GOP attorney general nominee Matthew DePerno speaks at a Macomb County Trump rally, Oct. 1, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins
After their historic loss at the polls on Nov. 8, conventional wisdom would point to the Michigan Republican Party taking a different path to achieve electoral success.
However, there is little indication that is happening.
Tudor Dixon, who was defeated by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer by a nearly 11-point margin, and Matthew DePerno, who lost to Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel by almost 9 points, are the two leading contenders to become the next chair of the Michigan Republican Party.
Dixon indicated she is considering a run, while DePerno made it official earlier this month before appearing with Garrett Soldano last week to announce that they would run as a ticket, with DePerno seeking the chair and Soldano as his co-chair.
Soldano, a Kalamazoo-area chiropractor, is another grassroots GOP favorite who lost to Dixon in the gubernatorial primary and briefly mulled a renegade lieutenant governor bid in August.
“I have a vision as to where we want to take the party,” said DePerno. “We have a plan as to how we create leadership, how we put a plan in place, how we activate, mobilize, and inspire the grassroots network and how we bring the grassroots to the establishment donors and how we bring the establishment to the grassroots, how we unite under one umbrella.”
Also in the running is Tuscola County Republican Party Chair Billy Putman, who announced his candidacy back in August. Like Dixon and DePerno, Putman has endorsed the false claims of a stolen election in 2020 — and he’s stated that he wants to see Donald Trump back in the White House.
More recently, former U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Holland) announced plans to also seek the chairmanship. After the election, Hoekstra was seen on a commercial flight coming from Palm Beach, Fla., home to Trump’s Mar-a-lago resort.
Speaking last week on WKAR-TV’s “Off The Record,” Hoekstra said it would likely be a battle between he and DePerno, setting up a contest between two Trump allies.
Hoekstra served as Trump’s ambassador to The Netherlands from 2018 to 2021, during which he made headlines in 2020 by visiting a Dutch cemetery where Nazi soldiers are buried. His tenure as ambassador was also marred by controversial anti-Muslim remarks in 2017 in which he claimed there are “no-go zones” in the Netherlands. He later apologized for the comments.
Earlier this year, Hoekstra appeared virtually at the GOP gubernatorial campaign announcement for businessman Perry Johnson, who failed to make the ballot amid a signature fraud scandal. Hoekstra and Johnson were both clients of John Yob, who has considerable experience with Michigan GOP floor fights.
With the announcements, the race is on to see who will lead the party into the 2024 election cycle, although critics say the candidates provide no indication a shift in tone or strategy is on the horizon.
“Further down the rabbit hole is where the party is going,” said Jeff Timmer, a political consultant and former Michigan Republican Party executive director. “They’ve demonstrated repeatedly, now this is the third election cycle in a row, that they lack the ability for introspection or critical analysis of their failures. They think more is better.”
Current Chair Ron Weiser is not seeking reelection next year, while his co-chair, Meshawn Maddock, has yet to say publicly what her plans are. James Craig, whose GOP gubernatorial bid was felled by a signature gathering fraud scandal, had expressed interest in running, but told the Detroit Free Press he’s out.
The decision will be made by GOP delegates when they gather at a convention, typically in early February.
Although Republicans had predicted a “red wave,” Nov. 8 turned into a bloodbath for the party up and down the ballot. Whitmer, Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson won at the top of the ticket.
After controlling the Michigan Senate since 1984, Republicans lost not only that chamber, but also the state House for the first time since 2010. They were defeated in three of four competitive congressional races and lost all eight state education board seats. While GOP-nominated Justice Brian Zahra was reelected, the party failed to flip the Supreme Court.
The effect was to turn a state that figured prominently in the national party’s plans to retake the White House in 2024, to an all-blue bastion that could very well act as a firewall.
In the aftermath, the party has tried to place the blame for that disparity on Dixon, DePerno and Kristina Karamo, who lost to Benson by a 14-point margin.
That was seen in a post-election memo released by Paul Cordes, the party’s chief of staff.
“At the end of the day, high quality, substantive candidates and well-funded campaigns are still critical to winning elections,” said the memo. “We struggled in both regards to the detriment of Michiganders across the state.”
The memo received immediate pushback from Dixon in a series of tweets in which she said the lack of support from party leaders jeopardized the entire ticket.
“This is the perfect example of what is wrong with the @MIGOP. It’s an issue of leadership – Ron Weiser, Meshawn Maddock, and Paul Cordes all refuse to take ownership for their own failures “ said Dixon, adding, “We have to do better than this current incompetent leadership.”
Requests for comment were made to DePerno, Weiser and Maddock, but have yet to be returned.
Dixon’s spokesperson, Sara Broadwater, referred back to her previous statements on Twitter concerning the Cordes memo.
DePerno, meanwhile, was equally blunt about the need for new leadership, although he avoided naming names.
“We need a state party that will fight for the future of Michigan and lay the foundation to make Michigan red again in 2024 — and beyond,” DePerno said in an email to the Detroit News. “That is why I am running for chairman of the Michigan Republican Party.”
Both Dixon and DePerno ran campaigns on their opposition to abortion with no exceptions for rape, incest or the mother’s health; denial of the results of the 2020 election; and opposition to LGBTQ+ rights. If they were to run the Michigan GOP, it seems unlikely that they would steer the party in a more moderate direction.
Interestingly, the Cordes memo also specifically connected the lack of funding this election cycle to a lack of faith by donors that Trump’s influence would translate into success at the polls.
