Leaderless Michigan GOP seeks new direction in chair race

The Michigan Republican Party is set to elect its next chair at Saturday's spring convention from a 10-candidate field after the party suffered sweeping losses in the state in the 2022 midterms

Joey Cappelletti
Saturday 18 February 2023 06:26 GMT
Michigan Republicans Leadership
Michigan Republicans Leadership

The Michigan Republican Party is set to elect its next chair Saturday from a field led by far-right candidates after sweeping losses to Democrats in last year's midterms left Republicans powerless in the state government and the party in disarray.

The winner, inheriting a state party torn apart by infighting and millions in debt, will be tasked with helping the party win back control of the Legislature and flip one of the nation’s most competitive Senate seats while attempting to help a presidential candidate win the battleground state.

Republican delegates will vote to select the party’s next leader during a spring convention Saturday in Lansing. The highest-profile candidates in the 10-candidate field are Matthew DePerno and Kristina Karamo, two of the state's loudest election conspiracists who lost by wide margins for top statewide offices in the 2022 midterms.

Other candidates vying for the position include two county GOP chairs, a political consultant, a real estate agent, an information technology specialist and other political newbies.

DePerno is considered the favorite to win and has been endorsed by former President Donald Trump, along with other far-right GOP leaders Michael Flynn and Kari Lake, after losing the attorney general race. Hanging over his bid is an investigation by a special prosecutor reviewing whether to criminally charge DePerno and others for attempting to gain access to voting machines after the 2020 election.

Karamo seeks to lead the party after losing her secretary of state race by double-digits with a campaign centered on election conspiracies. In her campaign announcement for the chair, Karamo said the state is on “the precipice of tyranny, which voting alone will not be able to overcome.”

With a field dominated by grassroots activist candidates running on far-right messaging, many longtime Michigan Republicans have already given up on the state party that was once one of the best-funded in the country.

“We lost the entire statehouse for the first time in 40 years, in large part, because of the top of the ticket. All deniers. It turned off a lot of voters,” former longtime Republican U.S. Rep. Fred Upton said. “As I look at the state convention, it looks like it could be could well be more of the same.”

The party may take “a cycle or two to correct itself and to get out of the ditch that we’ve been in for the last couple of years,” Upton told The Associated Press.

The state party previously has been led by former U.S. Sen. Spencer Abraham, former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and current national Republican Party Chair Ronna McDaniel. The party built a large volunteer base of grassroots activists, former Chair Bobby Schostak said, while also raising “$30 to $35 million each cycle."

In Schostak's four years as party chair from 2011 to 2015, Republicans won control of the Legislature and the state elected a Republican governor, Rick Snyder, for the first time in eight years. Trump won the state in the 2016 presidential election.

Democrats now control all levels of power for the first time since the 1980s. They won control of both houses of the Legislature and defeated Republicans by significant margins for governor, attorney general and secretary of state in the 2022 midterms.

Longtime donors withheld millions in donations as the Republican party grew increasingly loyal to Trump, nominating his handpicked candidates, DePerno and Karamo. Tudor Dixon, who lost her race for governor to Whitmer, said her campaign was hurt by the state party not having as much money as in the past.

“I’d love to say that it is just a movement of going and knocking doors. But you’ve got to be able to put the money behind it,” Dixon said.

Following the midterms, Michigan GOP Chair Ron Weiser and co-Chair Meshawn Maddock said they would not seek reelection.

The winner at Saturday's convention will need to prove “they have the capability to be good stewards of the donor money,” said Schostak, now a major Republican donor in Michigan and nationally.

If donors once again decide in large numbers not to give to the state party, they will need to find other ways of helping candidates ahead of a 2024 presidential election in which Republicans will look to flip the state House and win a U.S. Senate seat for the first time in more than two decades.

“The state party’s a little bit weaker, and they’re not going to have the influence in races that they had before,” state House Republican Floor Leader Bryan Posthumus noted. “That being said, there are a lot of other avenues to pick up that slack and to make sure that we are still effective with or without the party.”

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