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Far-right election denier beats Trump’s pick for Michigan GOP

Kristina Karamo, who refused to concede her run for secretary of state, beat Donald Trump’s choice for state chair in a chaotic convention

Kristina Karamo reacts as she sees more votes posted in her favor. Karamo was elected as the new chair of the Michigan Republican Party in a contentious state party convention on Saturday night. (Sarah Rice/For The Washington Post)
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LANSING, Mich. — Republicans here, reeling from a midterm election rout that many blamed on the influence of former president Donald Trump, responded Saturday by spurning the former president’s choice for state party chair — and choosing someone even more extreme.

Kristina Karamo, who refused to concede her 14-point loss for secretary of state in 2022, beat former attorney general candidate Matt DePerno, who had Trump’s endorsement, in three rounds of contentious voting. The chaotic 11-hour convention, featuring a rowdy standoff over voting procedures and 10 candidates who all ran under a pro-Trump banner, left no doubt that the bulk of the party’s activists in this key battleground state remain firmly committed to election denial and showed no interest in moderating their message to appeal to the political center.

“Conceding to a fraudulent person is agreeing with the fraud, which I will not do,” Karamo said to cheers in her campaign speech on Saturday.

The outcome also dealt a tactical defeat to Trump, even though all the candidates competed for aligning themselves with him. Many delegates said they discounted or even resented Trump’s involvement in the race, especially after a midterm cycle that saw widespread wrangling over his down-ballot endorsements in the state.

“We love Donald Trump, but he don’t live here,” said Mark Forton, another candidate for chair who endorsed Karamo.

In a Thursday speech to a right-wing “patriot” group in nearby Charlotte, Karamo argued that Christianity belonged at the core of American politics, called evolution “one of the biggest frauds ever perpetuated on society,” and asserted the existence of demons.

“When we start talking about the spiritual reality of the demonic forces, it’s like, ‘Oh, my God, this is crazy, we can’t go there,’” Karamo said. “No. It’s like, did you read the Bible? Didn’t Jesus perform exorcisms? … Scriptures are clear. And so if we’re not operating as though the spirit realities of the world exist, we’re going to fail every time.”

Republican election denier candidates lost key statewide races in the 2022 midterm elections, even as denier ranks swelled in Congress. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

In 2022, Democrats swept statewide races in Michigan and won control of both legislative chambers, achieving full statewide control for the first time since the 1980s. In 2024, the state is poised to host early primary contests and be a competitive presidential and Senate battleground.

“Do I think it destroyed the state party? For sure,” Christine Barnes, an unsuccessful state House candidate who skipped this year’s convention, said of Trump’s interventions. “And the party is a hot mess right now.”

The outcome here Saturday underscores the stark reality confronting Republicans across the country: Months after general election voters across the country rejected extreme, election-denying candidates such as Karamo, DePerno and former Arizona gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake, many party activists remain enthralled by them. Some Republicans have voiced concern that this trend could set the party back at the ballot box in future races.

Lake, who has yet to concede defeat in Arizona and has waged an unsuccessful legal fight to challenge the results of her 2022 race, has been traveling the country promoting false election claims, as she weighs a run for U.S. Senate in 2024. And Trump, in his third run for president, continues to promote false claims about the 2020 election.

Trump held a tele-rally for DePerno on Monday, calling him a “defender of election integrity.” DePerno rose to prominence as a lawyer chasing conspiracy theories in Michigan’s 2020 election; a Republican state Senate report faulted him for spreading misinformation, and he came under state investigation for allegedly tampering with voting machines.

But some delegates said they grew to doubt DePerno because, unlike Karamo, he conceded his loss in November.

“Matt ran out on us; he didn’t fight for us,” said Mark DeYoung, a delegate from Harrison, Mich., and chairman of the Clare County GOP.

Karamo led from the first ballot, increasing her lead with every round but needing three ballots to secure a majority. She won with 58 percent of the vote to DePerno’s 42 percent.