“In what many of them saw as sending a message to Donald Trump and his supporters, longtime donors to the Party remained on the sidelines despite constant warnings of the possibility of the outcome we saw come to fruition on Election Day: A statewide sweep and one-party Democratic rule in Lansing, something that has not been seen in nearly 40 years in Michigan,” he wrote.
The fact that Maddock is a strong Trump supporter would indicate she did not approve of the memo, a conclusion supported by Timmer.
“The memo is a passive-aggressive ‘f–k you’ from Weiser to Meshawn Maddock using Cordes as the vessel,” he told Michigan Advance, describing it as “Ron’s parting shot.”
With the direction of the party up for grabs, Dixon and DePerno are not the only potential candidates.
Prior to his announcement, Putman was likely best known outside Tuscola County for his appearances on the reality TV show, “Meet the Putmans,” which aired on TLC in 2017 and profiled the 27 members of his family living under one roof in Caro.
Putman, in an interview with the Advance, said the current leadership, especially Weiser, failed to provide complete support for their candidates and act as the “bad cop” when necessary.
“Anytime Whitmer or Nessel or Benson would open their mouth and say something very ungodly that goes against our Republican and God-given rights, we [the leadership] would open up our mouth and say, ‘That is an abomination to our children or our elderly or even to the people of Michigan’ and be the voice of reason against that,” he said. “So Tudor and Matt and Kristina didn’t have to do that.”
Putman said in his mind, the state party needs to be run like a company.
“Its job is to sell a way of life through the widget, which is our reps, our governor, and our representatives,” said Putman. “Those are what we’re trying to sell and we’ve gotten away from that. Our job is to support our candidates and make them bright and shiny stars for our company, so we can sell a better way of life to the American people and to Michiganders.”
When asked about the post-election memo, Putman said he would “personally fire” Cordes on stage at the convention in February.
“The Grassroot patriots want change and we elected Tudor, Matt and Kristin (sic), and you left them out in the cold,” he wrote in a public statement. “You as ‘leaders’ by title only, did nothing but put hurdles in their way to overcome but they continued to jump them with smiles on their faces.”
Putman also made clear he believed the Michigan GOP’s future success would not be based on moderating its viewpoint on issues like abortion, but hardening them.
“It’s going to be on the top of the page,” he told the Advance, referring to the success of Proposal 3 in enshrining abortion rights in the Michigan Constitution. “I mean, we’re going to do everything we can to throw ballot proposals against it, to revamp it, to educate the populace and completely tear it apart. And then on the federal level, we need to make a federal ban and attack it from two fronts instead of just one.”
Genesee County GOP Chair Matt Smith, on the other hand, wants the party to take a more localized approach to elections.
When asked by Michigan Advance what the state party needed to change in its approach, he kept the focus on local down-ballot candidates.
“While all the noise was just on the higher seats, we are proud that in Genesee County we put great emphasis on school board, community college races, and township partial seats alike,” he said. “This concept of focusing more at the local level was unconventional for most counties and maybe that is what the state GOP needs to look at. All politics are local. Maybe if we want to win the bigger seats, we should start at the local level.”
Smith said that in Genesee County, they didn’t just rely on the top of the ticket, nor the state party to win.
“We had local candidates putting in the work at the local level, and an organized method of campaigning,” he said. ”Thus, some won regardless of what happened at the top of the ticket. We are living proof that the top of the ticket doesn’t define what happens at the local level.”
As to the Cordes memo, Smith sidestepped direct criticism, but indicated he didn’t necessarily share its emphasis.
“If candidates ever lose in Genesee County, we don’t blame them, unless they didn’t put forward any effort,” he said. “We crunch numbers, reorganize and go out and do it again and ten times harder.”
Macomb County GOP Chair Mark Forton, who had been embroiled in a leadership fight earlier this year but was reelected this month, posted a Facebook video blasting the Michigan GOP and calling for both Weiser and Maddock to resign.
“I believe the fault lies at the feet largely, in a few places, but largely with the Michigan Republican Party,” he said. “They never intended to beat the top three,” referring to Whitmer, Nessel, and Benson.
For his part, Timmer remains steadfast in his calculation that the party is immune to accepting the reality that Nov. 8 should have brought.
“Each election cycle has culled the sane and smart and pragmatic, reasonable people from the Michigan Republican Party apparatus,” he said. “They’re all full-blown MAGA. There really is nobody left that hasn’t beclowned themselves, either because they’re true believers in the crazy, or because they’ve decided to throw all-in to maintain their power, and in doing so, they’ve adopted the crazy, and they don’t even recognize that. They’ve stopped pretending along the way.”
However, he said the success Michigan Democrats had this year is at least partly due to the number of people who had been reliable Republican voters in the past, but like him, have moved away from the party as it firmly embraces Donald Trump.
“They firmly think that it’s just because they had a turnout problem,” he said. “They don’t think that it was a mass rejection, including a rejection by a lot of Republican voters. I’ve been pouring through the exit polling data from NBC, and it’s just absolutely fascinating that 16% of voters who consider themselves completely pro-life, who are against abortion in every circumstance, voted for Gretchen Whitmer. They just couldn’t support the lunacy and the Hunter Biden-QAnon bullshit that comes out of the Republican Party.”
Timmer also says the GOP remains willfully blind to the general public’s support for at least some level of abortion access.
“They think that they didn’t communicate clearly enough their theocratic version of women and abortion in Michigan,” said Timmer. “They lack the ability to read the room, read the voters.”
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