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‘Pure chaos’ in Michigan as FBI arrest, forgeries rock GOP governor primary

GOP debate
While Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has smooth sailing in the Democratic primary, those vying for the Republican nod are having a rough couple of weeks. This photo is from the Republican gubernatorial debate in May in Howell. (Screenshot)

LANSING — Already rocked by a signature forgery scandal, Michigan’s Republican gubernatorial primary was upended again this week by the arrest of candidate Ryan Kelley, the promise of a write-in campaign by James Craig and new conspiracy claims about the upcoming election. 

It’s “pure chaos,” said Andrea Bitely, a Lansing-based strategist who worked for former Attorney General Bill Schuette, the GOP’s 2018 gubernatorial nominee.

Kelley, accused of four misdemeanor crimes stemming from a U.S. Capitol riot over the 2020 presidential election, on Friday described his arrest as a “political witch hunt” and alleged Democrats have “weaponized the FBI against me” to manipulate the 2022 contest. 


Craig, one of five candidates recently booted from the ballot over forged signatures, announced Thursday night that he would run a write-in campaign for the GOP gubernatorial nomination. And Perry Johnson, alleging Democrats rigged the process, vowed to continue fighting in court. 

Kelley’s arrest will likely give him a “bump” in the GOP primary – making him a “MAGA martyr” — but would “dog” him in a general election, said Democratic strategist Adrian Hemond, calling the recent Republican upheaval “great times” for incumbent Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

“All of the fundamentals of this election cycle are terrible for Democrats,” said Hemond, CEO of Grassroots Midwest political consulting firm in Lansing.  “You have a super unpopular president going into his first midterm which is normally very bad for the party that holds the presidency. Inflation is rampant in the economy. And Michigan Republicans seem determined to screw it up.”

Top-ranking Republicans rallied to Kelley’s defense and questioned the timing of his arrest Thursday morning, less than 12 hours before a prime-time Congressional hearing over the events on and leading up to Jan. 6, 2021, when supporters of former President Donald Trump tried to stop Congress from certifying his election loss. 

“Law and order are the bedrock of our democracy, but justice is not served when it is driven by a political agenda,” Michigan GOP Chairman Ron Weiser said in a statement. “Families and children are now becoming victims of political theater meant to distract from the failures of Democrat policy. It’s shameful and must end.”

‘Trump asked us to come’

Court records undermine that narrative, however, showing the FBI began looking into Kelley in early 2021, after then-U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider – a  Republican and Trump appointee – vowed an investigation, saying he ​​"swore an oath to the Constitution, not to Donald Trump."

Kelley has acknowledged he was at the Capitol on Jan. 6, protesting what he called a “stolen” election, but was not inside the building and not violent against police.

Federal authorities say video footage shows that Kelley climbed scaffolding outside the Capitol and assisted another rioter who pulled down a metal barricade, among other things. He’s charged with four misdemeanors, including disorderly and disruptive conduct in a restricted building or grounds, and was released on bond.

In a Friday morning interview on WOOD radio, Kelley declined to discuss specifics of his case or his actions on Jan. 6. But he called his arrest political “theater” and urged supporters to “stand with (him) against this oppression.”

If convicted, Kelley faces up to a year behind bars on each charge. But in the GOP primary, his “stock just went up,” said Bitely, a Lansing-based GOP strategist. 

“He now has the most name ID of the remaining candidates on the ballot,” Bitely said, suggesting the arrest could endear Kelley to Trump, who has not yet endorsed in the gubernatorial race. “He’s going to become very famous across the MAGA internet.”

Thursday’s Congressional hearing on Jan. 6 included video commentary from two other Michigan men arrested for the riots, including Robert Schornak of Roseville, who received probation in a plea deal and said he joined because “Trump asked us to come."

Multiple officials in the Trump administration told the congressional panel they cautioned Trump against trying to overturn the election, including then-U.S. Attorney General William Barr, who said allegations that voting machines were rigged was “crazy stuff” and “complete nonsense.”

Claims about Dominion voting machines were fueled by a GOP clerk’s error in Antrim County and a subsequent lawsuit by attorney Matthew DePerno, who is now the presumptive GOP nominee for Michigan attorney general and joined Kelley outside a federal courthouse in Grand Rapids on Thursday afternoon. 

In another new development, former U.S. Education Secretary Besty DeVos of Michigan this week acknowledged she and other members of the Trump cabinet discussed invoking the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office after the Jan. 6 riot and his refusal to accept defeat.

DeVos, who has endorsed Tudor Dixon of Norton Shores in Michigan’s GOP gubernatorial primary, resigned on Jan. 8 after Vice President Mike Pence “made it very clear that he was not going to go in that direction or that path,” she told USA Today in an interview published Thursday.

An ‘impossible’ hurdle

Craig, the former Detroit police chief, had led all polls of the Michigan GOP primary field before he was disqualified late last month for submitting forged signatures from paid circulators now under criminal investigation. 

The Michigan Supreme Court – including Republican appointees – rejected lawsuits from Craig and other disqualified candidates, but “I am not giving up,” he said Thursday night, announcing he will run a write-in campaign for the GOP nomination. 

“I am the best candidate to unseat Gov. Whitmer,” Craig said in a Fox 2 interview, arguing petition circulators “robbed” him of the nomination.

“It’s not just Democrats” who wanted him off the ballot, Craig added, repeatedly pointing out that his signatures were first challenged by a super PAC supporting Dixon, the businesswoman and conservative media personality who is backed by DeVos and Right to Life of Michigan. 

It will be nearly “impossible” for Craig to win a write-in campaign, said Bitely, the Republican strategist. Mike Duggan first won election as Detroit’s mayor in a 2013 write-in campaign, but that was a smaller race and Duggan had an “incredible machine” behind him, she said. 

“I don't see that momentum behind (Craig),” Bitely said, predicting his write-in campaign could affect the GOP primary by pulling votes from other candidates, most likely Dixon.

Johnson, the wealthy Bloomfield Hills businessman who joined Craig for the joint television interview on Fox 2, estimated that running a successful write-in campaign would cost $22 million and be “very, very difficult” to pull off. 

Johnson is instead continuing his fight in federal court. 

On Thursday, his attorney asked a judge to expedite a hearing on Johnson’s latest ballot access lawsuit, which seeks a court order to halt the printing of ballots that must legally go out to military and overseas voters by June 18. 

The Michigan Bureau of Elections, operating under Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, has not proven every signature submitted by the accused circulators was forged, Johnson said on Fox 2, suggesting the disqualifications were politically motivated. 

"I would stake my life on the fact that half of those petitions at least are good,” he argued.

Democrats, meanwhile, contend Republican candidates have no one to blame but themselves. 

The GOP field has already been cut in half “due to corruption and mass fraud,” Michigan Democratic Party Chairwoman Lavora Barnes said in a statement, referencing the circulator fraud that candidates have denied direct knowledge of. And now, she argued, Kelleys actions on Jan. 6 have exposed the party’s “callous disregard” for the principles of democracy. 

“Michiganders won’t forget,” Barnes said. 

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