Michigan G.O.P. Installs Kristina Karamo, an Election Denier, as Leader
LANSING, Mich. — Michigan Republicans on Saturday picked Kristina Karamo to lead the party in the battleground state, fully embracing an election-denying Trump acolyte after her failed bid for statewide office, one in which she unsuccessfully sued to throw out mail-in votes in Detroit and refused to concede.
Ms. Karamo won a majority of delegate votes at the state party’s convention in Lansing, the state capital, after three rounds of voting that — slowed by paper ballots and hand counting — went on hours longer than the period for which the party had originally rented the convention space.
Her victory appeared to be an upset of Matthew DePerno, another vocal champion of former President Donald J. Trump’s election falsehoods who had his backing in the leadership contest.
Despite Mr. Trump’s endorsement of her rival, Ms. Karamo’s victory in some ways signaled an even stronger recommitment to Mr. Trump as the state party’s north star: One of the biggest flourishes of applause from the crowd of more than 2,000 delegates came when Ms. Karamo reminded them of her refusal to concede the secretary of state’s race.
Both Ms. Karamo and Mr. DePerno lost resoundingly last fall: Ms. Karamo by 14 points and Mr. DePerno, in his bid for attorney general, by eight percentage points. They were among a number of Trump-backed candidates who were rejected by Michigan voters during the midterm elections.
The fractured state G.O.P. now appears to have either purged or alienated more moderate voices and is plotting a defiant course as the 2024 presidential election approaches.
“We cannot wait to get work done as one Michigan Republican Party,” Ms. Karamo said in brief remarks minutes before 8 p.m. Eastern time, when the delegates were set to be ushered out of the convention space.
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The party’s hard-right transformation has exasperated more traditional Republicans, who said in interviews before Saturday’s vote that refusal to heed the lessons of the midterms would deepen the competition gap politically and financially between the G.O.P. and Democrats in a battleground state.
Former Representative Peter Meijer, whom Republican primary voters ousted last year after he voted to impeach Mr. Trump after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, said in a recent interview that the state party was on the wrong track.
“In our state, this civil war is benefiting no one but the Democrats,” he said. “Part of what the Republican Party in the state of Michigan needs to get back to is being a broad tent. To me, the fundamental challenge is, how do you rebuild trust in the state party after losses like we saw in November?”
Democrats swept the governor’s race and other statewide contests last fall, in addition to flipping the full Legislature for the first time in decades.
“Sadly, it looks like they want an encore,” said former Representative Fred Upton, a Republican who declined to run for re-election last year after also voting to impeach Mr. Trump.
Both Ms. Karamo and Mr. DePerno had called for reinventing the party’s donor base to include more grass-roots supporters, a departure from recent history when Michigan Republicans had become reliant on prolific donors like Ron Weiser, the party’s departing chairman, and the powerful DeVos family. But the party’s financial reserves have dwindled.
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Meshawn Maddock, the party’s departing co-chair, has attributed Republican losses in the state to the lack of support from longstanding donors, saying in a private briefing in November that big donors would rather “lose this whole state” than help the party’s candidates because they “hate” Mr. Trump, The Detroit News reported. Ms. Maddock did not respond to requests for comment.
Both Mr. DePerno and Ms. Karamo were badly out-raised by their opponents in last year’s election, raising questions about their ability to mine cash from political donors.
“Donors have said, ‘we’re not buying the crazies that you’re selling,’” said Jeff Timmer, a senior adviser for the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump group, and a former Republican who previously served as executive director of the Michigan Republican Party.
Some current and former Republican leaders in the state have suggested that Betsy DeVos, Mr. Trump’s estranged former education secretary who raised the idea of using the 25th Amendment to have him removed from office after the Capitol riot, is pulling back from the state party.
The DeVos family did not marshal dollars for Ms. Karamo and Mr. DePerno last year, but it did pour $2.9 million into a super PAC supporting Tudor Dixon, a Trump-endorsed Republican who lost the governor’s race, according to campaign finance records, and it gave at least $1 million to Michigan Republicans during the most recent campaign cycle.
Nick Wasmiller, a spokesman for the DeVos family, said they “invest based on enduring first principles, not fleeting flash points of the day” and in “those they believe have a serious and credible plan to win.”
While Mr. DePerno had nabbed the big-name endorsements, including that of Mike Lindell, the MyPillow chief executive who has sowed conspiracy theories about election fraud, it was Ms. Karamo’s fan base that ultimately delivered her the victory. And to them, her refusal to accept defeat last fall seemed to be a factor.
“To a lot of us, that makes her somewhat of a heroine,” said Mark Forton, a Trump loyalist who dropped out of the chairman race and said he would support Ms. Karamo instead. Mr. DePerno eventually did concede his defeat in the attorney general’s race.
Ms. Karamo also gained attention in November for leading Republicans in the filing of an 11th-hour lawsuit that was rejected by a Detroit judge, who said it would have resulted in disenfranchising tens of thousands of Detroit voters who had already cast absentee ballots. The judge said that Ms. Karamo and the other plaintiffs had produced “no evidence in support of their allegations” that the city’s procedures for handling absentee ballots were corrupt and violated state law.
But Mr. DePerno’s legal entanglements — including the open investigation into his role in accessing voting machines after the 2020 election — had also burnished his standing with right-wing stalwarts, according to Mr. Timmer, the Lincoln Project adviser.
Last August, Michigan’s attorney general, Dana Nessel, a Democrat who went on to defeat Mr. DePerno in the November election, asked for a special prosecutor to be appointed to consider criminal charges against him and eight other election deniers in connection with what Ms. Nessel characterized as the illegal tampering with voting machines used in the 2020 election.
Ms. Nessel referred to Mr. DePerno as “one of the prime instigators of the conspiracy,” but said it would not be appropriate for her to conduct an investigation into her political opponent. A consultant for Mr. DePerno, Patrick Lee, declined to answer questions about the status of the inquiry. Mr. DePerno, a lawyer, has maintained that he did not break the law.
D.J. Hilson, the special prosector in the case, an elected Democrat from Muskegon County, said in an email on Feb. 10 that the investigation was still open. He declined to comment further and would not say whether Mr. DePerno had been subpoenaed.
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