DePerno attempted to edge her out by winning support from runners-up. His campaign had prepared fliers announcing the endorsement of JD Glaser, who received 12 percent of the vote in the first round. Glaser said DePerno secured his support by offering to make him policy director.

Between the second and third ballots, DePerno attempted to make another deal with the third runner-up, veteran GOP consultant Scott Greenlee, according to people familiar with the exchange who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues. But Greenlee walked away from the offer and opted not to endorse either finalist.

Unlike at recent party elections in Arizona and the Republican National Committee, no consensus candidate emerged who could unite the party’s fractious coalition. Greenlee came closest, as an experienced operative with donor connections and pro-Trump bona fides stretching back to 2016. He also secured the endorsement of musician Ted Nugent and Ryan Kelley, a former gubernatorial candidate who has been charged in connection with the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.

But Karamo, who turned to her bid for state chair quickly after her November loss, proved to have the strongest base of support and broadest appeal. Her campaign was vague and varied on specifics for what she would do as chair, saying in her speech on Thursday that her first priority would be to “get my hands around the operation.” She made faith central to her appeal, beginning her remarks that night by saying, “My goal number one as a Christian is to bring people to Christ, and secondarily to save our country.”

Many delegates interviewed named Karamo’s faith as one of their primary attractions to her. Her nomination was seconded by Petoskey attorney Dan Hartman, who said, “It’s not about election integrity … I want you to understand that I changed my life and decided to serve Christ.” Several other candidates prominently invoked Christianity in their campaigns.

One delegate who took exception was Marla Braun, from Jackson County, who said she was “disgusted with wrapping Christianity around Republicanism” and abstained rather than vote for either Karamo or DePerno in the last round.

“The party has to know that what we put forward here is not acceptable,” Braun said.

The first several hours of the convention were taken up by an extended dispute over the how the votes would be counted, underscoring the mistrust among many delegates for both the previous party leadership and of election outcomes. “How many of us got in this fight because of flash drives and laptops?” one delegate said to cheers, arguing against using electronic equipment to record votes at the convention. With hand counts taking sometimes more than an hour for each round of voting, the convention lasted four hours longer than planned, wrapping up just before the venue was due to kick the Republicans out.

Despite his backing by the biggest name in Republican politics, DePerno ran a sluggish campaign, often seen wandering the convention hall alone. One delegate waiting to vote criticized him for using his allotted time to present a video endorsement from Trump rather than making his own speech.

DePerno also had the endorsement of Mike Lindell, the election conspiracy theorist and MyPillow CEO, and Lake. DePerno had touted Lake as a special guest at a pre-election party on Friday at a Lansing bar called the Nuthouse, but Lake did not appear. (Her aides cited a scheduling conflict.)

DePerno declined to comment.

Several members of Trump’s presidential campaign team were present to observe. The campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The state was crucial to Trump’s surprise election victory in 2016, but he lost Michigan to President Biden in 2020.

“People love to talk about President Trump in a loss mode, but he’s a king. He’s our king,” outgoing GOP co-chair Meshawn Maddock, who was supporting DePerno, said in an interview. “I’m so tired of hearing that our party has moved too far to the right. The problem is we haven’t moved far enough.”

2024 presidential candidates

Several major Republican candidates and three Democrats have officially declared they are running for their party’s 2024 presidential nomination, and plenty of others are making moves. We’re tracking 2024 presidential candidates here.

Republicans: Top contenders for the GOP 2024 nomination include former president Donald Trump, who announced in November, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Here is The Post’s ranking of the top 10 Republican presidential candidates for 2024.

Democrats: President Biden has officially announced he is running for reelection in 2024. Author Marianne Williamson and anti-vaccine advocate Robert Kennedy Jr., both long-shot candidates, are also seeking the Democratic nomination. Here is The Post’s ranking of the top 10 Democratic presidential candidates for 2024.