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Michigan Republicans clash over Trump’s future in the party 

click to enlarge Trump continues to wield massive influence in the Republican Party. - TYLER GROSS
  • Tyler Gross
  • Trump continues to wield massive influence in the Republican Party.

U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer was in his first week of office when the pro-Trump mob seized the Capitol.

The soft-spoken Republican and Iraq War veteran from West Michigan was in the gallery above the House chambers, preparing to vote in favor of certifying Joe Biden's victory, when rioters were breaking down barricades, pummeling police, and barging into the building.

He had anticipated a rowdy crowd. For two months, President Donald Trump and his fanatic supporters were spreading falsehoods about election fraud. Many of his Republican colleagues were peddling the same lies and planned to vote to overturn the election.

But Meijer never expected an insurrection. Yet there he was, in a 228-year-old building that symbolizes democracy, receiving text messages warning that rioters were inching closer to the ornate halls of Congress.

"When I heard about tear gas, it became very evident that there was no control and things were starting to unwind," Meijer tells Metro Times. "There was a lot of chaotic information being relayed in really short order."

Inside the chambers, Capitol police instructed members of Congress to don masks or escape hoods and lie on the floor until they were evacuated. Just before the mob reached the chambers, Meijer and others in the gallery were ushered into an elevator and taken to the basement for safety.

Several hours later, after rioters were cleared out of the building, Meijer was walking back to the ransacked Capitol when he received a text message.

"Those who stormed the Capitol today are true American heroes. This election was a fraud, and you know that's true," a constituent texted. "You can bet there will be more to come and blood on Congress' hands if you let this stand."

Meijer, who spent a year at West Point and eight years in the Army Reserve, was not about to be pushed around. He voted to certify Biden's victory, and a week later, Meijer became the only Republican freshman in the House to vote to impeach Trump, accusing him of inciting the mob that attacked the Capitol. U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, also of Michigan, joined Meijer and eight other Republicans to vote for impeachment.

"President Trump betrayed his oath of office by seeking to undermine our constitutional process, and he bears responsibility for inciting the insurrection we suffered last week," Meijer said at the time.

In May, Meijer joined 35 other Republican House members to support the creation of an independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection.

"There has been an active effort to whitewash and rewrite the shameful events of that day to avoid accountability and turn away from difficult truths," Meijer said on the House floor. "If we avoid confronting what happened here just a few short months ago, we can be sure that intimidation, coercion, and violence will become a defining feature of our politics for generations to come."

By prioritizing truth and law over an allegiance to Trump, Meijer has become a target of Trump supporters' wrath and has been thrust into what could become a tumultuous primary next year against pro-Trump candidates.

For supporting impeachment, Meijer was censured by two county GOP organizations within his district. He narrowly avoided a censure from the Michigan Republican Party and the GOP in Kent County, the largest county in his district.

Two pro-Trump candidates have emerged so far to run against Meijer in the 2022 primary election. One of them is Audra Johnson, a pro-Trump activist who wore a Make America Great Again dress at her wedding reception in July 2019 and helped organize armed protests against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's COVID-19 restrictions. She also attended the Jan. 6 rally in Washington D.C., but said she never entered the Capitol.

Meijer's other challenger is Tom Norton, a former village president in Kent County and Afghanistan veteran who has called for a full election audit that he insists, without evidence, would uncover widespread fraud.

Meijer, a member of the family that founded and owns the eponymous chain of stores, has acknowledged that his defiant stand against Trump's lies could be "political suicide," but he says he can't sit back and allow false narratives to undermine democracy and cause long-term damage to the country.

"Once you start making excuses, instead of doing what you feel is the right thing to do, it's a death by a thousand cuts," Meijer tells Metro Times. "I wanted to make a very clear and strong message. We can't avoid reality and live in an alternative world any longer. We have to confront hard truths, including that we lost the election."

click to enlarge Then-candidate Peter Meijer at a campaign rally for Donald Trump ahead of the 2020 election. Now a U.S. Rep., Meijer has since distanced himself from the former president. - TOM CAPRARA, WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • Tom Caprara, Wikimedia Commons
  • Then-candidate Peter Meijer at a campaign rally for Donald Trump ahead of the 2020 election. Now a U.S. Rep., Meijer has since distanced himself from the former president.

The future of the Republican Party

For ambitious Republicans like Meijer, resisting Trump's brand of politics comes with incredible risks. Trump's approval rating in the party is consistently above 85%, and polls continue to show that two-thirds of GOP voters believe Trump won the election, despite overwhelming evidence that he did not.

