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The Michigan State GOP Doubles Down on Losing

Its new leader, Kristina Karamo, is an election denier and conspiracist who wants to steer the party away from moderate donors and swing voters—and straight toward extreme MAGA.
by Jim Swift
February 21, 2023
The Michigan State GOP Doubles Down on Losing
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer (Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images)

As recently as 2016, Michigan seemed to be on the verge of losing its swing-state balance and falling into the arms of the GOP, in the process becoming more like its reviled neighbor, Ohio. That year, Donald Trump became the first Republican presidential candidate to win the state since George H.W. Bush twenty-four years earlier. The state party took stock of the moment, sensed an opportunity to pull the blueish state to their side on a longer-term basis, and decided to do so by doubling down on the only electoral strategy that appeared to them to have worked: a further dizzying shot of 200-proof MAGA.

Instead of falling into their arms under the influence of this approach, though, Michigan has, in a manner of speaking, vomited the state GOP’s poisonous offering back in their faces.

In 2016, Michigan Republicans had the state’s governorship and nine seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, while Democrats had five of the House seats and both seats in the U.S. Senate. Now, seven years later, rising star Gretchen Whitmer is consolidating her power following a decisive re-election. Democrats flipped both chambers of the state legislature, gaining three seats in the state House and four in the state Senate, producing a Democratic governing trifecta for the first time since 1982. In Congress, House Democrats now hold seven seats to the GOP’s six (one of the state’s seats disappeared in the reapportionment following the 2020 census), and the party still claims both of the state’s U.S. senators.

In the race for the state attorney general position last year, Democratic incumbent Dana Nessel beat GOP challenger Matt DePerno, who pushed for a MAGA takeover of the local- and state-level Republican party, by 8 points. To his credit, DePerno at least conceded. Kristina Karamo—a political novice and all-purpose conspiracist who lost by 14 points to Democratic incumbent Jocelyn Benson in the secretary of state contest—never conceded.

But that wasn’t the end of the road for these losers, who appear to believe defeat should not deflate egos or damper expectations or deflect plans for running again. (You might say they were full of the “Beto spirit.”) Both DePerno and Karamo ran to become chair of the Michigan Republican Party, a position once held by Ronna McDaniel.

Karamo, a former community college instructor who allegedly tried to kill her husband, kids, and herself by crashing their car while her husband was driving, received Trump’s endorsement in her disastrous fall campaign. DePerno, who is facing the possibility of criminal charges for breaching voting machines in 2020, had Trump’s backing in the state party leadership race.

Can you guess which failed Trump endorsee Michigan Republicans chose?

If you guessed “the more extreme candidate who also lost their statewide race by a larger margin,” you guessed correctly: The Michigan state GOP’s new chairwoman is Kristina Karamo, an ardent disbeliever in QAnon who nonetheless spoke at one of their conferences. She even agrees with some of their most outrageous beliefs. Credit where it’s due, she apparently thinks, They might be wrong about JFK Jr. coming back, but they’re bang-on about elites drinking the blood of children to live longer.

President Trump congratulated her, calling her a “powerful and fearless Election Denier.” One gets the sense that when it comes to denying elections for the state GOP, Karamo has only just gotten started by losing her own.

The party, which is broke, had to extend its venue rental for the annual meeting in part because it decided to require a hand count for every vote, the better to guarantee election integrity.

Big donors are none too happy about the state GOP’s new direction and have largely abandoned the party. (According to the also-ran, DePerno, “no one will fund this party [if Karamo wins]. . . . It will be a car without gas, and it will die.” Karamo doesn’t seem to care about all that, pushing for a strategy that embraces the grassroots at the cost of the big donors.

This movie last played in Arizona, whose state GOP elected Kelli Ward to become chair in 2019 on the strength of her two primary losses in U.S. Senate races (including one in 2016 to John McCain). Ward then presided over a disastrous 2022 election, in a state where Republicans have long fared well.

Likewise, the Michigan GOP’s 2022 slate of candidates, blown out in the midterms, was the result of the party “doubling up on dumb,” as Jimmy Greene, executive director of the Associated Builders and Contractors Association of Michigan, put it. Longtime Michigan congressman Fred Upton, recently retired, told the New York Times: “Sadly, it looks like they want an encore.”

The billionaire DeVos family, kingmakers in Michigan GOP politics, put almost $3 million into a super PAC supporting failed gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon, but they didn’t put up a dime in support of either Karamo or DePerno. A spokesperson for the family, Nick Wasmiller, says that the family “invest based on enduring first principles, not fleeting flash points of the day,” and further, intimated that they support only serious candidates, Tudor Dixon notwithstanding. That latter qualification evidently excludes those leading the state party today.

This doesn’t sound good for the Michigan GOP, whose only star is Rep. John James, a freshman House member whose 2022 victory followed unsuccessful bids for the Senate in 2018 and 2020. He won his seat by less than 2,000 votes.

Scott VanSingel, a former state representative, said:

It’s just insulting to see what’s happened in the last cycle or two, where people like me—and there’s millions of us that are in the same scenario—are told you’re not welcome in this party. You’re not a true Republican. . . . And I still keep trying to figure out what is the definition at this point. It continues to evolve and move.

He concludes: “The party has just changed into something that I’m not. And that probably most of us are not.”

VanSingel should take heart. Even though the state GOP’s new chair, Karamo, is sprinting away from donor money and the possibility of growing her party’s appeal to moderates and swing voters, she claims to see a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s a bright light. It’s loud, too, and getting louder. It even appears to be racing right for her.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.