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On Mackinac, Vivek Ramaswamy steals Michigan GOP spotlight

GOP presidential hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy speaks at the 2023 Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)

MACKINAC ISLAND—Presidential hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy wowed Michigan Republicans on Friday at a state party island retreat, railing against the “woke industrial complex” and vowing to upend the bureaucracy in Washington, D.C.

“It was one of the best speeches I’ve ever heard,” Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, told Bridge Michigan on the walk from the Grand Hotel to Horn’s Gaslight Bar, where Ramaswamy would join activists in a “U.S.A.” chant after his keynote address. 

“It was everything I wanted to hear,” said Runestad, who earlier this year endorsed former President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign. 


Ramaswamy, of Ohio, capitalized on a captive audience at the biennial Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference, where he was the only presidential candidate scheduled to speak at the weekend event that has traditionally drawn a who’s who of White House hopefuls. 

He used his roughly 30-minute speech to lay out an ambitious — critics might say, unrealistic — plan to attack the “administrative state” by firing 75 percent of federal government employees and eliminating “agencies that should not exist,” including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Internal Revenue Service. 

“We're not just gonna get in there and tinker around the edges,” said Ramaswamy, a wealthy biotech entrepreneur with Ivy League degrees from Harvard and Yale. “No, we are going to get in there and shut them down.”

It was red meat for an “America First” crowd that has taken over the Michigan Republican Party as part of a populist movement. But the state party has struggled to raise funds amid internal fighting that has alienated traditional donors and scared away more moderate candidates.

But after they stopped applauding, several Republicans at the conference told Bridge that Ramaswamy is still not their first choice in the Republican nominating contest. 

“This guy is amazing,” but “I’m sticking with Trump,” said Debra Ell, a Saginaw County GOP activist. She praised Ramaswamy as “very Trumpy” and predicted he may have a bright political future as “a great possibility for V.P.”

Speaking with reporters later Friday, Ramaswamy acknowledged the Trump running mate chatter but made clear he is focused on winning the top job. 

“I think for people who might not have known how I was even four months ago, to be (a second choice) in the month of September, that’s great,” he said. “Come November, I think they’re going to be in a very different place.”

Ramaswamy proved a draw in what was otherwise a disjointed start to the Mackinac Island event, whose organizers were forced to push impromptu speakers onto the stage earlier Friday when former presidential candidate Alan Keyes missed his scheduled speaking time. 

Keyes suffered "car trouble" on his way to the island but will speak on Saturday, Michigan GOP attorney Dan Hartman told Bridge Michigan. 

Controversial filmmaker Dinesh D'Souza was scheduled to deliver a keynote address on Saturday afternoon but will not attend the conference, Hartman said, telling Bridge the Michigan GOP plans to play a video from D’Souza instead. 

In a sweeping speech that echoed Trump’s claims of a “deep state” conspiracy, Ramaswamy argued the United States is in the midst of a “war” between people who “share the ideals” of the country’s founders and those who believe in a  “culture of victimhood” and the “cult of climate change.”

“We will drill. We will frack. We will burn coal,” Ramaswamy said, framing environmental protection as an excuse for global elites to exert control. “We will embrace nuclear again without politics. That is how we grow our economy.”

Ramaswamy praised Trump as “the greatest president of the 21st Century” but told Michigan Republican Party activists that the movement Trump created is bigger than one man. 

The “America First agenda…belongs to you — the people of this country,” Ramaswamy said. 

Four to five hundred Republicans watched Ramaswamy’s speech at the island conference, which has failed to attract the larger crowds that have attended in past years. 

Despite the smaller crowds, Ramaswamy was “quite smart” to agree to deliver a keynote address, longtime Macomb County GOP strategist Jamie Roe said ahead of the conference.

That’s because the Michigan Republican Party is finalizing plans to replace its traditional presidential primary with a hybrid system that would award most of the state’s presidential nominating delegates to the winner of 13 Congressional District convention caucuses. 

The move was precipitated by legislative Democrats who voted to move Michigan’s primary up to late February, which would violate Republican National Committee rules. But it will effectively give Michigan GOP insiders more power than average voters to decide the presidential nominee.

As a result, Republican activists at the conference will likely be “key players” in choosing who the Michigan delegates are to the GOP’s national convention, Roe said. 

“Ramaswamy is going to be a very big beneficiary of that.”

The Ohio Republican was more than happy to have the spotlight to himself. 

“I think Michigan’s more important to me than it is to my competitors,” Ramaswamy said after his speech. “Michigan’s going to be a crucial part of our strategy.”

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