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Michigan GOP at crossroads, seeks to rebuild after ‘civil war’ over leadership

LANSING — Ron Weiser is back in charge of the Michigan Republican Party, which is seeking to regroup following a brutal presidential election loss and a bitter convention fight marked by accusations of internal fraud.

The real estate magnate and University of Michigan regent on Saturday won a convention election to succeed Laura Cox, who led the party the past two years and on Thursday publicly accused Weiser of a "sleazy payoff" to get a Republican candidate to drop his campaign back in 2018.

Weiser and co-chair Meshawn Maddock will lead the party into what he called a "critical" 2022 election cycle, which on paper should favor Republicans because the party out of the White House typically fares well in presidential midterm contests. 

Ron Weiser
Michigan Republican Party Chair Ron Weiser is under fire for joking about assassinating and calling Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Attorney General Dana Nessel ‘witches. (Bridge file photo)

But their tenure begins in controversy — and potentially an investigation of party finances by the office of Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat. 

Weiser and Maddock also take office amid soul-searching over the direction of the party following the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, where supporters of then-President Donald Trump stormed the building to stop certification of what he had told them was a "rigged" election.

Weiser of Ann Arbor is considered an establishment Republican, but GOP delegates on Saturday elected a series of Trump loyalists closely aligned with the ex-president.

  • Maddock of Milford in December published the names and addresses of several allegedly "dead voters" who were alive. She spoke at a "stop the steal" event in Lansing, and organized bus trips to Washington D.C. for the rally on the eve of the riots. She said she didn’t storm the Capitol.
  • Marian Sheridan, re-elected grassroots vice chair of the party, is one of the named plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit that sought to overturn Democratic President Joe Biden’s win in Michigan. The suit, filed by pro-Trump attorney Sidney Powell, alleged a broad international conspiracy to rig the election and included “expert” analysis riddled with errors. A Michigan judge dismissed the claims as an "amalgamation of theories, conjecture, and speculation,” but Powell has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Democrats including Gretchen Whitmer want Powell disbarred over the accusations.
  • Tami Carlone, the Michigan GOP's new coalitions vice chair, lost her bid for state board of education by 76,608 votes. But in a GOP convention video, she claimed the election was "stolen" from her "in the wee hours of the morning." On social media, Carlone has spread debunked conspiracies about Antrim County voting machines and has claimed Joe Biden is not a legitimate president because of "extreme voter fraud."
  • Diane Schindlbeck, elected administrative vice-chair, promoted "stop the steal" rallies on social media. She is a longtime Maddock ally. Together, they founded an advocacy group called Michigan Trump Republicans.

Weiser has said little about what direction he wants to take the party, which he led twice before, including the highly successful 2010 cycle in which Republicans won full control of state government, and the dismal 2018 cycle when Democrats swept top statewide offices. 

In a statement, he called his convention win "the beginning of unifying our party.”

Cox had announced she wasn’t running for re-election, but last week asked supporters to elect her on a “temporary basis” to block Weiser. The GOP doesn’t typically disclose internal vote totals, but Weiser released a statement saying he beat Cox by a 2-1 margin, with 66 percent of the vote.

"The skirmishes of yesterday are over," Weiser said. "Our focus now rests on the great challenges before us: Rebuilding our party. Defeating Whitmer, (Attorney General Dana) Nessel, Benson and other far-left radicals."

The party has yet to recruit any high-profile candidates for those races. 

Despite encouragement, former U.S. Rep. Candice Miller of Macomb County said in January she would not run for governor against Whitmer, who has already built a massive campaign war chest and began 2021 with $3.5 million in cash reserves. 

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To date, the most well-known GOP gubernatorial candidate is right-wing activist Ryan Kelley, who last year asked federal authorities to arrest Whitmer because of her COVID-19 orders. He leads the American Patriot Council, which the Southern Poverty Law Center calls an extreme anti-government group. 

Weiser, a GOP mega donor known for his fundraising prowess, will be tasked with recruiting electable candidates for statewide races. He also set goals of growing GOP majorities in the Michigan Legislature and winning back control of the Michigan Supreme Court, which Democrats flipped last year. 

"We are unified by a common goal, a vital aspiration to improve our lives, our state and our nation," he said. "To that end, Meshawn and I have assembled an extraordinary team. We have a tremendous plan. And we will win in 2022."

Campaign finance investigation

Before losing the chair race, Cox on Thursday took the unusual step of self-reporting possible campaign finance violations by the Michigan Republican Party during Weiser’s previous tenure. 

