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Republican Party

'Dysfunctional dumpster fire': Michigan Republicans chart a path forward after power struggle

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – Every attendee to the Michigan Republican Party’s official convention Saturday had it emblazoned on the badges that hung around their necks: “Up from the ashes.”

The organization is attempting to unite around former President Donald Trump and move on from deep divisions that have led to an ousted chair, a legal battle, and nearly empty campaign coffers heading into a presidential election year in a pivotal swing state.

It’s unclear whether that optimism will yield success: A rump convention of dissidents to take place in Detroit Saturday was dissolved last-minute after a court ruling. Two other gatherings popped up in its place, as backers of former chair Kristina Karamo – who still claims to be the rightful Michigan GOP party leader – met after being refused credentials to the Grand Rapids convention for missing the registration deadline.

Delegates from those meetings won’t be recognized by the Republican National Committee at its convention in Milwaukee this summer. So some party members from Michigan’s 1st and 4th Congressional districts came to Grand Rapids instead, hoping their votes would count. 

Former U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, the new Chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, speaks with reporters at the Michigan GOP State Convention on March 2, 2024 in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

After speaking with members of one of those divided districts Saturday, newly-crowned party chair Pete Hoekstra told ˽ýӳ his message was straightforward.

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“Send the message to anybody in your community: If you want to work with us to make Republicans successful in November, the door is open. We want you.”

GOP screaming match

There’s still a ways to go. Most attendees to Saturday’s convention who spoke with ˽ýӳ were hopeful the drama is in the past, and most of the caucuses went off without a hitch. But at least one devolved into a screaming match, and some Karamo-camp attendees were denied the chance to vote from their peers who say they hadn't registered in time.

The split isn’t about loyalty to Trump – that much is clear from the former president winning 98% of the delegate’s votes.

Instead, it reflects a different growing pain within the modern GOP: Tension between party stalwarts who have funded, run or won elections in the past, and activists who see them as a cabal set on protecting establishment interests.

“They’ve purged those people” who have experience winning elections, said 3rd District delegate Keary Sawyer, 72, a lawyer from Grand Rapids Township whose father was a congressman and who has been involved in the Michigan GOP for years. 

“Boom, we’re out. Well that’s OK, you can purge us all you want as long as you’re going to go out and win elections and raise money. But they didn’t do it.”

Jim Copas is a staunch Karamo ally and former executive director of the Michigan GOP. He resigned his position a few weeks ago over frustrations with the leadership change. He said the divisions are “not about conservative values or liberal values.”

“It’s about keeping the system going the way it’s been going for a long time in a two party system where deals are cut in dark rooms,” he said. “That’s business as usual. That’s what the grassroots pushed back against. And what you saw today was the establishment stealing an election.”

Kristina Karamo speaks to Michigan Republican Party delegates Feb. 18, 2023, in Lansing, Mich.

A ‘dysfunctional dumpster fire’

Karamo rose to prominence in 2020 as a vocal proponent of the unfounded theory that Trump won that year’s presidential election. She ran for Secretary of State in 2022 as part of a statewide wave of election deniers who gained Trump’s endorsement. When she lost to incumbent Sec. Jocelyn Benson, she refused to concede. She also made headlines for some of her outlandish conspiracy theories, including saying that celebrities like Beyonce, and Cardi B were peddlers of paganism and that Jay-Z was a Satanist.

Democrats won big that year. They swept the top statewide offices and, for the first time in 40 years, took control of the state House and Senate. (As Hoekstra puts it: “We got our clocks cleaned.”)

Karamo was elected as chair in early 2023 and, over the course of the following months, allegations of financial mismanagement dogged the Michigan GOP.

They took out a loan to fly Jim Caviezel, an actor in the films "Sound of Freedom" and "The Passion of the Christ," to the party’s annual policy conference on Mackinac Island when it was unclear they could even afford to host the gathering – which had sparse attendance Karamo blamed on the “deep state.”

They used $263,000 in campaign funds from the RNC for party expenses instead of campaigns, prompting a wrist slap from the national party. By the end of the year, they had and more than $884,000 in debts between the federal and state campaign funds.

“That’s nonsense,” Copas said in response to the allegations of financial mismanagement. “The history in Michigan is donating money to the party with strings attached. One of the redeeming qualities of Kristina is she’s incorruptible – as a consequence, she would not accept donations with strings attached.”

The Michigan Republican Party convention in Grand Rapids was mostly calm, with the exception of one caucus that broke out into a squabble over the district chair.

Karamo did not respond to an interview request for this story.

A group of Republicans voted to oust Karamo over financial concerns in January. But only a portion of the state committee attended, and Karamo challenged it in court. A judge ruled against her earlier this week, though she is likely to appeal.

In the interim, another group of party members elected Pete Hoekstra as their new chair, a former GOP congressman from west Michigan who was former President Donald Trump's ambassador to the Netherlands.

Trump endorsed Hoekstra and the RNC in mid-February.

“It is a dysfunctional dumpster fire,” said Richard Czuba, founder of nonpartisan Michigan-based polling firm Glengariff Group. “Not one thing occurring right now at the state GOP will help them to elect candidates. Nothing.”

Charting a path forward

Inside the Amway Grand Central Hotel Saturday, most people were ready to shed the drama of the past year.

“We’re the closest we’ve ever been” to putting it behind us, said state Rep. Matt Hall, the House minority leader. 

Amid the discord, other state Republicans started getting worried that the party operation wouldn’t be up to the task of electing conservatives in a swing state where just a handful of votes can impact the results. With the help of former Gov. Rick Snyder, the state House and Senate GOP arms stepped in to raise money for candidates under the assumption the party would continue to be in disarray. 

Hoekstra’s leadership is “an enormous boost” to bring the party back into the mix, said Hall, who was a part of those efforts. 

Former U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra (left), the new Chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, watches voting results being posted at the MI GOP State Convention on March 2, 2024 in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

“You take the Republican base and then you bring back all these individuals that have traditionally given to the party who are unifying around the idea that we need that balance,” he said. “What you’re seeing here today is a major milestone in that movement.”

Multiple party members said their hopes for the fall haven’t been dimmed, in part because there is at least one thing most people in the party can get behind: Reelecting Trump, who is leading in the most recent polls in the state he narrowly won in 2016 and lost in 2020.

Marian Sheridan, the party’s vice-chair for grassroots organizing, said the base “was very empowered” by Karamo, but they understand the importance of the task ahead.

“Once President Trump becomes the official candidate I think that will be a really uniting message across all the grassroots,” Sheridan said. “The focus will totally be on winning that election.”

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