Republican gubernatorial candidate Ryan Kelley attends a Republican gubernatorial in Howell on May 13, 2022. (Andrew Roth | Michigan Advance)
After Republican gubernatorial candidate Ryan Kelley was arrested Thursday by the FBI on charges related to his role in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, during which supporters of former President Donald Trump attempted to overthrow the United States government, his campaign posted two words on social media: “Political Prisoner.”
This sentiment — that Kelley’s arrest is rooted in Democratic politics and not the law — is one that far-right commentators like Fox News’ Tucker Carlson and a parade of GOP officials and organizations in Michigan, including the Michigan Republican Party, are pushing without evidence. (Michigan Republican Party Chairman Ron Weiser, for example, said Democrats are “weaponizing our justice system” and GOP gubernatorial candidate Garrett Soldano called the FBI an “arm of the Democrat Party.”)
While this messaging is almost certain to boost Kelley’s name recognition as he attempts to defeat his four Republican opponents on the ballot in a tumultuous primary, it may not lend him credibility if he lands in the general election against Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
Moreover, it’s emblematic of the far-right extremism and violence that has been growing in the United States for years and the conspiracy theories that are galvanizing GOP political campaigns in Michigan, political experts said.
“[Kelley’s] in a small field of mostly unknowns,” Matt Grossmann, a political science professor at Michigan State University, said of the GOP’s contenders for governor. “His name ID will go up but will be associated with what’s normally considered as negative news. He’ll have to turn it as being a political attack to be successful.”
“I still think the other candidates have a pretty easy response, which is some sympathy but also, ‘OK, this is not a good way to win a gubernatorial election,’” Grossmann continued.
There’s been an undercurrent to diminish what happened on Jan. 6. It was a heinous attack on our government, and regardless of your politics it should disgust and horrify any of us.
– Barbara McQuade, University of Michigan law professor who served as the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan
Currently, the GOP gubernatorial candidates that will be on the Aug. 2 ballot are: Kelley; Soldano, a chiropractor; businessman Kevin Rinke; right-wing personality Tudor Dixon; and the Rev. Ralph Rebandt. Former Detroit Police Chief James Craig, who the state Bureau of Elections ruled could not be on the ballot after his campaign submitted thousands of fraudulent petition signatures, this week announced he will run as a write-in candidate.
Perhaps more than anything, experts said, Kelley’s arrest is a reminder that actions have consequences and that those who — allegedly, in Kelley’s case — broke the law by participating in a deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to stop the government from certifying the results of the 2020 election won by President Joe Biden should be held accountable.
“The suggestion that anybody is above the law is really deeply disturbing,” said Barbara McQuade, a law professor at the University of Michigan who served as the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan. “There’s been an undercurrent to diminish what happened on Jan. 6. It was a heinous attack on our government, and regardless of your politics it should disgust and horrify any of us.”
Kelley traveled to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021, to take part in the protests that preceded the attempted coup and attack on the Capitol building that were encouraged by former President Donald Trump and meant to stop the peaceful transfer of power between administrations for the first time in U.S. history.
The 40-year-old real estate broker from Allendale Township in West Michigan was arraigned Thursday afternoon on four misdemeanor charges: knowingly entering or remaining in a restricted building or grounds on Jan. 6, disorderly and disruptive conduct in a restricted building or grounds, knowingly engaging in any act of physical violence against person or property in any restricted building or grounds, and willfully injuring or committing any depredation against any property of the United States.
According to court documents, the FBI received numerous tips that Kelley had been involved in the Jan. 6 attack. An FBI agent said in a court filing that Kelley allegedly used his cell phone to “film the crowd assaulting and pushing past U.S. Capitol Police officers” and used “his hands to support another rioter” who pulled down a metal barricade. He also allegedly gestured “to the crowd, consistently indicating” that people should move towards the Capitol entrance.
