The selection of a far-right election denier to lead Michigan’s state GOP is underscoring divisions within the party as Republican leaders hope to unify heading into 2024.
Kristina Karamo’s victory last weekend showed the extent to which the Republican grassroots has embraced election fraud claims, even as many in the party call for a more forward-looking message heading into 2024.
While Arizona and Massachusetts – other states where former President Trump’s preferred candidates lost high-profile elections last year – recently elected more conciliatory voices to lead their state Republican parties, Karamo’s victory in Michigan raises questions about the party’s prospects in top 2024 races.
The chair election was poised to “set the tone for the party as it tries to win back Michigan for statewide office and also for the ‘24 presidential election,” Ken Kollman, director of the University of Michigan Center for Political Studies, told The Hill ahead of the chair vote.
Kollman said a win from either Karamo or Matthew DePerno — who had Trump’s endorsement for chair and came in second — would be “a big statement and a big challenge” for the GOP in 2024.
In November, Democrats defended top statewide offices while flipping both chambers of the state legislature, possibly due in part to redistricting. Karamo was the Republican secretary of state nominee last year and hasn’t conceded that race, which she lost by 14 percentage points. DePerno was the unsuccessful Republican nominee for attorney general. Both ran with Trump’s backing.
Karamo’s vision statement for the state GOP said the party had “failed to pursue remedy for systemic election corruption” and that she’d give precinct delegates control of the party. “Authentic unity,” it said, would be achieved by “adhering to the Republican Party platform, not by expecting people to tolerate corruption.”
Michigan GOP chief of staff Paul Cordes wrote in a memo after the midterms that “we found ourselves consistently navigating the power struggle between Trump and anti-Trump factions of the Party, mostly within the donor class. … That power struggle ended with too many people on the sidelines and hurt Republicans in key races.”
Kollman echoed those remarks in his analysis of the challenges the GOP is facing.
“There’s a number of … deep-pocketed donors that are not interested in funding election denialism as a big message of the party,” he said, emphasizing that the new chair will serve as the party’s public face given the lack of high-level Republican elected officials in the state.
Michigan’s outgoing Republican Party co-chair, Meshawn Maddock, argued instead that “we haven’t moved far enough” to the right, according to The Washington Post. Maddock and chair Ron Weiser didn’t seek reelection.
Ronna McDaniel chaired the Michigan GOP before becoming Republican National Committee chairwoman in 2017, after Trump was the first Republican presidential candidate to win the state in 28 years. McDaniel won a contentious reelection bid this year against candidates emphasizing themes of election integrity and 2020 voter fraud. President Biden won Michigan in 2020.
The tensions among Michigan Republicans are evident elsewhere in the country, too. In some of those states, however, Republicans have opted to change course when it comes to their state leadership.
“We really need state party leaders who can bring folks together” to win in 2024, Brian Seitchik, an Arizona-based Republican strategist who worked on Trump’s previous campaigns, told The Hill last week. Seitchik said there are divisions between “the hardcore Trump folks and the non-Trump folks” in the Arizona GOP.
The state party recently elected former state Treasurer Jeff DeWit, also a Trump campaign alum, as their new chair. Seitchik said DeWit “seems to have the ear of donors and sort of non-hardcore Trump types as well as certainly the credibility in the Trump world.”
The party vote came after Democrats in the Grand Canyon State defeated Trump-backed candidates to flip open offices of governor and attorney general. Sen. Mark Kelly (D) defeated Blake Masters (R) in the Senate race. Former GOP chairwoman Kelli Ward was active in efforts to overturn the 2020 election results and didn’t seek reelection.
DeWit said he hopes shifting to a positive tone within the party will unite factions, win independent voters and bring donors back to the party.
In Massachusetts, Amy Carnevale defeated GOP chairman Jim Lyons in a 37-34 vote last month, calling the election in an interview with CommonWealth Magazine a “signal that our party is going to take a different track moving ahead.”
“We’re a divided party,” Lyons told the same publication. “The past is trying to grab on to what we took over and they don’t want to let go. I think moving forward the people of Massachusetts have to decide whether they want to see a conservative Republican Party.”
Sixty percent of Massachusetts voters are unenrolled and allowed to vote in party primaries. Nine percent are registered Republicans. The GOP now comprises around 15 percent of the state legislature. Former Gov. Charlie Baker (R), who had one of the highest approval ratings in the country, chose not to seek reelection. Trump-backed Geoff Diehl won the Republican primary and lost the general in a landslide.
Jennifer Nassour, who chaired the Massachusetts GOP from 2009 to 2011 and co-founded a nonprofit supporting center-right female candidates, attributed 2022 losses to Lyons’s contentious relationship with Baker and a focus on social issues instead of fiscal conservatism in an interview. Nassour supported Carnevale for chair.
Trump “looms large over a lot of these party apparatuses,” Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Center for Politics at Goucher College, told The Hill. In Maryland, term-limited former Gov. Larry Hogan (R), like Baker, had a high approval rating in a blue state. A Trump-endorsed gubernatorial candidate won the primary and lost the general by a wide margin there as well.
Former state GOP chair Dirk Haire lamented divisions between the Trump and Hogan camps, telling central committee members he hoped they would “find a way to work together to elect all of our Republican nominees, and stop with the counterproductive and petty nonsense,” The Baltimore Sun reported.
Kromer said the party’s weak fundraising and lack of a prominent standard-bearer would pose challenges to its effort to rebuild after 2022.
The party elected Nicole Beus Harris as chair in December. Harris promised a “rebranding” of the party and hired campaign professional Adam Wood as executive director, saying his work “with both the Tea Party/House Freedom Caucus conservatives and the Republican Governance Group/Tuesday Group moderate Republicans will bolster communication and unification within the party.”
Party chairs are “pretty much the general heading the army into battle,” Nassour said. The party’s direction in the states and the unification of its forces will depend partly on its newly chosen leadership.