Trump continues to wield his influence by endorsing candidates who perpetuate lies about the election, and he's helping fund their campaigns through his "Save America" PAC, which has amassed more than $62 million.

Trump has already endorsed several candidates for various positions in Michigan, including state Rep. Steve Carra, who is trying to unseat Upton, of St. Joseph.

"Upton has not done the job that our country needs, for years has talked about leaving office and not running again, and he voted for impeachment of the president of the United States on rigged up charges," Trump said in a statement on Sept. 7.

Carra, a Trump loyalist who has falsely suggested there was widespread fraud, introduced a bill in June to require an audit of Michigan's election.

Trump has not yet endorsed any of Meijer's opponents, but there's no reason to expect he won't.

Whether Upton and Meijer can survive challenges next year from Trump-backed candidates could reveal the extent to which the former president can influence the future of the party.

In Meijer's district, Trump won by 3 percentage points.

"2022 is going to be very important for the future of the Republican Party," Max Rohtbart, a self-identified "endangered centrist Republican," who serves on the Oakland County GOP Executive Committee, tells Metro Times. "Peter Meijer's primary is going to be very informative."

If one of Meijer's opponents prevails in the primary, Republicans could be in trouble, Rohtbart and other political analysts say. While Trump has an incredibly loyal and energetic base, he's not popular among independents, swing voters and many suburban Republicans. To win a general election in competitive districts, Republicans need crossover appeal.

"If Meijer doesn't squeak out a win, that will be a good Democratic pickup opportunity," Rohtbart says.

The dilemma facing Republicans is that, in many races, outspoken Trumpian candidates are likely to have an advantage in primary elections, when the most passionate and partisan voters tend to cast a ballot. But in the general election, those candidates are less likely to appeal to voters who have been turned off by Trump's lies and his brash, combative demeanor.

"The Republican Party as a whole in the state of Michigan is really trying to figure out how to thread this needle," Charles Shipan, professor of political science at the University of Michigan, tells Metro Times. "The more extreme the candidate that emerges from the primary, the less likely he or she will win in the general election. Yet primaries bring out people who feel the most passionate about the issues, and that is more likely than not to be from the Trump side of the party. Republicans are in a tough position."

Losing the suburbs

After narrowly winning Michigan in 2016, Trump lost by 154,000 votes in 2020, in large part because of the affluent suburbs. A Metro Times' analysis of precinct-level vote totals shows Trump lost in 48 communities in 2020 that he had won in 2016. Those include the suburban Detroit communities of Bloomfield Hills, Grosse Pointe Woods, Rockford, Northville Township, Livonia, Rochester, and Rochester Hills.

By contrast, Trump picked up only three communities — all rural with fewer than 1,000 voters — that he had lost in 2016.

For generations, Oakland, the most affluent county and the second largest in the state, had been a reliable stronghold for Republicans. But in 2020, Trump lost the county by 14 percentage points, and Democrats knocked off Republicans in every countywide office except for sheriff, an alarming trend that underscores the liability of Trump in the suburbs. Democrats also picked up seats on the Oakland County Board of Commissioners.

"The GOP is pretty much toast in Oakland County," Rohtbart says. "I remember knocking on doors in Bloomfield Township when I was running for county commissioner, and people were telling me they could not support anyone who supported Trump. That was a hint for me that we're going to have some serious problems in Oakland County."

Despite what's at stake and the warning signs that embracing Trump may be a losing strategy, Republican Party leaders on the state and local levels have so far supported candidates who are devoted to the former president, have pushed lies about the election, and have adopted far right positions.

In July, Trump loyalists who control the state party pushed out Michigan GOP Executive Director Jason Roe because he refused to indulge baseless conspiracy theories about election fraud and said Trump "blew" the election.

"Up until the final two weeks, [Trump] seemingly did everything possible to lose," Roe told Politico in November. "Given how close it was, there is no one to blame but Trump."

Meshawn Maddock, the co-chair of the Michigan GOP, is an outspoken Trump loyalist who peddled falsehoods about the election and organized busloads of Michigan residents to travel to Washington, D.C. for the Jan. 6 rally that devolved into a violent insurrection. In May, Maddock suggested on Facebook that Michigan should secede from the U.S.

On the local level, many GOP leaders are still peddling conspiracy theories about election fraud. Progress Michigan, a progressive advocacy group, reviewed Facebook pages and groups controlled by county Republican parties and found that 64% of them have pushed election lies between Nov. 3 and June 30. Of the active Facebook pages, an astounding 98% have referenced false claims of electoral wrongdoing.

