Election deniers vie to lead broke Michigan GOP. Donors aren’t happy.
- Karamo and DePerno favorites to lead Michigan GOP
- With party broke, fundraising has emerged as key issue
- Traditional donors wary, exploring other options
CLINTON TOWNSHIP — Trump loyalists Kristina Karamo and Matthew DePerno are touting big fundraising plans as they compete to take over the debt-ridden Michigan Republican Party, but traditional donors who abandoned the party may not be returning anytime soon.
Instead, wealthy conservatives flummoxed by the direction of the state party and ready to move on from 2020 election conspiracies continue to explore alternatives to help finance political candidates, according to longtime GOP officials, business leaders and consultants.
“I think the Republican Party clearly has not recognized where their fault lines are, and right now, what they're doing is doubling up on dumb,” said Jimmy Greene, executive director of the Associated Builders and Contractors Association of Michigan, which endorses and donates to GOP lawmakers.
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Karamo and DePerno are considered the front-runners in an 11-candidate field vying to replace Michigan GOP Chair Ron Weiser at this weekend’s convention. They are failed secretary of state and attorney general candidates who rose to prominence by claiming the 2020 presidential election was rigged against then-President Donald Trump.
Weiser, a real estate magnate, donated more than $3 million of his own money to the party last cycle but is not seeking re-election to another two-year term. As of November, the state party was essentially broke, reporting a $2.3 million debt in its state campaign and a $2 million surplus in a separate federal committee.
Fundraising is a primary responsibility of a party chair and may be especially important in 2024 as Republicans seek to reclaim the White House, an open U.S. Senate seat and the state House after Democrats won full control of the Michigan Legislature for the first time in 40 years.
Even as he continues to repeat election fraud claims, DePerno pitches himself as a “reasonable person” in contrast to Karamo, who in 2021 spoke at a Q-Anon conspiracy theory conference, previously claimed sex can lead to "demonic possession" and compared abortion to "child sacrifice."
What: Michigan Republican Party State Convention
Who: GOP delegates and candidates for state party chair: Scott Aughney, Kent Boersma, Drew Born, Matt DePerno, Lena Epstein, Mike Farage, Mark Forton, JD Glaser, Scott Greenlee, Kristina Karamo, Billy Putman
Where: The Lansing Center
When: Feb. 17 and 18
DePerno told Bridge he is confident he can bring reluctant donors back to the Michigan GOP.
If Karamo wins, “no one will fund this party,” DePerno argued. "It will be a car without gas, and it will die."
Karamo brushed off the criticism: "That's just Matt trying to win," she told Bridge. "We raised double what the last Republican nominee for secretary of state raised (last cycle).”
Some longtime donors stopped giving or scaled back contributions to the party last cycle as grassroots delegates took over statewide conventions to nominate Karamo and DePerno, who both later lost to Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Attorney General Dana Nessel, both Democrats.
Autocam president John Kennedy III and members of the powerful DeVos family gave the Michigan GOP less money than prior cycles, while traditional donors like businessmen Sidney Jansma and Peter Karmanos continued to back individual candidates but did not give to the state party at all, records show.
Now, for the first time ever, the party will charge attendance fees to help pay the cost of this weekend’s statewide convention in Lansing.
There, thousands of delegates elected this month at the county level will decide the state chair race, which also includes political strategist Scott Greenlee, Macomb County GOP Chair Mark Forton, Tuscola County Chair Billy Putman and Lena Epstein, the co-owner of a Southfield oil distributor.
Refuge of the working class?
Fundraising is a key issue in the contest, with candidates debating the value of traditional business-focused donors as they attempt to recast the increasingly populist party as a refuge for the working class.
Karamo and DePerno are both vowing to refill party coffers by focusing on the kind of low- and mid-dollar donors who helped fund their own statewide campaigns last year.
Each raised more than $1.3 million, more than past GOP nominees but far less than their Democratic counterparts.
“We can no longer follow the old, tired methods the MIGOP has used, which is to rely on only a select number of large donors,” DePerno, a Portage-area attorney, said last week during a candidate forum in Macomb County’s Clinton Township.
Karamo, an Oak Park resident who has previously worked as a community college instructor, argued potential donors aren’t giving to the party because Republicans have “refused to do anything about the corruption in the election system” and act like “cowards” when they are criticized by Democrats.
“When people see a credible party that has a robust get-out-to-vote program, and is actively recruiting and acting as our party platform dictates… they will give money,” she said. “But they first have to see a party that they trust.”
In a nod to 2020 election conspiracies — and cost — the Michigan GOP rules committee on Saturday voted to bar the use of electronic ballot tabulators at the convention, adopting a full hand-count procedure to decide the chair race. Another new rule could allow for up to two run-off elections if no candidate tops 50 percent in initial rounds.
The process will ensure "the most transparent, delegate-driven convention we have ever had," outgoing co-chair Meshawn Maddock told delegates in a party email obtained by Bridge.
Michigan Democrats, meanwhile, re-elected Lavora Barnes as chair during their convention last Saturday.
Trump, who is running for president again, last month endorsed DePerno to lead the Michigan GOP and was set to host a “telerally” phone call with DePerno on Monday evening.
But Karamo remains popular with pro-Trump delegates who last year dominated party convention votes, in part because she still refuses to publicly acknowledge her 2022 defeat.
The “corruption was never resolved,” so “we really don't know who was the winner and loser,” Karamo said of the race she officially lost to Benson by a resounding 615,349 votes.
"That's why I never conceded.”
While DePerno publicly acknowledged his loss in the attorney general’s race, he isn’t backing off what made him a star in Trump circles: his claims that election machines were programmed to defeat the former president.
