KALAMAZOO, Mich. — Ryan Kelley was an afterthought in Michigan’s Republican primary for governor — a real estate broker who served on a local planning commission while cultivating a following on the far-right fringe.
But since the FBI arrested him on misdemeanor charges for his role in the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, he has emerged as a front-runner. Maybe the front-runner.
No one else in the race, Kelley bragged here last week, showed the devotion he did by being on the scene of what turned into a deadly riot aimed at keeping then-President Donald Trump in power. In a GOP field scrambled first by the disqualification of two leading candidates and then by the FBI raid on his home on the day the House Jan. 6 committee began its nationally televised hearings, circumstances have conspired to catapult Kelley to the front of the pack.
“They talked about it all over the nation, all over the state of Michigan,” Kelley, 40, said in an interview. “It boosted my name. There’s been a ton of support.”
Kelley has led or tied for the lead in three recent polls for the Aug. 2 primary, including one conducted before his arrest that many Republicans wrote off to confusion over the shrunken GOP field and a familiar name on the ballot. (Kelley shares a surname with Michigan’s late and longest-serving attorney general — a Democrat, and no relation.)
“It’s just a really, really worrying sign for the direction of the party and the direction of the country if you see somebody who was a part of a plot to attack our own country shooting to the top of the polls,” Democratic state Sen. Mallory McMorrow said in an interview.
“It’s really scary,” added McMorrow, who went viral on social media and gained a national following after she framed Republican colleagues as hateful and extreme on cultural issues such as LGBTQ rights.
The Kelley surge, which has early echoes of Doug Mastriano’s recent primary victory in Pennsylvania, suggests the GOP could soon nominate another election denier who was on the Capitol grounds on Jan. 6 to lead a major battleground state.
Kelley has said he did not go inside the Capitol on Jan. 6; federal authorities in court documents have described images of him directing the crowd toward an entrance. His reputation as a “J6er” — a shorthand he uses with ease in conversation — may help him win the primary. But some Republicans worry Kelley would repel swing voters and turn what is expected to be a close November election into a second-term landslide for Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
“Knowing the grassroots here, there are a lot of people who very strongly believe the election was stolen,” said a Michigan Republican operative, referring to the persistent lies by Trump and his allies that widespread fraud cost him a second term. “It would make sense that his support would go up among the grassroots, but I don’t think it’s going to play well in a general election by any means.”
Nick Everhart, a GOP media strategist who is not aligned with a candidate in the primary, agreed.
“I don’t think getting arrested for being at the Capitol on Jan. 6 helps with many independent Michigan voters at all in the general election, and it’s going to be tough to be seen as anything else but that,” Everhart said. “It’s, shall we say, a fairly defining part of one’s bio.”
Similar concerns followed Mastriano — who also was in Washington on Jan. 6 — during and after his march to the nomination in Pennsylvania last month.
Many Republicans underestimated Mastriano, despite his perch in the state Senate and his knack for attracting publicity by dabbling in 2020 election conspiracies. Even after the House Jan. 6 committee subpoenaed Mastriano for his push to send a slate of alternate, Trump-friendly electors to Congress, his GOP rivals were reluctant to attack him on substance, for fear of alienating pro-Trump voters. Instead, they quietly worried about his electability against Democrat Josh Shapiro, the state attorney general, who was unopposed for his party’s nomination for governor.
By the time Republicans got serious about coalescing around a Mastriano alternative, it was too late. He had built a sturdy lead in the polls, and Trump swooped in with a last-minute endorsement to seal the deal.
“I suppose you could probably draw some parallels there,” said Mike Detmer, a Michigan state Senate candidate who has Trump's endorsement in his primary against an incumbent. "Certainly.”
Detmer, who has not backed a candidate in the GOP primary for governor, is among Michigan's more ardent election deniers. He has pressed for further review of President Joe Biden’s 150,000-plus vote victory in Michigan, and, standing alongside Kelley, he told prospective poll workers this year to “show up armed.” The FBI’s raid on Kelley’s home, Detmer said, “galvanized a lot of support for Ryan that he didn’t have before.”
“Ryan’s a grassroots candidate,” Detmer added. “So he’s not made of money. … So for him to have that kind of exposure, that’s worth $10 to $15 million of advertising right there from just free media.”
