WARREN, Mich. – With voting underway in Michigan's general election, the Republican nominee for secretary of state stepped on stage as a warm-up act for former President Donald Trump and hit hard on the main theme of her campaign.
Kristina Karamo repeated unfounded assertions about the 2020 presidential election that have been repeatedly debunked. She told the crowd at the recent rally at Macomb Community College that “authoritarians” are giving millions to her Democratic opponent — Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson — in an attempt to “corrupt battleground state election systems so they can control America.”
“If you look at history, it shows you what tyrants do," said Karamo, a former community college professor. "History is telling us, history is screaming to us, that if we don’t step up and fight now, we will lose the greatest country in human history.”
It was an address designed to rev up the crowd of devoted Trump followers, some of whom have latched onto the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory.
While Karamo's speech drew cheers, relying on a general election strategy that appeals to the most far-right voters is a gamble for Michigan Republicans.
Candidates who have to play to their party's base during primaries or nominating conventions often shift toward the center, aiming to attract more voters for the general election. But that hasn't happened this year for the Republicans seeking Michigan's top three statewide offices — governor, attorney general and secretary of state.
The Nov. 8 election will test whether campaigns designed to resonate with the far-right and highlight strong ties to Trump will be enough to win in a traditional swing state, where the Republican incumbent lost the White House race to Democrat challenger Joe Biden by more than 154,000 votes in 2020.
All three GOP candidates stood behind Trump during the Oct. 1 rally at the college about 20 miles north of Detroit, joined by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, who has amplified Trump's election falsehoods to audiences across the country.
Trump falsely claimed the 2020 election was “rigged and stolen” in Michigan, citing “evidence” he said first originated with Karamo and Matthew DePerno, a tax lawyer who is the nominee for state attorney general.
In his own address to the crowd, DePerno called Democrats “radical, cultural Marxists" who want to “silence you."
“If that doesn't work, they want to put you in jail,” DePerno told the crowd, which fell into chants of “Lock her up." All three Democratic incumbents are women.
DePerno's campaign also is clouded by an investigation into whether he should be criminally charged for attempting to gain access to voting machines after the 2020 election.
John DeBlaay, a Grand Rapids real estate agent and precinct delegate who attended the rally, said he was thrilled with the candidates. “We’ve got the best America First ticket all the way from top to bottom that we’ve had in a long time now," he said.
Some moderate Republicans are skeptical that campaigns appealing mostly to base elements of the party will be enough to beat Democratic incumbents with wide name recognition and sizable fundraising advantages. The Democrats also are expected to benefit from having an amendment on the ballot that seeks to enshrine the right to abortion in the state constitution.
These Republicans say inflation, gas prices and economic anxiety should be the GOP's main talking points, not a continued alignment with Trump and his false claims about widespread fraud costing him reelection.
They point to the unusual way Michigan selects its attorney general and secretary of state candidates, a process done through a party nominating convention rather than through a primary election in which voters make the choice.
The most conservative Republicans who are loyal to Trump dominated that convention in April. The party’s co-chair, Meshawn Maddock, was one of 16 Republicans who submitted false certificates stating they were the state’s presidential electors despite Biden’s certified victory in the state.
Three weeks before the convention, during another Trump rally, DePerno encouraged attendees — many of them precinct delegates — to “storm” the party gathering and said it was “time for the grassroots to unite.”
Delegates overwhelmingly voted to nominate Karamo. DePerno won a runoff over former legislative leader Tom Leonard, who lost in the 2018 attorney general's race by 3 percentage points to Democrat Dana Nessel.
“Karamo and DePerno are among the most loyal to Donald Trump that you will find anywhere in the country,” said Jason Roe, a longtime Republican strategist. “That loyalty has been unshakable in this election process, regardless of how it might affect general election prospects.”
Roe, whose father served as the Michigan GOP’s executive director for 10 years, became executive director of the state party in spring 2021. Six months later, he stepped down due to a “difference in opinion on how many conspiracy theories we should tolerate.”
Soon after Roe left, Trump began calling party leaders to “force the party to embrace things formally that weren’t going to be helpful to the upcoming election,” Roe said.
The party's candidate for governor, Tudor Dixon, won the nomination during the primary in August after receiving Trump's endorsement. Dixon, a conservative news show host who once acted in low-budget horror films, also benefited from support of the wealthy DeVos family.
While seen as less extreme than Karamo and DePerno, Dixon indicated during debates that she thought the 2020 presidential election was stolen and she recently made light of a plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat. Dixon has since tried to pivot away from denying the results of the last election by focusing on topics such as inflation and education, but she also is repeating hard-right rhetoric on cultural issues.
She has called for banning “pornographic” books in schools and has pitched an education agenda modeled after the Florida policy that critics have labeled “Don’t Say Gay.”
While Democrats have attacked DePerno and Karamo for their continued denial of Biden's victory in 2020, they have focused on what they describe as Dixon’s “extreme” abortion stance. Lackluster fundraising has made it difficult for her to push back.
As of Aug. 22, Dixon had $524,000 in the bank compared with Whitmer’s $14 million, according to the latest available campaign finance reports. Some of that gap has been closed by the super PAC Michigan Families United, which has received $2.5 million in donations, including from the DeVos family.
“I just don’t like that there’s no commercials on TV about Dixon. Everything you see is about the other people, and it’s all negative,” said Laura Bunting, an Ionia County resident who attended the Trump rally.
Karamo and DePerno had a combined $422,554 cash on hand as of Sept. 16 compared with the $5.7 million combined for their Democratic opponents, according to campaign finance reports.
Michigan-based pollster Bernie Porn said the Republican candidates have been defined by their extreme stances but that none has attracted enough money to get on TV and introduce themselves to a broader swath of voters. That, he said, "makes it difficult for folks to form a favorable opinion of you.”
Joey Cappelletti is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
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