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Matt DePerno banks on Trump bump in Republican race for attorney general

Matt DePerno
Matt DePerno, a Republican candidate for Michigan attorney general, has appeared at Capitol rallies calling for a "forensic audit" of the 2020 presidential election. (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)

April 21: DePerno loses another bid for Antrim County audit as court dismisses appeal
April 12: Trump favorite Matt DePerno back in court, seeks another Antrim County audit
March 24: Firm: Michigan AG hopeful Matt DePerno fired over ‘padded,’ false billings
March 9: Michigan AG candidate Matt DePerno gets his moment at Trump’s Mar-A-Lago

LANSING—Donors willing to spend $25,000 and travel to Florida on Tuesday will have access to a "private briefing" and photo opportunity with former President Donald Trump and Michigan attorney general candidate Matt DePerno.

The Republican fundraiser at Trump's Mar-A-Lago Club will benefit DePerno, a Portage-based attorney who earned national notoriety with his failed lawsuit challenging 2020 election results and voting machines in Antrim County, echoing the unfounded claims by Trump.

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Trump is expected to speak at the event. Mike Lindell, a pillow company executive and outspoken election conspiracy theorist, is also expected to attend and pose for photographs with large donors.

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It's the latest in a series of election assists from the former president, and a test of whether Republican voters will reward candidates who tie themselves to Trump’s 2020 election grievances. 

Trump has already endorsed 16 Michigan candidates this cycle, but he's paid extra attention to DePerno, who he first backed in September. More recently, Trump penned a letter to Michigan GOP precinct delegates urging them to vote for DePerno at the state party's April 23 endorsement convention. 

"Matt is a patriot who will restore election integrity, end the mandates, stop the teaching of Critical Race Theory, and most of all he will protect and uphold the Constitution," Trump told delegates in the Feb. 21 letter. 

"You need to nominate America First candidates like Matt who voters can get energized and excited about!"

DePerno is facing stiff primary competition from former Michigan House Speaker Tom Leonard, who was the party's nominee for attorney general in 2018 but narrowly lost to Democrat Dana Nessel by 2.7 percentage points in the general election. 

State Rep. Ryan Berman, R-Commerce Township, is also running.

Leonard touts several endorsements of his own from high-profile Michigan Republicans like former Attorney General Bill Schuette and interest groups like Right to Life of Michigan. He has largely focused his campaign on Nessel rather than his GOP counterparts. 

"Unlike Matt Deperno, I've been standing on the front lines together with the Republican grassroots delegates for years," Leonard said in a statement to Bridge Michigan. 

"They know who I am, and they know the truth. That is why we are so far out in the lead and the DePerno campaign is getting desperate. I'm focussed on uniting this party, holding Dana Nessel accountable for her record, and winning in November."

But DePerno appears to be building momentum. Two gubernatorial candidates — Perry Johnson and Ryan Kelley — recently endorsed DePerno and called on other Republicans to do so ahead of what could be a contentious convention. 

Trump chose Leonard to serve as U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan in 2019, a nomination that was ultimately blocked by the state’s Senate Democrats. But in his recent letter to GOP delegates, Trump assisted DePerno by blasting Leonard for telling The Detroit News in September he had “not seen evidence that would overturn” the 2020 election won by Democratic President Joe Biden.

Leonard is an “absolute embarrassment to the GOP,” not “viable” in a rematch against Nessel and an establishment “RINO” — a Republican In Name Only, Trump argued in the letter. 

“Republicans listen to that,” DePerno campaign manager Tyson Shepard told Bridge Michigan in an email. “We are very proud to have the full support of President Trump leading up to the April Convention." 

Johnson, a wealthy metro Detroit businessman who ran expensive Super Bowl ads promoting his own campaign last month, announced last week he'll also be attending the DePerno fundraiser at Mar-A-Lago. 

Entry requires a donation of at least $2,500, according to an invitation obtained by Bridge. Contributions of $10,000 will get donors access to the “private briefing” and a picture with DePerno and Lindell. The $25,000 ticket includes a photo with Trump.  