The county Republican parties also have organized "Trump won" rallies, held prayer vigils for the former president, screened documentaries that espouse baseless election fraud claims, and hosted speaking engagements with conspiracy theorists, such as MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell.

County Republican officials play an outsized role in shaping the party's future because they recruit and promote candidates to run for office and help get out the vote. In Michigan, those officials are still making Trump the face of the GOP's future.

At the North Oakland County Republican Club, which bills itself as "the largest Republican Club in Michigan," more than half of its members are new and became active in politics because of their support for Trump, according to the club's president Matt Marko.

Supporting centrist candidates who have more crossover appeal is a compromise that Marko and his club are not willing to make.

"There are feelings that we have some spineless Republicans who are more interested in trying to win over swing voters or appease leadership," Marko tells Metro Times. "There is a feeling amongst many of us that we need stronger-willed Republicans."

To Marko, evidence of widespread election fraud is indisputable, and any Republican who denies that is a threat to democracy. At past club meetings, speakers such as former state Rep. Patrick Colbeck have riled up members by making baseless claims about the election.

Republicans reveal no fraud

In June, Republicans on the Michigan Senate Oversight Committee released a bombshell report that concluded there was no evidence of widespread election fraud following an exhaustive investigation that included testimony from 90 people and a review of thousands of subpoenaed documents. The committee's three Republicans — Ed McBroom, Lana Theis, and John Bizon — also suggested that the Michigan Attorney General's Office investigate anyone, such as Colbeck, who profited from pushing false claims about fraud.

Shortly after the report was released, Trump issued a statement, calling the investigation "a cover up, and a method of getting out of a Forensic Audit for the examination of the Presidential contest." Trump even published the office phone numbers of McBroom and Michigan Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and urged followers to "call those two Senators now and get them to do the right thing, or vote them the hell out of office!"

"This is the time to replace those incumbents," Marko tells Metro Times. "They need to pay consequences for what they did."

In August, the three GOP senators on the committee were censured by the Republican Party in Macomb and Oakland counties. Trump loyalists also are calling on the Michigan GOP to censure the three lawmakers, and they're encouraging Republicans to challenge them in the next election.

That one of the censures happened in Oakland County, where Trumpism is costing the party votes, raises questions about how much supporters of the former president are willing to lose to defend conspiracy theories that fewer people are buying.

Rocky Raczkowski, the chairman of the Oakland County GOP, downplays the rift in the party, even as he advocates running primary challengers against Republican incumbents who don't show devotion towards Trump and his election lies.

"Who cares if there is a fight about that?" Raczkowski tells Metro Times. "It's beautiful. It shows that people are concerned and engaged, and they are watching what election officials are saying and doing. If there are people who are upset with Meijer or Upton, I encourage them to challenge them."

Despite evidence to the contrary, Raczkowski says he's certain that Republicans will support whoever prevails in the primary election.

"In the end, when the primary is over, we all support the person who wins the primary," Raczkowski says.

David Dulio, a political science professor at Oakland University, says Republicans shouldn't underestimate the lack of appetite for Trumpian candidates, especially in the suburbs.

"They are going to lose and be in the minority for years if they try to shut out moderate Republicans," Dulio tells Metro Times. "In a (swing) district, they are going to lose if they run a hardcore Trump supporter against an establishment Democrat. If that happens, Democrats will be in the majority in the state House and Senate."

Jeff Timmer, who headed the Michigan Republican Party from 2005 to 2009, said Trump supporters are running the GOP into the ground.

"The future of the Republican Party is like the life cycle of a star," Timmer tells Metro Times. "It's going to become older and whiter and denser and eventually implode."

click to enlarge Trumpism boiled over on Jan. 6. - LEV RADIN, SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • lev radin, Shutterstock.com
  • Trumpism boiled over on Jan. 6.

‘Crazy, lunatic lies’

When Trump narrowly won Michigan in 2016, Republicans held all three statewide seats — governor, secretary of state, and attorney general. In 2018, Democrats won all three.

So far there are at least 10 Republican gubernatorial candidates. The frontrunner is former Detroit Police Chief James Craig, who has tried to dodge questions about voter fraud. But in September, Craig said he planned to meet with the former president in hopes of getting his endorsement.

If Craig doesn't embrace Trump, he risks losing the primary election. But by embracing Trump, Craig risks turning off voters in the general election.

"Craig is talking about going to Mar-a-Largo to pay homage to Trump," Timmer says. "He won't be the nominee of the Republican Party unless he tells crazy, lunatic lies. Sure he can win the primary that way, but not the general election. That's the paradox."

