The Michigan Republican Party is starving for cash. A group of prominent activists — including a former statewide candidate — was hit this month with felony charges connected to a bizarre plot to hijack election machines. And in the face of these troubles, suspicion and infighting have been running high. A recent state committee meeting led to a fistfight, a spinal injury and a pair of shattered dentures.
This turmoil is one measure of the way former President Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election have rippled through his party. While Trump has just begun to wrestle with the consequences of his fictions — including two indictments related to his attempt to overturn the 2020 results — the vast machine of activists, donors and volunteers that power his party has been reckoning with the fallout for years.
As the party looks toward the presidential election next year, the strains are glaring.
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Trump’s election lies spread like wildfire in Michigan, breaking the state party into ardent believers and pragmatists wanting to move on. Bitter disputes, power struggles and contentious primaries followed, leaving the Michigan Republican Party a husk of itself.
The battleground has steadily grown safer for Democrats. No Republican has won a statewide election there since Trump won the state in 2016. (Republicans have won nonpartisan seats on the state Supreme Court.) GOP officials in the state are growing concerned that they do not have a top-tier candidate to run for the open Senate seat.
“It’s not going real well, and all you have to do is look at the facts,” said Rep. Lisa McClain, a Republican from eastern Michigan. “The ability to raise money, we’ve got a lot of donors sitting on the sideline. That’s not an opinion. That’s a fact. It’s just a plain fact. We have to fix that.”
She added: “Everyone is in the blame game. We’ve got to stop.”
Michigan Republicans were long a force in national politics. The state was home to President Gerald Ford and Gov. George Romney and to many of the “Reagan Democrats” who helped transform the party four decades ago. Ronna McDaniel, the current chair of the Republican National Committee, was the chair of the Michigan Republican Party until 2017. Betsy DeVos, the former secretary of education under Trump who resigned after Jan. 6, 2021, is a power broker in the state, managing vast wealth and a political network with influence far beyond state lines.
The slow unraveling of the state party began well before the 2020 election. Throughout the Obama administration, the right wing of the party grew more vocal and active. After Trump’s victory in 2016, many party posts that were once controlled largely by megadonor families and the Republican establishment began to be filled by Trump acolytes.
By 2021, the new activists wanted to support only candidates who believed the 2020 election, which Trump lost in Michigan by more than 154,000 votes, was fraudulent and were committed to trying to do something about it.
Those leaders soon emerged. Matthew DePerno, a lawyer who advanced false election theories, became a folk hero in the state and ran for attorney general. Kristina Karamo, a poll worker who signed an affidavit claiming she had witnessed vote stealing, became a conservative media star and ran for secretary of state. And Meshawn Maddock, the leader of Women for Trump who organized buses to Washington on Jan. 6, became co-chair of the Michigan Republican Party.
DePerno and Karamo did not respond to requests for comment. The Michigan Republican Party did not respond to requests for comment. In a video released Monday night, Karamo defended her actions as party chair and lashed out at more moderate Republicans she claimed were part of a “uniparty.”
Their nominations exposed a rift within the party, with more moderate, traditional Republicans like the DeVos family swearing off both DePerno and Karamo and withholding funds from most of the state party. Other donors similarly expressed their frustration. County nominating conventions devolved into open conflict.
“Meshawn was never connected to the donor base, and so having her as the vice chair for a lot of us was a showstopper,” said Dave Trott, a former Republican member of Congress from Michigan who retired in 2018 and is also a former donor to the state party. “Because we just knew she would never be someone that would be rational in her approach to state party politics.”
Maddock, who is no longer involved in the party, responded to Trott, saying she was “not surprised at all that he takes no responsibility for disappointing Michigan voters or anyone.”
“The state party needs the wealthy RINOs who often fund it to come to terms with what the actual voters on the right want,” Maddock said. “Instead of constantly gaslighting the Republican base, the wealthy donors need to treat them with an ounce of respect for once.”