Kelley had long struggled to gain traction. He was polling in the single digits and was perhaps best-known for leading a right-wing group that called for Whitmer and other Democratic state officeholders to be arrested for enforcing Covid protocols.
But the contours of the race changed dramatically when several candidates, including former Detroit Police Chief James Craig and Perry Johnson, a self-funding businessman, were barred from the primary ballot after they were alleged to have submitted fraudulent petition signatures.
Even then, the conventional wisdom shifted to three other candidates: Garrett Soldano, a chiropractor and activist who gained a statewide following after he protested Whitmer’s pandemic restrictions; Tudor Dixon, a conservative commentator who is backed by Michigan’s influential DeVos family; and Kevin Rinke, another self-funding businessman.
The latest poll, released last week by the Michigan Information & News Service, found a three-way tie among Dixon, Rinke and Kelley. Trump has not yet endorsed a candidate, although he has spoken favorably of Dixon. Soldano may be the rival Kelley fears most, given their overlapping appeal to the far-right activist base. At a recent event, Kelley responded to a question about Soldano's strong yard sign presence by boasting how he was the only candidate to skip a recent debate in protest of Covid vaccination requirements.
Jeff Timmer, a former executive director of the state GOP who has soured on the party, said Kelley has “arguably lapped” Soldano with grassroots supporters.
“Kelley’s willing to go to federal prison for Trump, for crying out loud,” Timmer said. “And so he’s wearing the martyr badge well, and it really sets him apart from all the other candidates.”
On Thursday, Kelley saw proof of his rising fortunes in a packed dining room at a restaurant near the Kalamazoo airport. Dressed in a tan three-piece suit, he got a standing ovation from a crowd of more than 100 who had come to hear him address a local Republican women’s club. As servers passed around plates piled high with hearty Midwest pub fare, he alternated between angry and giddy about his recent legal woes.
“If you didn’t know me before then, you know me now, right?” he said to the crowd by way of introduction.
When someone in the room asked him what makes him different from the other Republicans who are running, Kelley responded with a smirk.
“Well, I’m the only one that the FBI has arrested, so …,” he began, drawing laughs.
Kelley directed people to his website to donate not to his campaign but, rather, to his legal defense fund. Although he talked about how his wife and six kids have struggled with the fallout of his arrest, he seemed grateful for the free publicity, observing — much as Detmer did — that the media waiting for him outside the courthouse was worth more than any paid advertising. And during a week when the House Jan. 6 hearings have sought to show the fragility of democracy, Kelley mockingly seemed to reject that the U.S.'s republican form of government functions as a representative democracy.
“What sickens me is ‘We have to save our democracy … American democracy is being threatened right now.’ We’re not a democracy. We’re a republic,” Kelley said. “They see me as a threat to their democracy, and I am. I am a threat to their democracy, because we’re a republic which upholds the individual liberties and rights of the people.”
For the moment, none of Kelley’s rivals appear prepared to hold his arrest against him in the primary. They, along with the state party and other Republicans, have treated Kelley with deference while suggesting that the charges against him are politically motivated.
“He was simply exercising his First Amendment rights there,” Detmer said.
Timmer predicted the show of unity would not last long.
“They will definitely turn on each other when it becomes advantageous,” he said, adding: “Ryan Kelley two Thursdays ago was not in the discussion. There was no viable path to victory. And as soon as the FBI kicked down his door, they all recognized that. They’re all wishing they got arrested, which is how insane it is.”
Craig, who had registered strongest in GOP polls and in head-to-head matchups with Whitmer, is now trying to win the nomination as a write-in candidate. In an interview, he also agreed that Kelley’s arrest had propelled him and was not sure whether it could be used against him effectively in the primary.
“I can’t say I know enough about the allegations to render a solid opinion,” Craig said. “I mean, if he was there and he was engaging in disruptive behavior, disorderly conduct — if he was an active participant in this — then that would be a concern for me.”
But McMorrow offered a warning to voters who might think a candidate with Kelley’s profile is simply too out of the mainstream to win the state this fall, saying Michiganders “have to take every candidate seriously.”
“I think that there were a lot of us in 2016 who thought there’s no way somebody like Donald Trump is going to win here in Michigan,” she said. “It’s just so repulsive and unacceptable to who we are. But that’s not what happened.”