His ongoing quest to prove the theory has landed him in hot water. A special prosecutor continues to investigate allegations that DePerno and others illegally tampered with Michigan voting equipment after the 2020 presidential election.
DePerno has dismissed the probe as a “political witch hunt” started by Nessel, and he returned to his voting machine theories in last week’s candidate forum at Faith Baptist Church in Macomb County, where he asked fellow Republicans to turn off their phone cameras as he unfolded a roughly 4-foot wide paper.
“This is Dominion Voting Systems,” he said, pointing to a sprawling flow chart that he claimed depicted more than 200 different connections between politicians, funding sources, and licensing agreements for the firm whose election equipment is used in dozens of Michigan counties and across the country.
“If you want to cut off the head of this beast, it’s time you elect someone as chair of the Michigan GOP who actually understands what this is and is the fighter ready to get in the trenches with the Democrats and beat this thing,” DePerno the crowd of roughly 75 activists.
Speaking with Bridge after the event, DePerno declined to let a reporter see the document he had pulled out on stage.
But he said he and colleagues have “cracked the Dominion source code” by reverse engineering hard drive images from voting machines equipment outside of Michigan.
If elected, DePerno has promised delegates he’ll create a “large, robust internal law firm” within the Michigan GOP to fight election fraud and monitor the implementation of new voting options that will be allowed in future elections following last year’s approval of ballot Proposal 2.
‘Separating’ from the state party
While polling shows many Michigan Republicans are concerned about election integrity, 2020 election deniers did not fare well as statewide candidates last year.
Veteran GOP insiders said Karamo and DePerno’s continued focus on Trump conspiracy theories is one of many reasons that donors are unlikely to pump big money into the party if either is elected to lead it.
GOP power brokers recently reunited in metro Detroit for lunch with failed gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon, and it was clear that “some of the biggest donors to Republicans” are “basically separating themselves from the state party,” said Greene, the contractors association leader, who was at the meeting.
Dixon released a statement through a spokesperson denying she is part of any formal effort to circumvent the Michigan GOP, adding that any reports otherwise are “false media narratives attempting to divide our Republican Party and distract from the overreaching agenda of Whitmer/Biden Democrats.”
But donors are looking for alternatives to the state party “dysfunction,” and there are “a lot of folks figuring out what it’s going to look like,” said Fred Wszolek, a GOP consultant who ran a pro-Dixon super PAC last year and also worked on a petition drive backed by former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
The rift between donors and state party leaders actually began in 2021, when Weiser returned as chair while under investigation for using Michigan GOP funds to pay a 2018 Secretary of State candidate to drop out of the race, he said.
Nessel decided not to press criminal charges but chided the secret deal.
“The party's structural credibility had been undermined even before it was just a bunch of crazies that were going to be in charge,” Wszolek told Bridge.
If DePerno or Karamo takes over the party, big-money donors will continue to look for alternatives, predicted Jason Roe, a former executive director of the Michigan GOP who was forced out of the job in 2021 after criticizing Trump.
It’s unlikely donors and political groups who want to win elections will abandon the party completely because the Michigan GOP still has legal authority to spend in ways that candidates and outside entities do not, Roe said.
“Rather than it being a functional organization that we rely on to do some of the on-the-ground blocking and tackling, (the state party) is going to be limited to a bank account that money is passed through for voter contact,” he predicted.
The Michigan GOP has other advantages that make it useful for donors, including a nonprofit postage permit that significantly reduces the price of bulk campaign mailers, and the legal authority to authorize poll challengers and watchers to oversee critical elections, Wszolek said.
Debating the DeVos influence
Greenlee, a veteran GOP strategist who previously worked as a coalition vice-chair for the state party, is perhaps the closest thing there is to a viable “establishment” candidate in the chair race.
But Greenlee has sought to distance himself from that label by promising activists they’ll have a direct line to party leadership: If he’s elected, he says delegates chosen for the state central committee will select a co-chair to work with him atop the Michigan GOP.
While he acknowledged DePerno and Karamo began the race as front-runners, Greenlee said he is trying to unify warring factions he personally knows, including “some of the senior most donors” and “some of the brand new, fired up activists.”
Greenlee said he’s had discussions with “a couple major donors who sat the most recent cycle out” but are “committed to coming in” if he’s elected chair.
“The party is very fractured, and that gives an uneasy feel to the donor community in particular,” he told Bridge.
Some other Michigan GOP chair candidates, however, say they would not welcome contributions from traditional power brokers like the DeVos family of west Michigan, who backed Dixon and several legislative Republicans last cycle but did not donate to DePerno or Karamo.
“This party has no room for Betsy DeVos and her group that elect Democrats, period,” Michael Farage, a Grand Rapids-area activist, said to some applause in the Macomb County forum.
Big-money Republican donors have had too large of an influence on lawmakers who they expect to do their bidding, argued state party chair candidate Mark Forton, who currently leads the Macomb County GOP.
“If the DeVos family and that 50-family cabal, if they start opening checkbooks, you will know they got what they want,” Forton said. “Otherwise, guess what, they're going to stay out, and we're going to have to struggle through it.
Epstein, a Southfield businesswoman who last year narrowly lost her race for the University of Michigan Board of Regents, disagreed: We thank the major donors and want them to stay happily involved,” she said.
DePerno said he too would welcome support from the DeVos family, even though his co-chair candidate Garrett Soldano blasted the “DeVos empire" last year while he competed against Dixon in the gubernatorial primary.
“I want a check from everybody. I will run a party from the point of being inclusive, not exclusive,” DePerno said.
Karamo took a harder line.
"We want people to support us financially but not at the expense of our principles," she told Bridge. "That's been the problem with a lot of the political class — and that goes for both parties."
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