Michigan Republicans Fear a Split Ahead of 2024

Kristina Karamo speaks in Dearborn, Michigan, on October 30, 2022. (Photo by Nic Antaya for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Intense Republican infighting in Michigan is boosting Democrats in the critical 2024 battleground and hobbling GOP plans for a comeback after stinging defeats in three consecutive elections.

Michigan’s sprawling Republican establishment of operatives, donors, elected officials, and allied industry groups is breaking ranks with the state party, declaring no-confidence in newly elected chairwoman Kristina Karamo—an ally of former President Donald Trump. They are instead directing money, manpower, and other crucial resources to a collection of conservative outside groups. Discussions are underway in Republican circles to launch additional super PACs and 501(c)4 nonprofit organizations.

It’s all part of a broad strategy to sidestep the Michigan GOP and shun Karamo. In the 2022 midterm elections, the polarizing populist chairwoman lost her bid to oust Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, Michigan’s chief elections administrator, by a yawning 14 percentage points. Yet nearly four months later, Karamo is still refusing to concede to the incumbent Democrat.

“There’s no way in hell you can look at the state party apparatus as a stock and say: ‘Gee, I want to invest more in that stock.’ Just the opposite,” Jimmy Greene, president and CEO of Associated Builders and Contractors of Michigan, told The Dispatch. “The party is a grievance driven party and not one to be taken seriously.”

“We have myriad groups out here designed to support conservative candidates and the conservative movement,” added Jamie Roe, a veteran Republican strategist based near Detroit. “I know there are other groups being established to fill the void of a party that is not what we’re used to here in Michigan.” (Karamo did not respond to a request for comment.)

Michigan is a perennial Midwestern battleground and an important piece of the Electoral College puzzle for Democratic and Republican presidential contenders.

The state’s 16 electoral votes helped power Trump to a close win over Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016 and did the same for President Joe Biden versus Trump four years later. In 2024, besides a White House race that now awards 15 electoral votes to the winner, the parties are vying for an open Senate seat, competitive House districts, and the narrowly divided Michigan House of Representatives. 

For the GOP, there’s also a desire to dim the rising star of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, freshly reelected and a potential future Democratic presidential candidate. 

But interviews with several well-placed Michigan Republicans revealed widespread pessimism about the party’s prospects after grassroots delegates to the state GOP’s mid-February convention elected Karamo the new chairman. They say Karamo can’t raise money or manage a multimillion dollar organization, claim she is a poor communicator and repels swing voters by denying her loss to Benson, and argue she is hostile to traditional Republicans.

“It is a disaster and there’s no way to overstate what a disaster it is,” said Jason Roe (no relation to Jamie Roe), a Republican strategist in Michigan and former top aide at the state GOP. “It’s embarrassing. The media is going to love to turn to Karamo and hear her say things that make us look insane.” 

“We’re going to lose elections,” a longtime Republican operative in the state said flatly, requesting anonymity to speak candidly. 

Even Trump spurned Karamo in the chairman’s race, backing Matt DePerno, who lost the race for state attorney general last November. He too promoted Trump’s unfounded claims that the 2020 election was stolen.

Republicans opposed to Karamo emphasize the biggest casualty of her reign will be the party’s ability to raise and maximize resources. Whatever windfall in small donations that might pour in from grassroots contributors enthusiastic about Karamo’s election, it’s unlikely to compensate for the millions of dollars from wealthy financiers her chairmanship costs the state party. There’s also the issue of discounted rates for bulk, direct-mail political advertising available to state parties but not individual candidates or the national party committees. 

Without a functioning state party that candidates and committees such as the National Republican Senatorial Committee and National Republican Congressional Committee can work with, Republican campaigns in Michigan might have to pay more to broadcast their message to voters, giving Democrats a distinct advantage in 2024 contests up and down the ballot. 

Along with new organizations that could soon be up and running, cue the long list of existing conservative outside groups poised to bridge the gap,: the Michigan chapter of American for Prosperity, affiliated with the Koch network of political groups; Michigan Rising Action, dedicated to opposition research and candidate tracking; the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a think tank; Michigan Freedom Fund and its affiliated political action committee, Michigan Freedom Network, which is associated with the DeVos family; and the House Republican Campaign Committee (HRCC), a Michigan-centric version of the NRCC tasked with winning seats in the state House of Representatives.  

Last fall, Democrats won a razor thin 56-54 majority in the state House; and with no state Senate seats up for election in 2024, Republicans in Michigan are laser-focused on flipping the chamber. Because doubts about Karamo’s leadership are rampant throughout the party, the HRCC is expecting even more resources than normal to flow into its coffers from donors and activists. 

“It’s safe to assume money to support House Republicans as we work to get back to the majority will not flow through the Michigan GOP,” a knowledgeable party insider in the state capital said. 

And if these new consortiums that pop up fail to adequately pick up the slack, Michigan Republicans hope the Republican National Committee will step in. 

RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel likely won’t need prodding. Recently reelected to her fourth term atop the RNC, McDaniel hails from Michigan and led the state GOP in the 2016 election cycle before Trump tapped her to run the national party. In an interview Sunday on CNN, McDaniel did not express an opinion of Karamo but suggested she’s prepared to do whatever is necessary to ensure Republicans keep pace with the Democrats in next year’s elections.

“I don’t know her very well and I wasn’t at this recent convention, so the delegates chose Kristina,” McDaniel said. “But I’m committed to Michigan. It’s my state.”

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