After unusual GOP co-chair endorsements, some question the fairness of upcoming convention

By: - March 31, 2022 3:54 am

Michigan GOP Co-Chair Meshawn Maddock attends a right-wing rally at the state Capitol, Feb. 8, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins

Some statewide candidates in Michigan are questioning the fairness of the Michigan Republican Party’s endorsement convention next month after Co-Chair Meshawn Maddock endorsed candidates in multiple races.

Maddock, who is married to state Rep. Matt Maddock (R-Milford), took the unusual step of endorsing Matthew DePerno for attorney general and Kristina Karamo for secretary of state earlier this month. Both candidates have promoted former President Donald Trump’s false claims of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election at various events and have received Trump’s endorsement.

Republican delegates from across the state will meet April 23 in Grand Rapids to endorse a nominee for both offices.

While some candidates were willing to speak out, seven GOP officials, activists and consultants the Michigan Advance reached out to either declined or failed to respond to interview requests.

Matt DePerno (left) and Kristina Karamo (right) | Laina G. Stebbins and courtesy photos

Former state House Speaker Tom Leonard (R-DeWitt) and state Rep. Ryan Berman (R-Commerce Twp.) also are vying for the AG nod. State Rep. Beau LaFave (R-Iron Mountain) and Chesterfield Township Clerk Cindy Berry are seeking the SOS nomination.

Former U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz is a former state senator and Battle Creek mayor who knows the history of state GOP conventions. A lifelong Republican, he left the party to become an independent in 2010, he said that the move is highly unusual.

“The chair of the party was, in my memory, always very circumspect about not getting involved in individual races prior to the convention, especially statewide races where it was the duty as a convention to choose a candidate for things like, in this case, attorney general or secretary of state,” Schwarz said. “The state party chair did not, in my memory, endorse an individual candidate prior to the convention.”

Schwarz said that while it is common for other politicians to make endorsements, officials in the party structure typically remain neutral during the primary.

“Quite frankly, I was, just as an observer from the outside, was surprised that the party chair would make an endorsement prior to the convention. Especially the party chair,” Schwarz said. “Obviously, if you’re in favor of an individual candidate, and you don’t have any specific position in the statewide party, you support the candidate that you want to win. But statewide party officials making endorsements when you have two or three or four or five or six or more people vying for an office wasn’t done before. I don’t think it’s a good practice.”

Rep. Beau LaFave, Dec. 2, 2020 | Screenshot

LaFave said Maddock’s endorsement to endorse candidates ahead of the convention, rather than remaining impartial until the party selects a nominee, has angered members of the party.

“It’s made a lot of people upset that the Michigan Republican Party co-chair thinks that she can influence the people that run the party, the people of the state of Michigan, who are elected precinct delegates,” LaFave said. “They run the show, not the Maddocks. And this is making a lot of the voters really upset that she wants to put her thumb on the scale.”

Michigan GOP spokesperson Gustavo Portela has said that Maddock’s endorsements were “on a personal level, not in her party role.”

But LaFave said that “the problem is, she can’t take that hat off.”

“She is involved in the credentialing committee, which is the committee that decides who gets to vote,” LaFave said. “How can we have the person who helps decide who votes telling people who to vote for? That doesn’t pass the smell test.”

Attorney General Dana Nessel is a Democrat running for reelection who was viewed as the outsider candidate in her 2018 primary campaign vs. former U.S. Attorney Pat Miles. She said that chairs of both parties often try to whip support for their preferred candidates behind the scenes, but rarely make a public endorsement.

“Had that occurred in my convention, I would have quit the party. There’s no way that I would belong to a party where one of the chairs or co-chairs openly endorsed one candidate over the other. You’re supposed to be fair, and you’re supposed to be impartial. And you’re supposed to let the process play itself out,” Nessel said. “If you cannot be impartial, then you ought not be in a position of having a role like that in your party.”

The Michigan Democratic Party will hold its endorsement convention April 9 in Detroit, although Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, both incumbents, are expected to easily sail to victory.  

Leonard, who narrowly lost to Nessel in 2018, pointed to grassroots support for his campaign in a statement.

“We’re focused every day on uniting this party and putting together a campaign that will defeat Dana Nessel,” Leonard said. “Our grassroots support speaks for itself — it’s steadfast, strong, and growing every day.”

Speaker Tom Leonard gives his goodbye speech to the Michigan House as Gov. Rick Snyder looks on, Dec. 20, 2018 | Michael Gerstein

Leonard’s campaign touted that while he does not have the endorsement of Trump or Maddock, he has been endorsed by U.S. Reps. Jack Bergman (R-Watersmeet), John Moolenaar (R-Midland), and Tim Walberg (R-Tipton), as well as 44 members of the Michigan Legislature and organizations like the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

In 2018, Nessel faced off against Miles, who had accumulated several influential endorsements from elected leaders and labor unions, but she was able to win at the convention anyway.

“In my race, I felt very much as though Pat Miles was the establishment candidate. Pat Miles was sort of the pick of the insiders in the party, and I had to work really, really hard to get that endorsement, and to convince people that I was more worthy of that endorsement,” Nessel said. “But, you know, had Brandon Dillon stepped in and endorsed Pat Miles, that would have been the end to my participation in the Democratic Party. I would not have remained a party member, because I would have thought that the party was incredibly unfair.”

Regardless of who wins the party’s endorsement, LaFave said the impression that the process was not fair will be hard to escape.

“At the end of the day, frankly, I think it’s going to backfire on her [Maddock],” LaFave said. “Everyone that loses at convention is going to be upset by the appearance of impropriety, even if one does not manifest itself at convention. So I’m sure that when I win at convention, everybody that doesn’t win is going to be very upset.”

Here’s the Michigan GOP nominating process:

  • County conventions are held at 7 p.m. April 11 to elect delegates to the statewide endorsement convention
  • Any credentials challenges must be filed with the Michigan Republican Party by noon April 14
  • The Credentials Committee meets April 16 to consider credentialing challenges 
  • The Endorsement Convention convenes at 8 a.m. April 23 in Grand Rapids to select:
    • One candidate for secretary of state
    • One candidate for attorney general 
    • Two candidates for the Michigan Supreme Court
    • Two candidates for the state Board of Education 
    • Two candidates for the Wayne State University Board of Governors
    • Two candidates for the Michigan State University Board of Trustees
    • Two candidates for the University of Michigan Board of Regents
  • Voting will be conducted by paper ballot, which will be counted using tabulating equipment

Schwarz drew a link between the unusual endorsements and the party’s recent shifts farther to the right.

“It seems right now that the candidates the party endorses are really quite far to the right. And the party itself is quite far to the right and almost to the point, in some cases, of isolation,” Schwarz said. “So, that it happened in the present atmosphere in the party, I guess is not a terribly big surprise. But I can say that 20 years ago, 30 years ago, in the 1980s and 1990s, even in the 2000s to 2010s, you would not have seen that.”

Nessel said Maddock’s endorsements were a “very shocking turn of events” that show the current Republican Party “don’t have any processes or protocols any more.”

“I was taken aback, certainly, when she openly endorsed. But then again, this Republican Party is very different from any party I’ve seen, at least since I’ve become aware of how party politics work, in either of the major parties,” Nessel said. “There’s no rules. The playbook has been thrown out. And it seems like it’s sort of devolving into chaos.”

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Andrew Roth
Andrew Roth

Andrew Roth is a reporting intern with the Michigan Advance. He has been covering Michigan policy and politics for three years across a number of publications and studies journalism at Michigan State University.

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