LANSING, Mich. – Former President Donald Trump's extraordinary effort to mold Republicans' 2022 tickets will be put to the test this weekend in Michigan, where thousands of party activists will endorse candidates, including in a contentious attorney general's race.
Trump, who continues to levy false claims about his 2020 loss in the swing state, is clear about his intentions. Come November, he wants to oust Democratic officials who ensured the results stayed intact and replace them with allies Matthew DePerno and Kristina Karamo, political newcomers who are running for attorney general and secretary of state, respectively.
“This choice is not just about 2022. This is about ensuring the state of Michigan cannot be stolen from Republicans in 2024 or ever again,” Trump said Wednesday in a call with DePerno backers.
His preferred slate for the state's top law enforcement and election jobs is drawing criticism, however, within a wing of the GOP that views the candidates as unelectable in the fall and is frustrated that state party leaders have openly backed them rather than be neutral.
“We're going to find out if we're going to be held hostage to second-tier candidates who can't win general elections in pursuit of genuflecting to the dear leader, or if we're going to focus on winning elections and making sure that conservatives control state government and make the policies that we all have to live under,” said Jason Roe, a former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party.
In Michigan, nominees for state offices are chosen at party conventions except in gubernatorial and legislative primaries.
DePerno helped a voter sue unsuccessfully after human error led Antrim County to erroneously show a local victory for Joe Biden over Trump. It was quickly corrected but was used to spread misinformation about voting equipment.
DePerno's main rival for the nomination is Tom Leonard, a former legislative leader and the party's 2018 nominee. State Rep. Ryan Berman also is running.
Leonard lost to Dana Nessel by under 3 percentage points in a big year for Democrats but fared better than Republicans who lost the governor and secretary of state's races by larger margins.
Trump, who nominated Leonard to be the U.S. attorney for western Michigan, now labels him as an establishment “RINO" — or Republican in name only — lobbyist. Trump has accused him of not doing enough to fight the 2020 election outcome.
Leonard said he has built a bigger coalition than DePerno, outraised him, undergone more extensive vetting and can unify rather than divide the party. He said he is not surprised Trump is “all in” for his candidate.
“What this has done is it's forced me and my team to work harder and it's forced us to hone our skills,” Leonard said in an interview. “I believe I'm going to be a much stronger candidate because of that when we head into November.”
DePerno said his opponents do not care about the 2020 election and that he can draw the biggest contrast with Nessel on COVID-19 mandates and other issues. Having Trump's support, he said Wednesday in Trump's virtual town hall event, is a “huge and great achievement" that will result in both a “resounding victory" and party unity.
Roughly 2,500 delegates will vote at Saturday's "endorsement" convention in Grand Rapids. The candidates have pledged to honor the results, clearing the way for the winners to turn toward the general election while waiting to be officially nominated at another convention in August. Democrats pioneered the maneuver a decade ago, but it is new for the GOP.
The secretary of state’s race, which is not expected to be as close as the attorney general's contest, has been less heated. Karamo, a community college instructor, is favored to advance to face Democrat Jocelyn Benson. Other Republicans running are state Rep. Beau LaFave and Cindy Berry, a township clerk.
In a sign of how pervasive election falsehoods have become, the party will use machines to tabulate votes but, in a change, also hand-count the ballots in a compromise with grassroots activists.
Dan Bonamie, a real estate broker and convention delegate from Crawford County in northern Michigan, said he will vote for the “constitutionalist” DePerno, crediting him for investigating alleged election irregularities.
“We need somebody in there that's willing to push that and wage war on that secretary of state if there have been some things that have been done illegally,” he said, saying Leonard already lost to Nessel and was not effective enough as a House speaker.
Max Rohtbart, a high school referee who is preparing for the bar exam, is an alternate delegate from Oakland County in the Detroit suburbs. He hopes to vote for Leonard or Berman, calling them “standard” Republicans while contending DePerno would “hurt the whole ticket" and "lose badly” to Nessel. He pointed to questions over $400,000 DePerno raised to challenge the presidential vote.
Richard Czuba, a pollster who worked at the state GOP decades ago, said the attorney general's race is the most pivotal Republican contest in the country. Trump has signed a letter to delegates supporting DePerno and rallied for him in Macomb County.
“Trump has staked so much on it. He is trying to send the establishment a message, ‘If you cross me, I will take control and I will purge you,’" he said. “This is a must-win race now for Trump. ... It's going to tell us so much about where the Republican Party is just in general. Does Donald Trump have complete control of it or not?"
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