Michigan G.O.P. Leadership Race Fixates on Election Deniers

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LANSING, Mich. — Trump loyalists are expected to cement their takeover of Michigan’s Republican Party during its leadership vote on Saturday, most likely elevating one of two election deniers whose failed bids for office in November were emblematic of the party’s midterm drubbing in the state.

Matthew DePerno, an election conspiracy theorist who is under investigation in a case involving voting equipment that was tampered with after the 2020 presidential race, is widely considered a front-runner from a field of 9 that includes no high-profile members of the Republican old guard.

His closest rival appears to be Kristina Karamo, another vocal champion of former President Donald J. Trump’s election falsehoods. Both lost resoundingly last fall: Mr. DePerno, in his run for attorney general, by eight percentage points and Ms. Karamo by 14 points in the secretary of state race.

The selection of either Mr. DePerno or Ms. Karamo would signal a recommitment to Mr. Trump as the state party’s north star, even though voters rejected many of his favored candidates in the midterms. The fractured state G.O.P. appears to have either purged or alienated more moderate voices and is now plotting a defiant course as the 2024 presidential election approaches.

Ms. Karamo led in both of the first two rounds of voting, but neither she nor Mr. DePerno secured 50 percent of the vote.

A third round voting is now underway, hours past the time the party had originally rented the convention center for. The party is relying on paper ballots and hand-counting, and delegates spent most of the morning assailing digital voting technology and electronic tabulation.

“It is a hard out at 8 p.m. They will get rid of us,” Dave Dishaw, the convention chairman, warned over the speaker system as some delegates began gathering trash.

Mr. Trump urged Republican delegates to back Mr. DePerno during a telephone rally on Monday, saying that winning Michigan in 2024 was critical to his returning to the presidency.

Mike Lindell, the MyPillow chief executive who has sowed conspiracy theories about election fraud, also endorsed Mr. DePerno and showed up Friday night during a packed event to support him at The Nuthouse, a sports bar near the convention center. A vehicle with video billboards on its sides touting Ms. Karamo’s candidacy circled the bar outside.

A consultant for Mr. DePerno, Patrick Lee, declined to answer questions about the leadership vote or the status of a prosecutor’s inquiry into the voting machines breach. But Mr. DePerno, a lawyer who has maintained that he did not break the law, used the call with Mr. Trump to cast himself as an aggressive tactician who would return the state Republican Party to viability.

Ms. Karamo did not respond to requests for comment.

The party’s hard-right transformation has exasperated more traditional Republicans, who said in interviews that refusal to heed the lessons of the midterms would deepen the competition gap politically and financially between the G.O.P. and Democrats in a battleground state.

Former Representative Peter Meijer, whom Republican primary voters ousted last year after he voted to impeach Mr. Trump after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, said in a recent interview that the state party was on the wrong track.

“In our state, this civil war is benefiting no one but the Democrats,” he said. “Part of what the Republican Party in the state of Michigan needs to get back to is being a broad tent. To me, the fundamental challenge is, how do you rebuild trust in the state party after losses like we saw in November?”

Democrats swept the governor’s race and other statewide contests last fall, in addition to flipping the full Legislature for the first time in decades.

“Sadly, it looks like they want an encore,” said former Representative Fred Upton, a Republican who declined to run for re-election last year after also voting to impeach Mr. Trump.

Garrett Soldano, an unsuccessful G.O.P. candidate for governor last year who has balked at acknowledging Mr. Biden’s 2020 victory, is running for co-chairman on the same pro-Trump “America First” ticket as Mr. DePerno.

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They both have called for reinventing the party’s donor base to include more grass-roots supporters, as has Ms. Karamo, a departure from recent history when Michigan Republicans had become reliant on prolific donors like Ron Weiser, its departing chairman, and the powerful DeVos family. But the party’s financial reserves have dwindled.

Meshawn Maddock, the party’s departing co-chair, has attributed Republican losses in the state to the lack of support from longstanding donors, saying in a private briefing in November that big donors would rather “lose this whole state” than help the party’s candidates because they “hate” Mr. Trump, The Detroit News reported. Ms. Maddock did not respond to requests for comment.

Both Mr. DePerno and Ms. Karamo were badly out-raised by their opponents in last year’s election, raising questions about their ability to mine cash from political donors.

“Donors have said, ‘we’re not buying the crazies that you’re selling,’” said Jeff Timmer, a senior adviser for the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump group, and a former Republican who previously served as executive director of the Michigan Republican Party.

Some current and former Republican leaders in the state have suggested that Betsy DeVos, Mr. Trump’s estranged former education secretary who raised the idea of using the 25th Amendment to have him removed from office after the Capitol riot, is pulling back from the state party.

The DeVos family did not marshal dollars for Mr. DePerno and Ms. Karamo last year, but it did pour $2.9 million into a super PAC supporting Tudor Dixon, a Trump-endorsed Republican who lost the governor’s race, according to campaign finance records, and it gave at least $1 million to Michigan Republicans during the most recent campaign cycle.

Nick Wasmiller, a spokesman for the DeVos family, said they “invest based on enduring first principles, not fleeting flash points of the day” and in “those they believe have a serious and credible plan to win.”

Mr. DePerno and Mr. Soldano have outlined an intent to pack the party’s leadership ranks with Trump loyalists, close primaries to just Republicans and ratchet up the distribution of absentee ballot applications to G.O.P. voters — despite what Mr. DePerno said was lingering opposition to voting by mail within the party’s ranks.

Mr. Soldano echoed Mr. DePerno during a Facebook Live broadcast on Monday, saying that relying on Election Day votes had become a flawed strategy for Republicans.

“We can’t just scream anymore, ‘Hey, just show up and vote,’ because it didn’t work,” he said.

While Mr. DePerno has nabbed the big-name endorsements, Ms. Karamo has her fans as well — including Mark Forton, a Trump loyalist who dropped out of the chairman race. Mr. Forton said he would support Ms. Karamo instead.

He highlighted that after the November election — when Ms. Karamo lost the secretary of state’s race — she did not concede, while Mr. DePerno eventually did.

“To a lot of us, that makes her somewhat of a heroine,” Mr. Forton said of Ms. Karamo’s defiance.

But Mr. DePerno’s legal entanglements — including the open investigation into his role in accessing voting machines after the 2020 election — have also burnished his standing with right-wing stalwarts, according to Mr. Timmer. He described Mr. DePerno as having the “it” factor for many convention delegates.

“It’s similar to Trump,” he said.

Last August, Michigan’s attorney general, Dana Nessel, a Democrat who went on to defeat Mr. DePerno in the November election, asked for a special prosecutor to be appointed to consider criminal charges against him and eight other election deniers in connection with what Ms. Nessel characterized as the illegal tampering with voting machines used in the 2020 election.

Ms. Nessel referred to Mr. DePerno as “one of the prime instigators of the conspiracy,” but said it would not be appropriate for her to conduct an investigation into her political opponent.

D.J. Hilson, the special prosector in the case, an elected Democrat from Muskegon County, said in an email on Feb. 10 that the investigation was still open. He declined to comment further and would not say whether Mr. DePerno had been subpoenaed.

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