She alleged that in 2018, Weiser used the Michigan GOP's administrative account to pay Shelby Township Clerk Stan Grot $200,000 to drop his campaign for Michigan Secretary of State.  A preliminary investigation report prepared by a law firm for Cox also suggested Weiser may have paid GOP strategist Scott Hagerstrom to drop his 2017 campaign for party chair. 

Weiser and Grot denied the allegations, and Hagerstrom blasted Cox for releasing what he called a "one-sided document that contains hearsay and unfounded accusations."

The payments to Grot may constitute political "expenditures" from the Michigan GOP's administrative account, which is supposed to be used only for "paying administrative expenses that are totally unrelated to the party's political activity," Cox wrote in a letter to Bureau Director Jonathan Brater.

Jake Rollow, a spokesperson for Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, told Bridge Michigan the Bureau of Elections will “review the claim to determine if an investigation is necessary,” as it does “with any campaign finance violation complaint.”

 The accusations and campaign finance complaint filed by Cox set off a firestorm in the Michigan Republican Party.

“Because of Laura, Democrats now have the ability to poke around in our records,” Maddock said in a video released shortly before the virtual convention began. “We saw what Democrats did to our president. We saw what some of our own people did to the president.”

“Now the people that we are trying to defeat — Whitmer, Nessel and Benson — could have access to the party's private information. It's pathetic, and shameful. It's desperate. It's wrong, but we will not let her burn down our party.”

Still, Maddock promised delegates she and Weiser are focused on 2022.

“We are going to hold Whitmer accountable for shutting down our state,” said Maddock, an activist who previously led a group called the Michigan Conservtive Coalition that grew out of the Tea Party movement. 

“We are going to hold Nessel accountable for politicizing the attorney general's office, and we are going to hold Benson accountable for the 2020 elections.”

Civil war

Cox used official party resources to promote and hold a virtual town hall meeting on Friday night, the eve of the convention, in which she again laid out her accusations against Weiser and Grot, calling them “villains” and urging delegates to “speak truth to billionaire power.”

“We cannot be the party of payoffs,” said Cox, a former state representative from Livonia in Wayne County. “We are the party of law and order.” 

Maddock, who campaigned alongside Cox last fall, on Thursday called her a “bitter, sore loser who failed our president in the 2020 elections,” saying Republicans “might have won Michigan if someone else was serving.”

Mike Cox, the state’s former Attorney General, took to social media on Thursday evening to defend his wife and double down on her allegations. 

“At the end of the day, Laura does not want the job. She only wants corruption stopped,” he wrote in one Facebook comment. In another, he called Weiser a “billionaire bully who wants to buy our party” and said he and his wife “don’t want our party to become the party of payoffs.”

Mike Cox also highlighted allegations that Weiser paid Hagerstrom to drop his campaign for chair in 2017, which he did to endorse Weiser. 

According to Cox’s investigative report, Michigan GOP Chief Financial Officer Henrietta Tow told attorneys that Hagerstrom “simultaneously boasted and complained” about the arrangement during a 2017 conversation at the Pink Pony bar on Mackinac Island, where the party holds a biennial conference. 

Hagerstrom told her he was “being paid $80,000 by the State Party to do nothing,” Tow recalled, confirming that Hagerstrom’s company, GSPLE LLC, was paid $81,500 between 2017 and 2018 “without any written contract and without any discernible services being provided.” 

In a statement provided to Bridge Michigan, Hagerstrom accused Cox of betraying the Republican Party, which is “inexcusable.”

“Laura has only demonstrated her desperate and shameful ploy to hold on to power by initiating, conducting and then releasing a one-sided document that contains hearsay and unfounded accusations,” he said. “It is also a sad attempt by Laura to divert attention from her record of losing.” 

Hagerstrom also criticized Laura Cox on Facebook, resurfacing a 2019 Bridge Michigan story noting that Cox was identified as an early legislative advocate of a $10 million state grant the GOP-led Legislature awarded to former party chairman Bobby Schostak’s company in 2017. 

Several Republicans publicly lamented the spectacle in their own social media posts.

“Not what the Michigan Republican Party needs right now after a failed election cycle that divided the Party,” Scott Greenlee, a GOP consultant who backed Weiser, wrote on Facebook before the convention vote. 

‘The party that I love and have spent so much time defending is engaging in a civil war,” wrote Kevin Tatulyan, former coalitions vice chair for the Michigan GOP. “What the heck is going on? This needs to stop right now.”

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