Why Michigan's presidential primary isn't the same for Democrats and Republicans

The Michigan GOP, engulfed in a leadership crisis, is using a hybrid nominating process that includes a weekend convention to allocate most of its delegates.

Voters cast their ballots at a polling station in Detroit in 2022. Matthew Hatcher / SOPA Images/Sipa USA via AP file

Michigan’s presidential primary is straightforward for Democrats: 117 delegates are up for grabs Tuesday in a state President Joe Biden favored moving toward the front of the 2024 calendar.

Republicans, meanwhile, have themselves quite the puzzle.

The GOP primary results will determine how 16 of Michigan’s 55 Republican National Convention delegates will be awarded. The 39 others will be decided Saturday at a state party convention, doled out based on the preferences of delegates from each congressional district.

That state convention — or, potentially, state conventions, plural — is where the real headaches could come for Republicans. The Michigan GOP is embroiled in a bizarre and unending leadership dispute. Two different people — Kristina Karamo and former Rep. Pete Hoekstra — claim to be chairing the state party. They have scheduled dueling conventions. And while the Republican National Committee has said Karamo was properly removed from the post and has proclaimed Hoekstra the rightful chair, there isn’t 100% clarity on whose convention will count.

“If other people who believe that they may represent the Republican Party — they’re more than welcome to have a meeting wherever they want, whether they want to meet in Detroit or whether they want to meet in Manistee or Big Rapids, Michigan, they can have a meeting,” Hoekstra, who has scheduled his convention in Grand Rapids, said last week in an interview with NBC News. “But it won’t be a Republican convention or caucus.”

Karamo, who refuses to relinquish control of state party property, including email addresses and financial records, plans to go forward with her convention in Detroit. Speaking with NBC News last week, she argued that Hoekstra has no legal standing to call a convention.

“We are a legal entity,” Karamo said. “So this is as ridiculous as me trying to hold a Michigan Democrat Convention. You just — I just can’t legally do that.”

RNC officials did not respond to requests for comment, declining to answer questions about how they would deal with rival conventions.

Why the GOP process is different

The seeds of this chaos were sown four years ago, when Iowa’s Democratic caucuses imploded and Biden remained winless until South Carolina. After eventually winning the nomination and the White House, Biden ordered a reshuffling of the calendar for 2024. Iowa and New Hampshire lost their status as early-voting states, South Carolina moved into the leadoff position and Michigan — a crucial general election battleground — moved up to third, behind Nevada.

But the GOP was not on board with an earlier Michigan primary, and national party rules restrict which states can hold primaries before March 1. That hardly deterred Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Democratic-controlled Legislature from signing off on Biden’s preferred Feb. 27 primary date.

And so the Michigan GOP, working with the RNC, came up with a compromise hybrid model — awarding 16 delegates based on the results of the primary and 39 through a state party-run convention to be held only days later, but safely in March. Delegates up for grabs in the primary will be awarded proportionally to any candidate who finishes with at least 12.5% of the vote. The congressional district delegates allocated during the convention will be awarded proportionally, too. But a candidate who wins the majority in any district will receive all three of its delegates.

How this became even more chaotic

Democrats dominated Michigan in the 2022 midterm elections and claimed control of all three branches of state government for the first time in 40 years. The so-called trifecta left Republicans there in the political wilderness. Karamo lost a bid for secretary of state that year. But she remained popular with grassroots activists and, riding her reputation as a 2020 election denier eager to take on the establishment, won a subsequent race for state party chair.

Karamo’s promise of a new party fueled by small-dollar donations and not beholden to big-money interests never materialized. Within months, she was accused of making a mockery of a cherished semiannual conference on Mackinac Island while leading the state party into financial turmoil. A faction of party insiders voted to oust her in January and soon rallied around Hoekstra as her successor. All the while, Karamo has refused to budge.

Hoekstra’s faction went to court to try and force out Karamo. Former President Donald Trump endorsed Hoekstra. The RNC, which seats the party chair from each state as a national committee member, chose to recognize Hoekstra. Again, Karamo refused to budge.

So, barring court orders or a last-minute surrender by Karamo, rival conventions appear on track for Saturday. At both sites, Republicans from each of Michigan’s 13 congressional districts are expected to caucus and determine how to award each district’s three delegates.

“They will have to make a decision as to whether they go to a meeting that is organized by Kristina Karamo or whether they go to a convention that’s being organized by Chairman Pete Hoekstra,” Hoekstra said, referring to Republicans who plan on participating in the convention. “I can’t tell them what to do or tell them where to go. That’s a decision that they make, and they will, at that point in time, accept the risk for the decision that they make.”

Karamo insisted that she’s “not worried about” the likelihood that the RNC, given that it has recognized Hoekstra as chairman, will also recognize the delegates elected at his convention. She hinted that no matter what happens Saturday, it won’t be the final word.

“I mean, we still have court cases going on right now,” Karamo said. “But if the RNC wants to engage in fraud, we’ll deal with them.”