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Bridge elections FAQ: Are Republicans running as fake Democrats?

Mary Hamilton wears big red hat that says "Make USA Great Again"
Mary Hamilton, pictured, attended an Oakland County dinner featuring former President Donald Trump in 2023. She’s now running in the Democratic primary for the 106th state House seat. (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)
  • Democratic state House candidates in northeast Michigan and Oakland County have histories of supporting conservatives
  • Campaign finance records show Mary Hamilton and Debbie Llewellyn both donated to a Kristina Karamo campaign, among others
  • Hamilton has attended Donald Trump events, and Llewellyn and her husband have donated to incumbent Rep. Matt Maddock

LANSING — In June 2023, Montmorency County resident Mary Hamilton drove three hours south to Oakland County for a dinner featuring former President Donald Trump, telling Bridge Michigan at the time, “as long as he’s running, I’m voting for him. I’ll even go visit him in jail.” 

Just under a year later, Hamilton filed to run as a Democratic candidate in northeast Michigan’s 106th state House district, currently represented by Rep. Cam Cavitt, a Cheboygan Republican.


Hamilton is one of two state House candidates who filed to run as a Democrat this year despite recent political activity and donations that reveal ties to the Republican Party. In both cases, the candidates are running in Republican-leaning districts with GOP incumbents up for re-election.


In Oakland County’s 51st District, Democratic candidate Debbie Llewellyn and her husband Tom Llewellyn, both of Milford, have frequently donated to conservative causes and candidates — including to Rep. Matt Maddock, a Milford Republican running to retain the seat, campaign finance records show. That connection was first reported by the MIRS News

It’s not clear if either candidate has suddenly changed their political views. Llewellyn has not responded to a request for comment, and Hamilton declined to immediately discuss her 2024 campaign when contacted by Bridge, citing complications from a medical issue.

Bridge began looking into the candidates in response to a reader question submitted through our Elections FAQ series (you can ask a question here). That reader asked if there is an “organized effort” by Republicans to run as Democrats for state House. 

A Bridge review of other major party state House candidates’ recent political donations did not immediately reveal an organized effort or similar activity in other districts this cycle. But the review did confirm both Hamilton and Llewellyn have a history of donations to GOP-connected campaigns. 

Michigan does not require voters to register with a political party. Age, citizenship, residency requirements and a filing fee are the only bars a prospective candidate needs to clear to run for the state Legislature.

There is nothing to stop candidates from running under the banner of a party they do not affiliate with. At times, it has been done strategically to deter primary crossover voting or force other candidates to spend more in their primary, leaving them with less for the general election.

In 2022, conservative radio host “Trucker” Randy Bishop unsuccessfully ran as a Democrat in northern Michigan’s 37th state Senate district, claiming he formally left the Republican Party despite primarily endorsing and supporting Republican candidates. He initially filed to run as a Democrat this year in the 104th state House but has since withdrawn.

In 2012, then-state Rep. Roy Schmidt made waves for switching from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party on the last day prospective candidates could file for election. His last-minute switch resulted in the write-in candidacy and eventual election of Sen. Winnie Brinks, a Grand Rapids Democrat who now serves as senate majority leader.

In 2010, Democratic operatives filed paperwork to put "fake tea party" candidates on the Michigan ballot for various races, including state Senate. Those operatives were later charged with felonies for forging signatures and making false statements. 

It’s not unheard of for candidates to change parties, particularly now, as the electorate is in a “pretty serious realignment,” said Adrian Hemond, founder and CEO of the Lansing-based consulting firm Grassroots Midwest.

But if a person files to run under a party for strategic or other reasons, they’re allowed to do so, Hemond said. 

“If partisans of one stripe or another are playing games with a taxpayer-funded process…let it run,” he said. “If they want to run as a Democrat or run as a Republican, like, they pay taxes — have at it.”

The 106th District

Hamilton is running as a Democrat in the 106th Michigan House district, which covers Alcona, Alpena, Montmorency and Presque Isle counties, as well as parts of Cheboygan and Oscoda counties. 

The Hillman resident told Bridge in 2023 that she grew up in Michigan and is now retired, but previously worked in the construction industry in Washington before returning to Michigan in the early 2000s.

She faces Trina Borenstein, a Greenbush resident who serves as secretary of the Alcona County Democratic Party and has volunteered for various candidates and causes since 2014, according to her campaign website.

On the Republican side, Cavitt, a first-term lawmaker and realtor who served as county drain commissioner before assuming office in 2023, is running for re-election against challenger Todd Smalenberg of Hillman.

Aside from filings required to run for state office, Hamilton has done little to promote her candidacy and does not have a public-facing campaign website or social media profile. 

But campaign finance records show support for conservative candidates and causes as recently as last year. 

In addition to attending events supporting Donald Trump, Hamilton in 2023 donated to the Brighter Michigan PAC, a Sterling Heights-based conservative political action committee that hosted former Fox News host Tucker Carlson last year in Utica. 

She also supported former Republican Party Chair Kristina Karamo’s 2022 run for Secretary of State, donating $500 to the campaign on Sept. 26 of that year. 

Related: Michigan elections FAQ: How to find candidate donors, financial disclosures

A photo of Hamilton taken by a Bridge Michigan reporter at the 2023 Trump dinner in Oakland County has been circulating among Democratic circles on social media in recent weeks.

“The Republicans are trying to take away your vote,” one local Democrat — 2022 state House candidate Marie Fielder — wrote on Facebook. “Don’t let them do it.”

Linda Ayres, chair of the Alpena County Democratic Party, declined to speculate on Hamilton’s political leanings. But she noted Hamilton hasn’t reached out to county party officials or participated in the local party.

Borenstein used the situation as a fundraising opportunity, telling supporters on social media that “voting for a Democrat doesn’t make you a Democrat” in the primary election. 

The 51st District

Llewellyn, too, has little public information available about her Democratic candidacy for Oakland County’s 51st District. But she has a track record of supporting conservatives. 

Campaign finance records show Llewellyn donated $50 to Karamo’s Secretary of State campaign in 2022 and $100 to former Sen. Patrick Colbeck’s GOP gubernatorial campaign in 2018. In 2014, she donated $50 to then-Gov. Rick Snyder’s campaign and $100 to Maddock – who now holds the House seat she is seeking – when he ran for the state Senate. 

Her husband, Tom Llewellyn, made donations to Maddock’s previous state House campaigns in 2017, 2018 and 2022, in addition to other Republican-affiliated organizations and candidates. 

Llewellyn’s few public posts on Facebook include an endorsement of former Republican U.S. Rep. Kerry Bentivolio and a post calling former President Barack Obama a “zero president.”

The other Democrat in the race is Sarah May-Seward, a bartender who serves on several local health and food service boards and unsuccessfully challenged Maddock in 2022.


Maddock, who has held the seat since 2019 and is known as an ultra-conservative lawmaker with close ties to Trump, is facing a spirited challenge from Milford Village Council member Kevin Ziegler, who has argued the district needs better local representation in the state House. 

May-Seward told Bridge she was initially open to the idea that Llewellyn’s political leanings had changed since 2022, but she now believes her primary opponent has ulterior motives. 

She said she plans to point out Llewellyn’s past donations during the primary cycle through mailers but doesn’t expect much of a fight. 

“It feels desperate,” May-Seward said.

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