In a secret recording obtained by Metro Times, Craig told his supporters during a campaign kickoff event last month that he supports a full audit of the presidential election because there are "valid concerns out there."

Other top Republican candidates for governor have cozied up to Trump and are spreading lies about the election. Ryan Kelley, an Allendale Township planning commissioner, was among the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol and climbed on scaffolding outside the building.

Garrett Soldano, a Kalamazoo chiropractor who built his name opposing Whitmer's COVID-19 restrictions, is a devoted Trump supporter. As of late July, he raised more money than his opponents.

Tudor Dixon, a 44-year-old former news host, is backed by campaign operatives with close ties to Trump, including Susie Wiles, who is helping oversee the former president's political operations, and Taylor Budowich, an advisor to Donald Trump Jr.

Dixon told The Detroit News that Trump's support is critical for Republican candidates.

"I think that we would be kidding ourselves if we didn't say that his endorsement will absolutely frame every race in America," Dixon said. "He's the leader of the party right now."

Unlike the gubernatorial race, candidates for the other statewide seats — secretary of state and attorney general — aren't decided in a primary election. Instead, political parties choose their candidates during a convention, and those candidates advance to the general election.

Trump has already endorsed candidates for both positions. For attorney general, Trump is backing Matthew DePerno, who has pushed baseless conspiracy theories about election fraud and called Republican lawmakers "cowards" for not demanding a statewide audit.

DePerno rose from relative obscurity when he filed a lawsuit last year on behalf of an Antrim County resident, alleging Dominion Voting Systems election software and machines were "corrupted," a claim that has been repeatedly debunked. A Republican judge dismissed the lawsuit. The Senate Oversight Committee concluded DePerno's claims "are demonstrably false and based on misleading information and illogical conclusions."

"I'm really concerned about the attorney general race," Rohtbart says. "Matt DePerno is so poisonous that he could taint the whole 2022 ticket."

Also running for attorney general is former Michigan House Speaker Tom Leonard, whom Attorney General Dana Nessel defeated in the general election by less than three percentage points in 2018.

Although Leonard likely has a much better shot at winning the general election, his chances of getting selected at the convention likely will depend on his willingness to indulge conspiracy theories about the election.

"Crazies dominated the conventions 10, 12 years ago, and it's only gotten crazier. Sanity is not going to prevail," Timmer says. "No one is going to win at the convention without passing the litmus test that Biden isn't a legitimate candidate."

For the secretary of state race, Trump has endorsed Kristina Karamo, an Oak Park educator with no political experience who has falsely claimed the former president won Michigan in 2020, falsely insisting there was "overwhelming evidence" of election fraud in Michigan. She even traveled to Arizona in June to examine that state Republican Party's election audit, which in late September reaffirmed Biden's victory and contradicted claims about fraud.

In a statement announcing her candidacy, Karmano said, "I am running to remove corruption from our elections and from the Michigan SOS office. That corruption is a real threat to our survival as a state and as a nation. A secure election is how we the people, give our consent to be governed."

Other Republican candidates for secretary of state are Chesterfield Township Clerk Cindy Berry, state Rep. Beau LaFave of Iron Mountain, and Livingston County Republican Party Chairwoman Meghan Reckling.

On Mackinac Island in late September, more than 1,200 Republicans attended a three-day conference, where they bantered about election fraud and winning seats in 2022. Upton and McBroom weren't in attendance.

At a dueling event less than 100 miles away, about 2,000 conservative activists gathered in Antrim County, where Trump claims voting machines were rigged against him. Soldano and other speakers continued to demand an audit of the election and criticized Republicans who have not.

Despite the obvious rift, Michigan GOP Chair Ron Weiser insists Republicans are united.

"The Michigan Republican Party is all in on defeating the Democrats' radical agendas," Weiser said in a statement. "It was very clear throughout the conference that Michigan Republicans are excited to work with conservative leaders who will be bold in their convictions to protect and strengthen election integrity, lower taxes, and get our economy roaring again. Michigan's future is bright, and with the right leadership, we can get our state back on track."

Dulio, the Oakland University political science professor, says Republicans have to win back suburban voters to be successful.

"Republicans' best path forward is to try to thread the needle and keep the folks that Trump attracted, while bringing back the folks they lost in the suburbs," Dulio says. "Should the division continue, it will make it much more difficult for the party to have the electoral gains it wants and could have in 2022."

Meijer says it may take time.

"It's not going to happen overnight, but it's important and essential for the party and the country to admit that we lost the election."

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