Dueling pro-Trump factions in Michigan throw the swing state's Republicans into disarray

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FILE - Kristina Karamo speaks to Michigan Republican Party delegates Feb. 18, 2023, in Lansing, Mich. The Michigan GOP, long a bastion of traditional conservatism, is in a cash crunch and power struggle within its ranks. Some are openly alienating lifetime Republicans and undermining the party's work in key swing states. Allies of Pete Hoekstra, Trump's chosen state chairman, are in court trying to force out Karamo, who was elected last year. (AP Photo/Joey Cappelletti, File)

WATERFORD TOWNSHIP, Mich. – The Michigan Republican Party was deep in debt when a longtime party donor who had given more than $1 million over the past decade asked for a meeting with its chairwoman.

Kristina Karamo turned down the donor. Her reasoning, according to two people familiar with the matter, was that he was a “Republican in Name Only," or a “RINO," an insult long used to denigrate members of the party seen as not conservative enough.

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Today, the party's finances are so dire that Karamo has sued former party leaders so she can get permission to sell the organization's headquarters. And she's refusing to leave her post even as former President Donald Trump and national Republicans have installed a new ally in her place.

The cash crunch and power struggle within the Michigan GOP, long a bastion of traditional conservatism, is a case study in the party’s new phase nationally in the era of Trump, where the competing elements are no longer simply for or against him. Instead, pro-Trump factions in Michigan and elsewhere are fighting over how best to represent his “Make America Great Again” movement, with some openly alienating lifetime Republicans and undermining the party's work in key swing states.

While Trump is widely expected to win Tuesday's Michigan primary, his campaign is trying to improve Republican standing in a state that could decide a potential Trump rematch in November with Democratic President Joe Biden. But some of Trump's most ardent supporters aren't going along with his efforts to replace Karamo and they openly question his judgment.

“I don’t think he should be involved in state politics to begin with,” said Steve Willis, chair of the Clinton County GOP, in south central Michigan near Lansing. “He’s just listening to people that have his ear and he makes a decision.”

Trump's allies have moved to replace Karamo with Pete Hoekstra, a former nine-term congressman who was Trump's ambassador to the Netherlands. Hoekstra is now responsible for assembling a functioning network of activists, donors and political staff while acknowledging, as he said in an interview, that he “can't build a whole political party in eight months.”

“We need to build the brand back, with our grassroots and our donor class,” Hoekstra said. “My intention is to rebuild those relationships.”

Karamo, who did not respond to several text messages and phone calls seeking comment, retains control of the party's bank accounts, social media and email. A lawsuit seeking to force her to relinquish power is being heard by a Michigan judge.

Elected party chairwoman last year, Karamo is an ardent Trump supporter who rose to prominence by repeating false claims about voter fraud in Detroit and denying that Trump lost the 2020 election.

She inherited a state party torn by infighting and facing millions in debt. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a rising Democratic Party star, had easily won reelection and Democrats clinched control of the Legislature.

But many donors and longtime activists say Karamo refused to work with them. In turn, many of them stopped giving, cutting off resources to a party that had been accustomed to raising at least $20 million — and at times more than $30 million — to help candidates statewide.

John Kennedy, the longtime CEO of a medical implant manufacturer and part of a core of Michigan’s most loyal donors, was told that Karamo would not meet with “RINOs,” according to two people familiar with his story who weren't authorized to discuss it publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Kennedy declined to comment in response to an email inquiry.

A lawyer for the National Republican Congressional Committee, which oversees U.S. House races nationwide, sent the state party a letter questioning whether Karamo and her staff were spending money intended for campaigns on day-to-day expenses instead.

“I will not deny that we are growing increasingly alarmed by reports that the MIGOP is in dire financial straits and grossly mismanaging their limited funds,” NRCC general counsel Erin Clark wrote. “These do not seem to be the actions of a state party that adheres to conservative principles; or frankly, one that has the desire or ability to elect Republicans to office.”

Karamo's opponents started trying to push her out last fall. She was ousted in a January vote. The Republican National Committee this month sided with Hoekstra and recognized him as the rightful state party chair.

“He brings credibility and acceptability with donors — to major donors — that’s for sure,” said former Michigan GOP Chairman Ron Weiser, who has contributed millions to the party over decades. “People know him and he’s from west Michigan, which is where you have your largest percentage of major donors on the Republican side.”

Hoekstra is trying to stitch together a patchwork of helpful GOP county chairs, such as in populous Oakland County northwest of Detroit, and outside political groups working on Michigan campaigns, all while inviting donors back who had left the party.

“It’s not nearly where we need to be. The nice thing is you call these people and ask for help, and they’ve been ignored for a year, and they feel, hallelujah, someone’s asking them to do something,” he said.

But Karamo isn't going quietly and neither are her supporters.

A significant number of local GOP activists remain loyal to Karamo and echo her stated beliefs that Trump not only won Michigan, but was cheated out of a second term overall. Among the federal and state reviews proving that belief false is a GOP-led state Senate investigation in 2021 that confirmed Biden beat Trump by 3 percentage points in Michigan.

Iosco County GOP Chair David Chandler deflected criticisms about Karamo, saying “fundraising isn’t really a requirement." He said efforts to remove her were “a coup by the big establishment Republicans to try to seize what they couldn’t get in a decent, honest election.”

Jon Smith, a former GOP chair for Michigan's 5th Congressional District, said that while he supported Karamo's removal, the RNC's work to oust her has “helped build her into a martyr.”

“Kristina’s faction has more people. But Pete Hoekstra’s faction has more money,” he said.

Unless current plans change, Karamo and Hoekstra will hold separate nomination conventions on March 2 to allocate most of the 55 delegates from Tuesday's primary. National Republicans will recognize the event held by Hoekstra in Grand Rapids. Karamo's faction is scheduled to meet in Detroit, having refused to transfer the room rental agreement to Hoekstra.

Trump offered a lavish shoutout to his handpicked successor during a campaign rally last week in Oakland County.

“I said: ‘This guy Hoekstra? He’s unbelievable,’” Trump told more than 2,000 packed into a frigid airplane hangar. “And you were willing to do it. And I appreciate it. Everybody appreciates it. We’re going to win.”

Most of the crowd cheered or stayed silent as Trump talked about Hoekstra. But a lone voice from the back of the crowd booed and called out toward the stage.

"He’s a RINO!” the man said.

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