By Nick Smith
Posted: October 2, 2023 11:31 AM
MACKINAC ISLAND – Questions over party unity and fundraising for the Michigan GOP are concerning, but attendees and those observing the Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference in September see unity eventually coming via the presidential race.
Those attending the conference said infighting happens in the wake of election losses and those battles ultimately are resolved when those involved find areas in which they can come together.
Party faithful for months have been observing the leadership of Michigan Republican Party Chair Kristina Karamo heading into what was the first major event of her tenure. The party has been facing questions for months as to what appears to be sluggish fundraising, as well as ongoing battles between the state party and multiple county parties. There have also been physical altercations among leaders during or before meetings.
Karamo during a media availability at the conclusion of the conference said she was confident in the direction she's leading the party.
"As I've said, unapologetically, we are populists, okay, we are a people's party," Karamo said. "What that means is that we're growing our rank and file, and more and more people are getting involved. There are lots of new people who've never been involved in the party who are now getting involved for the first time."
The chair also addressed a remark she made from the Grand Hotel theater stage over the weekend, at one point telling her critics to "pound sand." This came amidst concerns raised by attendees about the need for unity headed into 2024 if they are to rebound from the losses sustained in the last election cycle.
"Let me clarify that. When I say that, there is a difference between people who have legitimate concerns and disagreements, but then there are saboteurs who just spread lies, just incessantly," Karamo said.
How to proceed as a party drew different responses from those questioned by Gongwer News Service during the convention.
Meshawn Maddock, who served as party co-chair during the last election cycle, said she was not concerned about the lead-up to the conference, saying in her roughly 30 years of attending such events there was always some level of drama.
She also expressed support for the current party leadership.
"When I was co-chair, I had a lot of pushback from different factions, and I just tried to do my best and work my hardest to elect Republicans, and I know Chairwoman Karamo and (Co-Chair) Malinda Pego are doing the exact same thing," Maddock said. "They're doing the best with what they have and one thing that we're all united in is electing Republicans."
Maddock added that the key unifying factor for Republicans is former President Donald Trump, who she said will be the party's nominee and will win in 2024.
"Everybody's going to come together, and we have a real opportunity for the Senate seat too, and I'm excited about that," Maddock said. "That'll give something for everybody to get together and work hard for."
She did not see there being a major concern over the state party not having the same level of fundraising as in past cycles, adding if donors wish to donate to a party caucus or third-party group that's their prerogative.
An example of Republicans going around the state party funding wise is when House Republicans announced earlier this year that former Governor Rick Snyder and Kalamazoo business executive Bill Parfet would chair the caucus's campaign committee for 2024 (See Gongwer Michigan Report, June 5, 2023).
"I always encourage people, if they have any hesitation at all, just find the most conservative candidates, donate right to the candidates," Maddock said. "Donors won't stop giving, they're just going to choose where they're giving, so I'm encouraged by that."
Billy Grant, political director for The Strategy Group Company, an Ohio-based group that does some work in Michigan, said political parties always come together in the end and there are occasionally some ugly periods.
"When you lose elections, people usually fight afterwards, and that's just the reality whether it's Republicans or Democrats," Grant said, adding that the media enjoys writing about what he called Republican-on-Republican violence. "There's a lot of fighting of why you lost and why things didn't go a particular way, and that's honestly good for the party because people have to have honest conversations about things."
Grant said the role of state parties has changed in recent years to a machine for moving money, sending out mailers and doing field work while also holding events like the Mackinac conference.
"You just have to expect when the grassroots take over, the big-money people are going to turn off the spigot if they don't like the people in charge … that's the ebb and flow of the grassroots versus the business community," Grant said.
How that relationship is addressed remains to be seen, he said.
"There's always grassroots people who are able to win and repair that relationship. With this particular group, I'm not sure if they're going to be able to do that," Grant said.
He said the days of state parties driving turnout and being the dominant entity spending money are over.
"If the party's weak, it's not a good thing, but at the end of the day, I think it doesn't matter as much now anyway," Grant said.
He agreed with others that the uniting link for the party will be the presidential candidate that the party's faithful can rally around, which will in turn drive turnout.
Americans for Prosperity Michigan State Director Annie Patnaude said Saturday during a downtown reception at the Yankee Rebel Tavern that she had not really been at the conference itself. She said a key method of success for the party would be to focus on the economy.