Kelley’s arrest came the day that public congressional hearings on the Jan. 6 Capitol attack began. Led by the U.S. House committee investigating the attack, the hearings are the culmination of a widespread investigation that has included more than 1,000 interviews — including with Michigan officials like Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson — reviews of some 125,000 records, and subpoenas of people from Michigan and six other states who attempted to overthrow the election by submitting electoral certificates falsely showing that Trump won.
Over the course of two hours, Chair Bennie G. Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, and Vice Chair Liz Cheney, a Wyoming Republican, focused on presenting new information about the Jan. 6 attack that included testimony that Trump endorsed the hanging of former Vice President Mike Pence and Trump cabinet members considering invoking the 25th Amendment to remove the former president from office. Much of the hearing focused on the role the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, violent far-right groups that supported Trump, played in the attack.
A Capitol police officer, Caroline Edwards, who was seriously injured by the pro-Trump mob described the Jan. 6 attack as a “war scene.”
“I saw officers on the ground,” said Edwards, who was one of about 150 officers injured in the attack. “I saw officers on the ground. They were bleeding. They were throwing up … I was slipping on people’s blood. It was carnage. It was chaos.”
The FBI on Thursday executed a search warrant at Kelley’s home, which McQuade said “could bring more charges and more serious charges.” The gubernatorial candidate is one of more than 800 people who have been arrested on charges related to the Jan. 6 insurrection. (A database of everyone arrested and their accompanying charges can be found here.)
Kelley could not be reached for comment, but he has said in the past that he did not enter the Capitol building nor fight law enforcement on Jan. 6.
“As far as going through any barricades, or doing anything like that, I never took part in any forceful anything,” Kelley told MLive in March of 2021. “Once things started getting crazy, I left.”
While Kelley’s arrest certainly has ramifications for his campaign and the gubernatorial race in general, it’s about far more than Kelley and his opponents, experts said. The charges against him are symbolic of an increasingly radicalized Republican Party and the right-wing extremism and violence that has grown in recent years.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, there have been about 450 U.S. murders committed by political extremists over the past decade – 75% of which were committed by right-wing extremists. Left-wing extremists were responsible for 4%.
Kelley has ridden his political rise on a wave of conspiracy theories — he has repeatedly made the false claim that the 2020 election was stolen. He has pushed a barrage of disinformation about COVID-19, refusing to participate in last week’s Mackinac Policy Conference gubernatorial debate in protest of a vaccine requirement, even though it was waived for candidats and debate attendees.
Kelley also is the founder of the American Patriot Council, a right-wing group that has called for the arrests of such Democratic leaders as Whitmer, state Attorney General Dana Nessel and Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.
Kelley has faced controversy before, including being asked to step down from the Allendale Township Planning Commission over his relationship with one of the men charged in the alleged plot to kidnap and kill Whitmer and his clashes with individuals calling for the removal of a Confederate statue in Allendale in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.
“You have people seeking office who are promoting these theories that used to be considered very fringey — not only promoting theories but actively taking part” in the Jan. 6 attack, said Javed Ali, an associate professor of practice at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Policy who has served in senior roles at the FBI, Office of the Director of National Intelligence and National Security Council.
“This is a pretty serious development, and he still hopes to run for governor?” Ali said of the charges against Kelley.
A long list of political experts have previously told the Advance that the Michigan GOP, and the national Republican Party, have increasingly promoted conspiracy theories, including QAnon, as the party has shifted further to the right in a move that the experts said is damaging democratic institutions, fueling additional conspiratorial thinking and creating a political landscape in which Republicans face backlash for not supporting conspiracy theories.
The current wave of far-right terrorism in the United States began nearly 15 years ago following the election of Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president; economic challenges; a rise in social media; and an “uptick in what I would call nativist politics,” Ali said.
“I think we’re going to be dealing with this far-right threat in the U.S. for years to come,” Ali said. “It’s not going away.”
That, however, translates to a country on a potential slide to authoritarianism, experts said.
“If you use violence to support your ideas, then we lose what we have always valued as a democracy,” McQuade said.
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