Under Michigan law, an individual donor can contribute no more than $7,150 to an attorney general candidate. But DePerno's invitation indicates donors can also help "raise" larger amounts required for special access.

Those donations could help DePerno close a fundraising gap with Leonard, who had raised 681,933 through the end of 2021, compared to $191,731.41 for DePerno, according to state disclosure reports. 

The former president stands to profit from the fundraiser as well. 

Campaign finance records show DePerno paid $17,213.63 for event space and catering at Trump’s Mar-A-Lago Club. Tudor Dixon, a Michigan gubernatorial candidate, paid $7,342.88 to rent space there for her own fundraiser last month. 

The Trump endorsement is a "huge plus for DePerno" given the former president’s continued “hold" on the party, said GOP pollster Steven Mitchell. But Leonard remains a “very credible candidate with a proven track record” who outperformed the top of the ticket in 2018, he said.

Mitchell’s recent polling of Republican primary voters found 80 percent were more likely to back a candidate who supports Trump. Only 23 percent of GOP primary voters said they are confident Biden "legally won" Michigan, according to the survey.

Biden won Michigan by 154,188 votes, according to official results. A Republican-led Senate panel that spent months investigating the election found no evidence of widespread voter fraud, including in Antrim County, where human error by a Republican clerk led to an initially inflated vote count for Biden.

Instead, the GOP panel asked Nessel – the Democratic attorney general – to investigate “those who have been utilizing misleading and false information about Antrim County to raise money or publicity for their own ends.”

Nessel later described that as a reference to DePerno, who as of last summer had raised more than $384,000 for an “election fraud defense fund.” Her office is investigating, but the first-term Democrat said she is not involved in the probe and will appoint an outside special counsel to prosecute if any charges are filed.

At a debate last month, DePerno said that if he is elected, he would immediately “arrest” Nessel, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson for what he called “misconduct in office” related to COVID-19 policies and election administration, a position his GOP opponents criticized as premature without first conducting an investigation.

Berman said he would like to investigate COVID-19 nursing home deaths under the Whitmer administration, a step Nessel declined to take. But Berman said it is “irresponsible” and “unethical to publicly say you’re going to investigate somebody without knowing all the facts,” he said, chiding DePerno.

Leonard entered the 2022 race with significantly higher name identification than DePerno, who prior to 2020 had been best known as the defense attorney for former Rep. Todd Courser, who resigned in 2015 amid a sex scandal coverup and later pleaded no contest to a charge of willful neglect of duty.

The Republican precinct delegates who will vote to endorse attorney general and secretary of state candidates at the April convention are "hardcore" activists who tend to be very conservative, a dynamic that could benefit DePerno, said Mitchell, the GOP pollster. 

"What remains to be seen is whether or not the credibility that Tom Leonard has is enough for people to overlook the (Trump) endorsement and say, ‘We think that Tom Leonard is the stronger candidate.’"

Democrats appear to favor the possibility of a DePerno nomination because they believe he would be the easier candidate to defeat in the general election given his continued claims about the 2020 presidential election and other controversial positions, including a “no exception” stance on abortion.

"He's got this sort of hardcore (base) that's not going to leave him, which is why you do have to make him the favorite at convention," said Adrian Hemond, a Democratic strategist with Grassroots Midwest in Lansing. 

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"But if that's who that convention nominates, the voters are gonna punish (Republicans) for it in a general election."

DePerno, however, has argued that Leonard could struggle in a general election because of his ties to former House Speaker Lee Chatfield, who served under Leonard in the Legislature and previously donated to his campaigns. Chatfield is now under investigation for alleged sexual assault of a minor and campaign finance irregularties but denies any illegal wrongdoing.

“We have been flooded with support from Republicans around the state after President Trump’s letter to delegates,” Shepard, DePerno’s campaign manager, told Bridge Michigan. 

“This AG race is about finding the best candidate to beat Dana Nessel and delegates are standing with the America First Agenda and Matt DePerno.”

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