"I think there's a growing voice that we need to make sure that we're looking ahead and focusing on pocketbook issues, and I've heard that from a lot of people," Patnaude said. "We need to look ahead, we need to connect to people, real issues affecting their lives, and that's how much groceries cost, the price of gas, how people are going to make their ends meet."
Patnaude said the entire nation is divided, and an economic message "focusing on the Biden-Whitmer agenda" as well as on school choice would be a winning message.
She said she has concerns that some Republicans have lost their way.
"That's part of our job as a grassroots organization to get them to focus and get them moving in the same direction," Patnaude said. "There's disagreements. We need to work through those disagreements respectfully and thoughtfully."
Andrew Sebolt, a former candidate for state House, said he has been coming to Republican Mackinac conferences since 2009. He struck a far more pessimistic tone about the conference itself. He said his recollection was that the previous low for a GOP Mackinac conference was around 1,700 registered attendees and he believed the attendance this weekend was between 500-600.
When asked for his thoughts on the current state party leadership and how they are handling operations thus far, Sebolt was blunt.
"Look, just look at this event, and use that as a gauge," Sebolt said, repeating himself when asked further if he had any concerns about where he feels things stand with the party currently. "Look at the outcome of this conference and compare it with previous conferences. Pretty dismal."
He pointed to what he said was a fairly empty theater inside the Grand Hotel for many of the speakers earlier in the conference, which he estimated to be about one-quarter full much of the time.
Like other conference-goers, Sebolt also said unity was important.
"Unity is definitely important to come out strong," Sebolt said. "Definitely have to have a coming together of the grassroots and the donors. Find out what does each side want, what does this side want, what can we agree on and work together on those."
He said on the minority of issues the different wings of the party cannot agree on, they can go their separate ways on those matters, but the key is coming together on what they can agree upon. An obvious example of different interests working together would be retaking the state House, he said.
Karamo further defended the party's conference to reporters Sunday when asked about her remarks to attendees, claiming there had been attempts to "sabotage" the event. She declined to get into specifics but did acknowledge there was at least incident in which this occurred.
"One of the things in politics, this is irrespective of party, you have people who say: 'I want to help,' but the goal is to undermine," Karamo said. "I will say it was someone that was supposed to be helping us in certain areas."
Karamo also declined to talk specifically as to why conservative commentator, author and producer of the film "2000 Mules," Dinesh D'Souza, did not speak at the conference after being the first keynote speaker announced in late July. The film focused on 2020 election conspiracy theories.
"I can't disclose what the issue was, but all is well," Karamo said.
The chair did not provide any specifics when asked about how the party paid for the conference. As to questions about donors, Karamo said the party obviously would not be able to function without people providing funds.
"If it wasn't paid for, the Grand Hotel wouldn't let us hold it," Karamo said.
Outside of D'Souza's non-appearance at the conference, there were multiple times over the weekend where the schedule changed. There were also multiple speakers who participated that were not listed on the agenda.
During the conference, Karamo and others repeatedly stressed their Christian faith. Reporters asked if there was any problem or issue with doing so as a state party and how that could affect people of other faiths from feeling included with the party.
To this, Karamo said there have always been faith leaders involved in both political parties, saying she once attended a church with a pastor who was a Democrat led services.
"We are not going to hide faith. It doesn't mean other people aren't welcome, that doesn't mean our goal of the Republican Party is to spread the gospel," Karamo said. "We are a secular organization, but this concept of trying to divorce faith from everyday life … this move to try to exclude faith is part of the collapse of our society. So, our goal isn't to try to recruit people into our faith, our goal is to win elections, but we're not going to hide the faith component from our everyday lives."
She added that speakers for the weekend conference were not chosen for their specific faith. Some spoke about religion and others did not, she said, and those who did happened to be Christians.
Karamo said she will never apologize for openly proclaiming her faith.
"I think one of the biggest mistakes we've ever advocated for in our society is that we shouldn't talk about politics and religion. Politics and religion are the most deeply held beliefs that we have, and I think our failure to, as a society, normalize talking about politics and religion is why they've become such contentious topics," Karamo said. "It used to be a topic we talked about all the time, and it should be no big deal. … It shouldn't be this thing where if we have deeply held religious beliefs that are different, we should somehow become enemies or dislike each other."
She acknowledged there were people watching the party under her leadership and whether they could pull off the event.
"There were folks who 100 percent wanted us to fail at this conference … and we didn't, so we're very happy about that," Karamo said.