Far-right Republican groups storm swing state Michigan
By Nathan Layne
HILLSDALE, Mich (Reuters) – Jon Smith, a local leader in rural Michigan of America First, a far-right Republican faction that is in denial about the results of the 2020 election, wants the entire party to move to the right – even if it means short-term misses the ballot box. “We need to redefine what it means to be a Republican,” he said in an interview.
To further that end, Smith and other hardliners used armed guards to bar moderate delegates from a district convention last August and threatened to charge them with trespassing, according to an email to the moderates seen by Reuters.
Smith, who is running for party chairmanship in his congressional district, also helped persuade state party officials to bar moderates from his county from a vote Saturday to choose the leaders who will lead Michigan Republicans to the 2024 election .
According to Reuters interviews with two dozen party leaders, grassroots members and political pundits, far-right Republican groups are encroaching across the state, sidelining moderate voices, risking ties with big donors and complicating the state party’s efforts to rebuild after its worst election results since 1984 .
America First Republicans now control local party leadership in more than half of Michigan’s 83 counties, a senior party official estimated, paving the way for a key victory on Saturday when a vote-stayer is expected to be elected state party leader.
Critics say the Republican Party’s continued rightward swing after mid-term losses from candidates backed by former President Donald Trump could jeopardize its chances in a state likely to prove crucial for control of the White House and Congress in the year 2024 will prove, with one of Michigan’s Senate seats in play.
The local skirmishes mirror Republican infighting in other swing states and in Congress, where Kevin McCarthy made key concessions to hard-nosed lawmakers to win the House Speaker election last month.
“What’s going on in Michigan is a microcosm of what’s going on with the Republican Party nationally,” said Michael Traugott, a professor at the Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan.
“LIKE A COUP”
In Smiths Hillsdale County, allegiance to Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen is ingrained. Trump won more than 70% of the vote in 2020. In January 2021, local Congressman Tim Walberg voted against confirming Joe Biden’s election victory.
Last July, the far-right faction passed a resolution to “protect the party from a hostile takeover of actors intent on diluting or destroying the party’s values,” and voted to expel 70 moderates. The resolution, seen by Reuters, claims the party was “infiltrated” by members practicing socialism in the 1970s.
“To me, this is like a Republican coup d’état,” said Penny Swan, who sided with the moderates after seeing the armed guards at the August gathering. “It’s as if the radical right is trying to take power.”
For Smith, 44, who sells commercial restaurant and industrial equipment online, party leaders should adhere strictly to conservative principles of limited government, low taxes and wide-ranging gun rights. You should avoid compromising with Democrats, he said.
In 2021, Smith helped charter buses to take Hillsdale residents to Washington to attend the January 6 protests on the Mall, though he said he did not set foot on the Capitol.
He said he still questions the integrity of the 2020 election and wants an audit of the state’s results.
While moderate Republicans in Hillsdale share hardliners’ support for low taxes and limited government, they label far-right members absolutists and accuse them of improperly usurping control.
In October, Hillsdale moderates sued for their recognition as the lawful leaders of the local party, and this month they asked the judge to block the far-right faction from sending their list of delegates to Saturday’s convention.
The judge declined to intervene, leaving Michigan Republican Party officials to set the rules for delegate selection. The moderates continue to pursue the case in court
Saturday’s meeting is expected to cement Republicans’ shift to the right in Michigan.
The two frontrunners for state party leader have both espoused conspiracy theories to support Trump’s false claims of voter fraud. Nine other candidates are running, including Scott Greenlee, a policy adviser favored by moderates who is being presented with an outside opportunity.
Trump has backed Matthew DePerno, who lost his election as attorney general in November and is under investigation, according to state authorities, on alleged conspiracy to gain access to voting machines.
DePerno, who has denied wrongdoing and has called the investigation politically motivated, declined to be interviewed for this story.
His main challenger, Kristina Karamo, lost her election as foreign minister last November.
Choosing an election denier could discourage top donors from directly supporting the party, especially if the next leader supports extreme candidates, three major fundraisers said in interviews.
“If they continue to use this rhetoric to inspire the grassroots instead of focusing on the future, it becomes very difficult to raise funds from big donors,” said Robert Schostak, founder of consulting firm Templar Baker Group and former Republican state party chair .
Karamo said that some traditional donors only wanted “servants” and that the party could find new donors among grassroots and wealthy individuals who had never donated before.
Smith, who will attend the state convention as a delegate, believes such tensions are natural when the party changes direction.
“There are some people who think this is the end of the Republican Party,” he said. “I think there is light at the end of the tunnel.”
(Reporting by Nathan Layne; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Suzanne Goldenberg)