For Republican supporters of Donald Trump in Michigan, it seemed like a crowning moment: The state party chose two candidates endorsed by the former president, both outspoken preachers of 2020 election falsehoods, as its contenders for the state’s top law enforcement officer and its chief of election administration.
But instead, that move at a convention last weekend — where Republicans officially endorsed Matthew DePerno for attorney general and Kristina Karamo for secretary of state — has ruptured the Michigan Republican Party. After months of strain, it appears to finally be snapping as what remains of the old guard protests the party’s direction.
This week, Tony Daunt, a powerful figure in Michigan politics with close ties to the influential donor network of the DeVos family, resigned from the GOP’s state committee in a blistering letter, calling Trump “a deranged narcissist.” Major donors to the state party indicated that they would direct their money elsewhere. And one of Trump’s most loyal defenders in the state Legislature was kicked out of the House Republican caucus.
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The repudiation of the election-denying wing of the party by other Republicans in Michigan represents rare public pushback from conservatives against Trump’s attempts to force candidates across the country to support his claims of a rigged 2020 vote. That stance has become a litmus test for GOP politicians up and down the ballot as Trump adds to his slate of more than 150 endorsements this election cycle.
Yet some Republicans in Michigan and beyond worry that a singular, backward-looking focus on the 2020 election is a losing message for the party in November.
“Rather than distancing themselves from this undisciplined loser,” Daunt wrote in his resignation letter, “far too many Republican ‘leaders’ have decided that encouraging his delusional lies — and, even worse — cynically appeasing him despite knowing they are lies, is the easiest path to ensuring their continued hold on power, general election consequences be damned.
“Whether it’s misguided true belief, cynical cowardice, or just plain old grift and avarice,” Daunt continued in the letter, which was addressed to a Republican colleague, “it’s a losing strategy and I cannot serve on the governing board of a party that’s too stupid to see that.”
Daunt’s resignation shocked party insiders in Michigan, in part because of his close ties to Dick and Betsy DeVos, prominent conservative donors who have often acted as kingmakers in state Republican politics and have marshaled millions of dollars through their political arm, the Michigan Freedom Fund. Betsy DeVos served in Trump’s Cabinet as education secretary.
Jeff Timmer, a former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party and critic of Trump, said of Daunt’s letter, “Him taking a step like this is indicative of where their thinking is.” Timmer added, “It seems highly unlikely that he would do this and tell them afterward when they read it in the press.”
A spokesperson for the Michigan Freedom Fund did not respond to a request for comment. But some people within the DeVos network have also expressed frustrations about the direction of the state party, though they still want Republicans to do well in November, according to two people who have spoken with donors connected to the network and who insisted on anonymity to discuss private conversations.
In an interview Thursday morning, Trump disputed that a lasting focus on the 2020 election might hurt Republicans in November.
“I think it’s good for the general election because it’s made people very angry to get out and vote,” he said. He declined to say whether he would provide financial backing for DePerno or Karamo, though he praised DePerno as a “bulldog” and called Karamo “magnetic.”
Trump declined to comment on the DeVos network, saying only of Betsy DeVos, who resigned from his administration after the Capitol riot, “She was fine, but the one that I really liked in that family was the father, who was essentially the founder.” (Betsy DeVos’ father, Richard M. DeVos, who died in 2018, was also a major Republican donor.)
The most recent campaign-finance reports for the state party show that some big-dollar contributors have shifted their giving.
“A lot of the traditional donors, they just walked away,” said John Truscott, a Republican strategist in Michigan. “I don’t know how it survives long term.”
By the end of 2021, campaign finance reports show, the number of direct contributions greater than $25,000 to the Michigan Republicans had dwindled. The money the party took in included $175,000 in November from Ron Weiser, the party’s megadonor chair.
Weiser, who drew criticism last year when he joked about assassinating two Republican congressmen who voted to impeach Trump, gave the party at least $1.3 million for the cycle, according to the reports.
In an email Wednesday, Gustavo Portela, a spokesperson for the Michigan Republican Party, said it was financially sound and cited the generosity of Weiser, saying he had committed to give and raise “the money we believe is necessary in order to win in November.”
But the names of other prolific donors, like Jeffrey Cappo, an auto-dealership magnate and philanthropist, no longer appeared in the reports for late 2021.
Cappo said Wednesday that he had found other avenues to give money to Republicans.
“Our political state,” Cappo said, “is more dysfunctional than it’s ever been.”
He said of Trump, “I think the guy really, really cared, but he cares more about himself than anybody else.”
Republican divisions had been growing for weeks before the state party convention last weekend. And frustrations with Meshawn Maddock, a co-chair of the state party with close ties to Trump, boiled over as she endorsed candidates before the convention, including DePerno and Karamo.
DePerno, a lawyer who challenged the election results in Antrim County, has pledged to investigate “all the fraud that occurred in this election,” including inquiries of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Attorney General Dana Nessel, all Democrats.
Karamo rose to prominence after challenging the state’s 2020 results as a poll worker, arguing that she had witnessed fraud. Her claims were later debunked, but she quickly gained fame in conservative circles.
When DePerno and Karamo all but clinched their nominations, it was not through a traditional party primary. Michigan instead nominates many statewide offices through a convention system, in which party activists serve as “precinct chairs” and vote on the nomination.
The campaigns for Karamo and DePerno did not respond to requests for comment.
Amid the fallout from the convention, Matt Maddock, a Republican state representative whom Trump had supported to become speaker next year, was pushed out of the House Republican caucus this week.
A spokesperson for Jason Wentworth, the current state House speaker and a Republican, confirmed in an email Wednesday that Matt Maddock had been “removed” from the Republican caucus. He declined to give a reason, saying he was not authorized to discuss internal business. On the website of the Michigan House Republicans, a member page for Matt Maddock had been removed.
Matt Maddock’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment. Nor did Meshawn Maddock, a chair of the Michigan Republican Party and Matt Maddock’s wife.
The Maddocks had been vocal supporters of Trump-aligned Republican candidates before the convention, including some Republican challengers to incumbents in the Legislature.
“When you’re a member of a team, you can’t expect the benefit of being on that team while you’re simultaneously trying to trip your teammates,” said Jase Bolger, a Republican former speaker of the Michigan House. “So it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect him to remain on that team while he’s out actively opposing his teammates.”
Removing Matt Maddock from the House Republican caucus does not doom his reelection chances, but it will make it harder for him to raise money and maintain influence. Of course, outside money from groups allied with Trump could help offset any loss in fundraising for Matt Maddock, the state party or other candidates aligned with the former president.
Despite the chaos, veteran Michigan Republicans are still bullish on the coming elections, provided the party’s message shifts.
“We need to return to focusing on issues, on principles, on empowering people and turn away from the divisiveness and personalities,” Bolger said, “and certainly need to focus on 2022 and not 2020.”
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