As standard-bearers for the state party during the 2022 midterm cycle, DePerno, Karamo and Maddock all maintained the falsehoods about the 2020 election. In their campaigns, DePerno and Karamo placed extra emphasis on the 2020 election, often at the expense of other issues more central to voters.
They were resoundingly defeated. Republicans also lost control of both chambers of the state Legislature. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic incumbent, sailed to a landslide victory.
Republicans across the state were left pointing fingers. The state party blamed Tudor Dixon, the candidate for governor, for an unpopular abortion stance and anemic fundraising. Dixon blamed state party leadership. Maddock blamed big donors for not supporting their candidates. Karamo refused to concede.
A state party autopsy days after the election, made public by Dixon, acknowledged that “we found ourselves consistently navigating the power struggle between Trump and anti-Trump factions of the party” and that Trump “provided challenges on a statewide ballot.”
Karamo, who succeeded Maddock at the helm, pledged to bring in a new donor class. But those donors never materialized. The party has lost money since Karamo took over, with under $150,000 in the bank as of June 30, according to federal campaign finance records. At the same time four years ago, the party had roughly three times as much cash on hand.
She has drawn condemnation from both Republicans and Democrats for her social media posts tying gun reforms to the Holocaust and has faced attempts to limit her power.
The party has been plagued by infighting. In April, two county leaders were involved in an altercation, with one filing a police report claiming assault, according to video obtained by Bridge Michigan. In July, a brief brawl broke out during a state party gathering. The chair of the Clare County Republican Party told police he had stress fractures in his spine, bruised ribs and broken dentures as a result of the fight.
A memo circulated this month from the executive director and general counsel of the state party, obtained by the Times, warned of a rogue meeting being advertised under the banner of the state party that was “in no manner properly connected to or arising from the true and real Michigan Republican Party.”
The issues facing the party extend beyond infighting and fundraising. This month, DePerno, as well as a former Republican state representative and a lawyer, were charged with felonies related to a plan to illegally obtain voting machines. They have pleaded not guilty.
“Tell me how that helps. Tell me how that helps get the swing voter,” McClain said. “Voters don’t care about the infighting. The swing voter wants to know, how are your policies going to help me have a better life for my family?”
Prominent Michigan Republicans appear content to let the state party wither. Former Gov. Rick Snyder, among the last Republicans elected statewide in Michigan, has begun a fundraising campaign directing money away from the state party and directly into the House Republican caucus in a desperate attempt to win back at least one chamber of the state Legislature.
(The effort bears some similarities to one Gov. Brian Kemp undertook in Georgia, another state where division over Trump’s election claims hobbled the state party.)
Snyder’s fundraising, as well as some activity from the DeVos family network, have filled the coffers of the Republican House caucus, led by Matt Hall, the minority leader in the state Legislature whom many party elites are looking to as the de facto leader. The House Republican Caucus, despite being in the minority, is outpacing the House Democratic Caucus in fundraising this year, with $2.3 million to the Democrats’ $1.7 million.
Hall also has helped fuel 2020 election doubts. (He once was the chair of a committee hearing featuring Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani spreading lies about the election.) But he is far more likely to attack Democrats on spending or “pork” projects.
Separate from Hall’s efforts, the DeVos family and other influential donors have begun raising money for congressional and state legislative races only, forgoing any presidential or Senate races, according to Jeff Timmer, a former executive director of the state party.
But the problems looming before next year’s election are not just about money.
“What can’t be replicated is the manpower infrastructure,” said Timmer, who now advises the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump group. “You can’t just go out and buy the passion and zealousness of people who will go out knock on doors and put up signs and do all those things that require human labor in a campaign.”
Prominent Republicans point to the coming Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference as a sign of how far the state party has fallen. It was once a marquee stop for presidential hopefuls looking to make an impression on the critical swing state, and not a single Republican candidate for president in 2024 is scheduled to make an appearance.
Instead, the featured speaker at the September conference will be Kari Lake, who lost her race for governor in Arizona and has since claimed her loss was marred by fraud.
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