Michigan’s Republican Party is grappling with disunity and disarray as it looks to regain lost political ground ahead of 2024.
The state party is facing a slew of negative headlines painting a picture of warring factions in dire financial straits. Last week, reports surfaced that an alleged fight broke out between allies of the party’s new chair, Kristina Karamo, and her former opponent for the position, Matthew DePerno.
On top of that, Karamo has faced criticism of her own from both inside and outside the GOP for a number of remarks, including for comparing gun control restrictions to the treatment of Jewish people during the Holocaust.
“I think the state party is dead,” former Rep. Dave Trott (R-Mich.) told The Hill.
The barrage of negative press has many Michigan Republicans worried that the state of the party will hinder their efforts in what is expected to be a major political battleground next year.
Last week, video surfaced of a confrontation that turned physical between Kalamazoo Republican Party Chair Kelly Sackett, a DePerno ally, and Macomb County GOP Secretary Melissa Pehlis, a Karamo ally. According to Bridge Michigan, the two local party officials were clashing over an alleged move by Sackett to remove Karamo backers from the Kalamazoo Republican Party. The incident allegedly took place at a hotel bar the night before a Michigan GOP leadership summit, and local police were called.
“I think the rifts are deep and it’s going to become increasingly problematic,” said Jason Cabel Roe, a GOP strategist and former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party. “What they should do and what they are doing are two different things. Obviously, you want to unite under a common banner, but right now there’s no faction within the party that’s particularly interested in uniting.”
There are also questions about the cash-strapped state party’s ability to fundraise ahead of a presidential year. The party reported a $2.3 million debt in its state campaign as of November of last year, according to Bridge Michigan.
Meanwhile, Democrats swept the state in last year’s midterm elections, with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) winning reelection and down-ballot Democrats taking complete control of both of the state’s legislatures. The impact of those victories on Michigan has been striking. Earlier this month, Whitmer signed stricter gun control restrictions into law and struck down a 1931 abortion ban.
“Losing control of any of the branches of government puts you in a vulnerable spot, but I don’t think anyone foresaw the aggressiveness that Democrats would be steamrolling through a very progressive legislative agenda,” Roe said.
And Democrats say they are full-steam ahead going into 2024, hoping to fill Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s (D-Mich.) seat with another Democrat and continue to make gains down ballot.
Republicans critical of the state party have expressed doubt that they will be able to right the ship given the party’s financial issues and infighting.
“If I was [Rep. Elissa] Slotkin [D-Mich.], I would start to think about what committees I want to be on,” Trott said. “There’s no Republican that will be able to challenge Slotkin, and there’s no state party organization that can organize the grassroots or raise money for any statewide candidate.”
Other Republicans are not as convinced the situation is as cut and dry, arguing that GOP candidates do not have to be completely reliant on their state party.
“The party is the infrastructure, the party is the coordinating body, it’s helpful to have a good, strong party, but it’s not unusual to have people work around the party,” said former Michigan GOP Chair Saul Anuzis, who chaired the party from 2005 to 2009. “We’ve had infighting since I’ve been involved since the late ‘70s so this is not unique. You’ve got a contentious race, you’ve got a divided grassroots, and you’ve got a lot of questions with regard to the ability to raise money and put something together to be helpful.”
When asked about Karamo’s leadership, Anuzis pointed out that she’s only two months into the job.
“The new chairman has got to get her feet on the ground and figure out how she’s going to run the party and what she’s going to do,” Anuzis said. “Clearly she’s coming from the outside, so she’s got more challenges.”
Karamo echoed this sentiment in an interview with The Hill.
“Those divisions existed long before I became chair,” Karamo said. “The individuals claiming that somehow I’m responsible, that’s nonsense. I’ve only been chair for two months.”
Karamo defeated DePerno and nine other Republicans in the race to lead the state party in February. Former President Trump backed DePerno in the race, but Trump and Karamo are still considered allies.
The state party chairwoman said she is working to smooth over those divisions through bringing Republicans together under the party’s umbrella.
“My philosophy is I don’t entertain conflict or petty grievances because if you have a large organization or a large group with thousands of people, you’re going to have people disagree and have conflict. It’s all about how you handle it,” she said.
“We are looking to work with anyone who is actually concerned about the issues that are facing our children and who wants to solve problems,” she continued. “I do not have a vindictive nature or an agenda, nor am I looking to pay people back or put people down or exclude people from the party. My objective is to bring all Republicans together to fight for our country.”
Still, Karamo is considered a controversial figure in Michigan politics and has been the subject of negative national headlines. In addition to her comments comparing on gun control, CNN reported that in 2020 Karamo said abortion is “child sacrifice” and a “satanic practice.”
Karamo says the stories written up about her by mainstream outlets show that the media is “obsessed” with her.
“I don’t think there’s any state chair, whether Republican or Democrat, that gets as much media coverage as me,” Karamo said. “It’s because these individuals are terrified of a person who actually wants to solve problems in government and not just fuel the controversy and the decline of this country.”
And Karamo has staunch backers within Michigan’s Republican sphere who argue that establishment and moderate forces within the party are targeting Karamo and her allies.
“All we want is for our party to follow its platform,” Lisa Mankiewicz, vice chairwoman of the Macomb County GOP, told The Hill during a joint interview with Macomb County Chairman Mark Forton. “If they’re true Republicans, they will respect and follow and honor our platform and our constitution and they’re not all doing that.”
When asked if they could name which Republicans they were talking about, Forton accused Democrats of diluting the state’s GOP presence through its open primary.
“Every time we get a Republican governor, it’s a liberal governor,” Forton said. “Democrats move into our primary, they vote for who they like.”
The Michigan GOP has floated the possibility of changing its presidential primary to a closed caucus or a convention. Karamo said discussions surrounding that decision are taking place internally.
Others argue that Republicans must cater their message to swing voters in order to be successful in a Michigan general election.
“I think some of it is a reaction to the ongoing MAGA Trump messaging that is offputting to the largest block of voters which is Independent,” Trott said. “Michigan has always been a kind of a state that leans blue and that’s probably all it took for Michigan to end up solidly in the Democratic column.”
But Democrats say they aren’t taking anything for granted.
“We’re a battleground state,” said Lavora Barnes, chairwoman of the Michigan Democratic Party. “I may never call it a blue state because it’s a state where you’re going to have to work for each and every vote.”