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Historic ‘ass-kicking’ may prompt Michigan GOP to rethink Trump candidates

Trump at 2022 CPAC
(lev radin / Shutterstock.com)
  • Republicans lost the Michigan Senate for first time since 1984
  • Trump-endorsed candidates lost a series of critical races
  • Republicans grappling with how to move forward after defeat

LANSING — Michigan Republicans were picking up the pieces of a broken election on Wednesday, with some arguing the Democratic drubbing should be a wake-up call for the GOP to move on from Donald Trump’s obsessive quest to re-litigate his 2020 loss.

“It might be a healthy ass-kicking for the GOP to maybe do an assessment of where we are and what our state party is built to do,” said Jason Roe, a strategist and former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party.

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“Is it built to tilt at windmills, or is it built to win elections? If it's the former, then it's gonna be a rough decade ahead of us.”

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Democrats dominated Michigan elections on Tuesday, re-electing Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and other statewide candidates while flipping both chambers of the Legislature, controlling all branches of government for the first time since the 1980s.

As Republicans sought to make sense of their loss, state GOP Chair Ron Weiser and Co-Chair Meshawn Maddock were conspicuously quiet. Neither responded to Bridge Michigan voicemails seeking comment on the election results. 

Republican operatives and experts say strong support for abortion rights Proposal 3 drove turnout and helped Democrats overcome a challenging electoral environment given sky-high inflation. 

And Whitmer’s strong performance, beating Republican challenger Tudor Dixon by 10 points, boosted down-ticket Democrats, helping them to pick up competitive seats that were reshaped by the state’s new independent redistricting commission. 

But Republicans endorsed by Trump lost contested races, and the GOP suffered from a significant “candidate quality problem,” said Wayne Bradley, former director of African American Engagement for the Michigan Republican Party.

“Better candidates will get you better results,” he said. 

Bradley didn’t blame Dixon, whom he described as a “formidable” campaigner who was unable to raise enough funds to compete with Whitmer. But Secretary of State nominee Kristina Karamo and Attorney General nominee Matthew DePerno were “problematic” because they continued to question the legitimacy of the 2020 election, Bradley said. 

“You see full across the country that didn’t play well with a lot of folks,” Bradley said. “So it’s time to move on. Maybe we’ll get the lesson to focus on 2024.”

Karamo was silent Wednesday, but DePerno conceded defeat to incumbent Democratic Attorney Dana Nessel. In doing so, he promised to remain active in the conservative movement, where he has become a favorite among grassroots activists in the Michigan GOP. 

“I refuse to concede that Michigan is a blue state,” DePerno said in a statement. “I will continue to fight like hell to restore Michigan to all it can be and I look forward to continuing this journey with you all.”

Grassroots vs. Establishment

DePerno and Karamo were both virtual unknowns in 2020, when they became leading figures in Trump’s attempt to overturn his election loss. 

That made them stars to grassroots delegates who dominated Michigan GOP endorsement and nominating conventions.

Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson was the top vote getter among statewide Democratic candidates, defeating Karamo by nearly 14 percentage points, according to unofficial results.

Karamo had “zero credentials” to run state elections, and with DePerno under investigation for alleged vote tabulator tampering, it was “difficult for voters to picture a person who might be losing their law license serving as the top lawyer in the state,” Roe said.

GOP convention delegates “did not choose Republican candidates based on their ability; they chose them based on their fidelity to Donald Trump,” he added. 

“If our party is going to be focused on carrying out the delusions of one man over electing candidates and controlling policymaking in the state, we will be a minority party for many years to come.”

Republicans are grappling with an “identity crisis,” but it’s not fair to place all the blame on “grassroots” candidates when “establishment” donors abandoned them, said Jon Smith, secretary of the Hillsdale County Republican Party.

“I think the establishment actually purchased Dixon early on and then dried the party out,” said Smith, who helped lead a Trump-aligned takeover of the Hillsdale GOP two years ago. 

The reluctance of traditional Republican donors to fund Dixon, DePerno and Karamo in the general election felt “like a form of retribution or punishment” against grassroots activists, he said. 

A public action committee backed by the powerful DeVos family of West Michigan spent more than $6 million to support Dixon, but her campaign was badly outraised and outspent by Whitmer. Through late October, Whitmer has raised $36 million compared to $6.7 million for Dixon. 

“We’re having a problem with principle versus what we are willing to compromise within the party structure” in order to win elections, Smith told Bridge Michigan, arguing that Republicans shouldn’t abandon election security concerns just because it may not be a winning issue. 

“I don’t take winning as the be-all end-all,” he said. “I do have a certain level of principle that I think is just as important as a win.” 

A bad night for Trump, good night for DeSantis

As Trump considers another run for president in 2024, with an announcement expected in the near future, he has maintained a huge influence over the Michigan Republican Party.

He endorsed DePerno and Karamo in contested convention fights earlier this year, helped congressional candidate Jon Gibbs oust incumbent GOP U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer and backed Dixon days before she won the Michigan primary.

But those high-profile candidates each lost their general election matchups Tuesday. Gibbs lost to Democrat Hillary Scholten in a race that cemented a political sea change in the once conservative-stronghold of west Michigan. 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, considered Trump’s top competition for the 2024 presidential nomination, gave a “thumping” to Democratic challenger Charlie Crist on Tuesday and looks “like the future of the party,” Roe said. 

“I think we’d be wise to take note of what he’s doing there and get rid of the idiocracy of re-litigating 2020.”

Trump can claim some wins in Michigan – he also backed congressional incumbents Lisa McLain, John Moolenaar, Bill Huizenga and Tim Walberg — but each won re-election in a safe Republican district where they were all but guaranteed a general election victory. 

“This is the worst night in the modern history of the Michigan GOP, and a lot of it is the former president's fault,” Adrian Hemond, a Democratic strategist said in a post-election media briefing with MIRS subscription news. 

Trump-backed candidates also lost other key races around the country, including U.S. Senate candidate Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania. But in Ohio, Trump-backed J.D. Vance won a U.S. Senate seat, and a Georgia Senate race with Trump-backed Herschel Walker remained too close to call as vote counting continued Wednesday afternoon. 

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Many Republicans reeling from a tough midterm are looking to DeSantis, who was able to put together a diverse coalition that included Latino and Black voters and is “what the party needs to be paying attention to right now,” said Bradley, the former Michigan GOP director of African American engagement. 

Trump rallied for Dixon, DePerno and Karamo in Michigan but provided very little financial assistance, limiting the impact of his endorsement, Bradley noted. 

“I think now maybe candidates understand that they need to talk more with their constituents and listen to the folks that are here on the ground,” he said. “Those are the people that are going to get them elected at the end of the day.”

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