DePerno and Karamo on the ballot is likely to give added ammunition for their claims that Republicans are intent on skewing the electoral system.

Trump allies work to place supporters in key election posts

Neither DePerno nor Karamo responded to requests for comment.

Even before the final results were tabulated at Saturday’s convention, there was drama, with delegates complaining of confusing ballots and other problems with the selection process.

“The voting system was a complete disaster, undercutting Republican claims of election integrity,” said Dennis Lennox, a conservative political commentator who manages Republican campaigns. “Even basic tenets like secret ballots were a major problem, as delegates had more privacy in the urinal than at the voting area.”

Although the outcome was not a surprise — party insiders had expected DePerno and Karamo to win — it was troubling to some because of the signal they said it sent about the party’s predilection for disrupters at all cost over those with experience.

“If you had any shred of experience, if you had any shred of competence, that was an immediate disqualifier,” said Jason Watts, a former secretary of the Allegan County Republican Party, who was a convention delegate. “The Michigan GOP just nominated two people that have no broad-based appeal.”

“There are rational people in the Michigan GOP who are looking at this and thinking, ‘Hey this is not going to end well for our candidates up and down the ballot that have to run with two candidates that will be painted as extremists,’ ” he said.

Those misgivings were laid bare the day after the convention, when the Republican state committee met to certify the results. Typically a unanimous and procedural step, this year there was dissent, with 63 committee members voting in favor and 24 against.

The repercussions continued on Tuesday, when Republican leadership in the state’s House of Representatives removed Rep. Matt Maddock — whom Trump had backed for speaker — from the caucus, allegedly for sharing confidential information.

Maddock had championed Trump-supporting primary challengers seeking to unseat Republican incumbents in the legislature. Just before getting pushed from the caucus, he sent out a campaign email stressing the need to “get behind the ENTIRE Trump ticket.”

“That is the ultimate taboo,” said Bill Ballenger, a former Republican state legislator, referring to Maddock’s embrace of candidates seeking to dethrone fellow GOP incumbents. “I think the Republicans just decided we’ve just got a cancer eating us from within and we’ve got to get rid of it.”

Maddock put a positive spin on his expulsion.

“I had one of the best fundraising days in my entire life yesterday,” Maddock told reporters.

Meanwhile, a mobile electronic billboard showed up on the Capitol grounds, with slogans such as “Michigan wants Maddock.” It also displayed a photoshopped picture of Republican House Speaker Jason Wentworth and the phrase “Demon Wentworth Attacks Real G.O.P. Heroes.”

Maddock’s wife, Meshawn Maddock, is co-chair of the state Republican Party and is also an ardent Trump supporter. Both Maddocks endorsed DePerno and Karamo.

Daunt’s decision to quit the party committee took many in the GOP by surprise, including Ballenger, who called it “a signal that things there are a lot more divisive than anybody’s been talking about.”

Daunt had used his position as executive director of the Michigan Freedom Fund, a conservative organization backed by Betsy and Dick DeVos, to encourage acceptance of the 2020 election results.

But that stance put him in opposition with many of the party’s rank-and-file.

“I strongly believe in election integrity. What I don’t believe in is making false claims about the results of an election and not having the evidence to back it up,” he said in the interview.

Daunt said he did not attend Saturday’s convention, in part because he knew what the atmosphere would be. “​​I just couldn’t take the negative energy,” he said.

Daunt had served on the Republican state committee for five years. Increasingly, he said, state committee meetings had become chaotic, with members often bickering over resolved issues.

“It’s kind of like a microcosm of just the same desire to re-litigate the 2020 election,” he said. “My daughter went with me to one of the previous meetings and when we were leaving, she said, ‘Well that was crazy.’ ”