The Gongwer Blog

by Alethia Kasben, Managing Editor

With Karamo In Charge, What's Next For The GOP?

Posted: February 26, 2023 8:20 PM

On the first business day new Michigan Republican Party Chair Kristina Karamo was in charge, the phone in the Lansing office went unanswered as speculation builds on what the new leadership will mean for the party apparatus and the GOP in Michigan.

Ms. Karamo struggled to raise any money in her run for secretary of state that ended in a 14-point loss to Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. The MIGOP under its last iteration of leadership also said significant donors were less likely to contribute to the state party as they did not want to fund candidates chosen by former President Donald Trump. Ms. Karamo was one of those candidates.

The other one, Matt DePerno, lost in a surprising rout earlier this month at the MIGOP's convention. Ms. Karamo took 58 percent of the vote compared to 42 percent for Mr. DePerno.

A key difference between the two candidates is Ms. Karamo never conceded despite her 14-point loss and Mr. DePerno admitted defeat.

"Why would I concede to a fraudulent process," Ms. Karamo said to delegates on February 18.

The only public communication from the party since Ms. Karamo's victory was a tweeted press release the following Tuesday listing the winners at the party's convention and a prepared statement from Ms. Karamo saying the party is "headed to a great start for the 2024 election cycle." The statement promised to provide updates "as we work together to strengthen and embolden our party in the coming days ahead." Since then, there have been a couple more tweets, and Ms. Karamo was scheduled to join two Downriver legislators Sunday at a protest of the disposal of contaminated Ohio soils at a Belleville disposal facility.

Besides the non-answer at the phone line at party headquarters, the state party's website also had yet to be updated as of Sunday, eight days after Ms. Karamo's victory, still showing Ron Weiser, now the former party chair, as chair, and Meshawn Maddock, now the former co-chair, as co-chair.

The status of the Michigan Republican Party as a functioning entity was doubted by several Republican sources with years of working in Michigan Republican politics and the state party itself. These sources said basic functions like paying the bills to keep the party headquarters in Lansing functioning and continuing its biennial Mackinac conference in the fall are in doubt. Others raised questions about handling the accounting and legal needs of the operation without the funds to pay professionals for those activities.

These sources said the party's traditional donors, lambasted as RINOs by the new leaders of the state party, have no interest in funding the party apparatus. One quipped that Ms. Karamo might have run because she saw a chance for a good salary as chair but might not realize she will need to raise the funds to pay herself. It's been known since the election that the state party was short of money and running on a skeleton crew of staff. Whether the party will have the funds to have paid staff going forward also is an open question.

One source said Ms. Karamo and her backers have made it clear they do not want traditional donor support, and will likely get their wish.

"I don't know where she raises any money from," this source said.

Ms. Karamo's victory continues to push the MIGOP in a direction that has seen the party lose all three statewide offices, several congressional races and the majority in both the House and Senate, some Republicans said.

"We went from controlling everything to controlling literally nothing," said Jason Cabel Roe, former executive director of the MIGOP.

Rusty Hills, a Republican operative who has served as a MIGOP chair about 20 years ago, said Michigan Republicans engaged in an experiment in 2022 to nominate every candidate endorsed by Mr. Trump and those candidates lost.

"A party that wants to win is going to nominate common sense conservatives with an appeal to independent and swing voters," Mr. Hills said. "Instead, what happened is the party has doubled down on a strategy that lost them every statewide race and control of the House and the Senate. This is madness."

Among several sources who have spent much of their careers on electing Republicans, they described sadness as Ms. Karamo and what they called a fringe element taking control of the party. But there was also a determined sense to find other outlets to advance Republican candidates and causes.

While several Republicans expressed dismay at the election of Ms. Karamo, many delegates – she of course won the vote of 58 percent of them – expressed confidence in her and cited God in their support of her candidacy.

"Everything was stacked against Kristina Karamo and Malinda Reese Pego, BUT GOD was with us! Yes miracles DO happen," Benj Spencer, a Muskegon County Republican, posted on Facebook. "Thank you Jesus and to YOU be all the glory!"

Mr. Hills said Ms. Karamo and her team are going "to be very, very challenged."

During his time as chair with former Governor John Engler in office, a Republican secretary of state, majority in the congressional delegation and the Legislature, Mr. Hills said there were flush times but still difficult times.

"And that was with all hands on deck," he said.

Now, Republicans don't have as many elected officials as they did then, Mr. Hills said.

"Then you start to antagonize really good people in the donor base (and) you are setting yourself up for failure," he said.

Mr. Roe said it will be very difficult to maintain party operations without the large donors. Just bringing in small donations costs money, he said, whether that is through mail or digital operations.

While Mr. Roe said the strategy for the new leadership is not a winning one, it is not the end of the world for Republicans who want to win in 2024. Then, the GOP will be looking at competitive congressional seats, the open U.S. Senate seat and the Michigan House.

"I think sometimes folks overstate the role of the party," he said. "More than anything it is an accounting mechanism to move federal money to state. … It is a lot easier to organize when you have central organization. We are not going to have that."

But, he said, federal groups and donors will work directly with candidates and the House Republican Campaign Committee. The HRCC in the last cycle appeared to have a fractured relationship with the state party, anyway.

"You are just going to end up taking the MIGOP out of the chain of command," Mr. Roe said. "They are going to be sitting on the sidelines."

Mr. Hills said, though, the state party does make a difference. They get a bulk-mail discount that saves money. Anything candidates are doing in their own operation that the MIGOP could do is a delegation of time and resources that could have been covered by the party.

When he was chair, Mr. Hills said, former Attorney General Mike Cox won his first race by a little over 5,000 votes. Former U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers won a congressional race by a few hundred.

"On the margins, the party makes the difference," he said. "All sorts of things the party does are very hard and very expensive to duplicate."

He also said it puts Republicans at a competitive disadvantage with the Michigan Democratic Party led by "juggernaut" Lavora Barnes, Mr. Hills said.

Among the entities sources said traditional donors might use are the House Republican Campaign Committee, the Republican State Legislative Committee, the Michigan Freedom Fund, the Great Lakes Education Project, among others. One source said new groups are not needed but existing groups will need to do more.

This source also said other states have had to grapple with fringe elements taking control of state parties and Republicans working around them to win elections. This is just new for Michigan, this source said.

Another source said an interesting factor to watch is Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel, who still lives in Michigan and has made a point to look out for her home state in Republican politics. How Mrs. McDaniel interacts with Ms. Karamo and what she does to direct national support to Michigan – and what entities in Michigan – will be closely watched, this source said.

Moving forward, Mr. Hills said, Republicans need to accept Michigan is a purple state. To win, the GOP needs to put forward "commonsense conservatives," in the mold of former Attorney General Bill Schuette, former Governor Rick Snyder or former U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer.

He said getting a win in the U.S. Senate in 2024 would be key for the right of center Republicans in the state taking control of the party.

"I think it's possible to win," he said.

As to the future and wresting control of the party from the faction that elected Ms. Karamo – the culmination of a 12-year mission of what began as the tea party in the 2010 cycle – several sources said there are discussions but it's early and a daunting task. One source said it will be interesting to see how the newcomers who supplied the energy and votes to elect Ms. Karamo respond if the party withers and suffers major defeats in 2024.

The August 2024 primary will provide the next opportunity to elect new precinct delegates that make up the pool of potential state convention delegates to elect the party chair and nominate candidates for various offices like secretary of state, attorney general and the education boards as well as lieutenant governor. One source said it would take multiple elections for those disturbed at the party's current direction to reverse it.

"It's that far gone," this source said.

Zach Gorchow contributed to this report.

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