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Republicans in two key swing states are charting very different paths after getting crushed in 2022

GOP leaders in Pennsylvania are presenting a unified front entering a critical election year, while infighting has plagued their counterparts in Michigan.
Kristina Karamo and Dave McCormick.
Kristina Karamo and Dave McCormick.AP file

For Republicans in Michigan and Pennsylvania, two critical swing states, the 2022 midterms followed a similar script.

Hugely divisive primaries. Fringe candidates backed by former President Donald Trump ascending to the top of the statewide ballot. Electoral wipeouts that saw Republicans lose every contested statewide office and relinquish control of long-held branches of state legislatures.

Where Republicans in each state differed, though, is on the lessons they took from these defeats and how they are applying them to 2024.

In Pennsylvania, Republicans who clamored for state party leaders to take a more active role early in primaries to prevent another statewide nominee far outside the party’s mainstream — like 2022 gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano — seem to have won the argument. As it stands, businessman Dave McCormick, who narrowly lost the 2022 Senate primary to Mehmet Oz after Trump offered the celebrity TV doctor an eleventh-hour endorsement, seemingly cleared the field before even entering the 2024 Senate race last year. He’s picked up endorsements from the state Republican Party and the entirety of the state’s congressional delegation.

In Michigan, the GOP is presenting a much less united front

Republicans are in a bitter fight over the potential ouster of the state party chair, Kristina Karamo, whose term followed her defeat as an election-denying nominee for secretary of state in 2022. Her opponents, who include a large group of Michigan GOP committee members who voted recently to oust her, accuse her of grossly mismanaging the state party, leading it toward bankruptcy and failing to live up to the promises that helped win her the position. On Saturday, a separate group of Michigan Republicans voted to keep her as chair.

The direction Republicans take in both states could have massive implications on a pair of competitive Senate races, as well as on the presidential contest, as both Democrats and Republicans are unlikely to win the White House without winning Pennsylvania and Michigan.

Jason Roe, who served as executive director of the Michigan GOP until he was forced out for speaking out against the pro-Trump stolen election myth, said many Michigan Republicans “thought 2022 was rock bottom.”

“And I think Kristina Karamo’s response was ‘hold my beer,’” he added. “As bad as 2022 was, as much of a wake up call as it should have been, I don’t think anyone foresaw things getting so cataclysmically bad as they have gotten in her first year of leadership, and maybe her only year of leadership. It seems to me that in Pennsylvania, a bit of sobriety may have developed there that winning elections matters and what you do to put yourself in a position to win matters.”

Pennsylvania Republicans unify — for now

In the Keystone State, McCormick appears to be taking advantage of said sobriety. Just last week, his campaign announced a $5.4 million fundraising haul in his first quarter as a candidate. And he’s essentially already running his general election campaign against Democratic Sen. Bob Casey. 

As a national Republican operative working on Senate races said, McCormick spent the better part of a year ahead of his run seeking to shore up support among party leaders and clear the field before getting into the race, though this person cautioned that another entrant into the race is still a possibility. After a midterm election in which the party’s nominees for Senate and governor were crushed by their Democratic rivals, state leaders were warm to the pitch.

“He had a lot of that wrapped up before he jumped to the race, which was smart,” this person said of the intraparty support. “Because now it’s a pretty well-oiled machine.”

Sam DeMarco, chairman of the Allegheny County GOP, said Republican leaders in the state “learned from the divisive primary” in 2022 and wanted to give McCormick, a former hedge fund executive who served in former President George W. Bush’s administration, “the runway” to be able to fundraise for a general election bid as early as possible.

“It appears that they went one direction,” DeMarco said of Republican leaders in Michigan. “That’s counter to what we’ve tried to do.”

But not everyone is singing "Kumbaya." As DeMarco said, Republican leadership in the state “is more united than the grassroots at this point,” though he feels the grassroots is slowly coming together. Others are less sure.    

Former Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Pa., said he “wouldn’t call one candidate a standard-bearer for the party” in the state and said that whoever wins the GOP presidential primary will have a massive effect on just how unified Pennsylvania Republicans can be.

“That is a common denominator for both Pennsylvania and Michigan,” he told NBC News as he was campaigning for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in Iowa last week. “In addition to Wisconsin, Arizona and Georgia. And this is the message I’ve been telling Iowa voters. I need to be convinced that President Trump would be able to win in these swing states. And I’m far from convinced. How many elections do we have to lose?”

And he has seen a lot of losing in his state. In 2018, Pennsylvania Republicans, including Rothfus, were routed during the midterms of Trump’s presidency. In 2020, Trump lost the state after carrying it in 2016. Then came the 2022 rout. Last year’s off-year election brought more losing for the GOP, as its candidate for a state Supreme Court seat lost handily to her Democratic rival.

“I think the standard-bearer is going to be on the top of the ticket,” he said. “And that will drive what happens in all the down ballot races.”

What’s more, Rothfus pointed to comments Trump made about McCormick during his 2022 run. Then, Trump stood on stage at a rally to boost Oz and slammed McCormick as a “liberal Wall Street Republican” who was “more Toomey than he is MAGA,” calling out departing Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who voted to convict him in Trump’s second impeachment over his actions tied to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

“If Trump is going to be the nominee, how are you going to reconcile what Trump said in the last go around?” Rothfus said.

There are other issues, too. Former Washington County GOP Chairman Dave Ball, who declined to seek re-election last year, said the party still needs to build out an effective mail-in voting program and repair its grassroots organizing efforts that, he said, took a significant hit in the last cycle.

He doesn’t see a whole bunch of unity at the moment.

“I wish that were the case,” Ball said. “I don’t see people coalescing around anything.”

Discord in Michigan

In Michigan, infighting is much more pronounced. Karamo, a former community college instructor who gained a following as a leading proponent of the stolen election myth in her state, crusaded against the state party’s long-standing big donors in her bid for the chairmanship. But, as her opponents argue, she’s been unable to bring in new sources of funding for the party and has generally led the organization adrift.

In a recent interview with NBC News, Karamo called the push to remove her “performative nonsense.”

“You know, unfortunately, within the Republican Party, there’s this quiet caste system,” she said. “And if you don’t come from the right rank, how dare you step out of your box?”

The state party fight comes as a four-way primary to fill an open Senate seat picks up steam. Former Detroit Police Chief James Craig, businessman Sandy Pensler and two former congressmen who have been critical of Trump, Peter Meijer and Mike Rogers, have all tossed their hats in the ring. Meijer, who voted to impeach Trump in 2021, has said he would vote for him if he’s the nominee this year. Rogers joined Craig and Pensler in backing Trump last week.

Gustavo Portela, a Republican strategist involved in Michigan races, wondered if turmoil at the state GOP would hurt the eventual nominee’s chances.

“It’s a great opportunity for Republicans,” he said. “And then of course, you have the situation with the party. And that’s kind of threatening a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Republicans.”

The national Republican aide working on Senate races put it in more blunt terms.

“Karamo is just a disaster,” this person said. “And for whatever reason, the Michigan state party is way more of a s---show than most other states.”

Yet, recent polling shows Republicans may actually have an even better shot in the Wolverine State than they do in Pennsylvania.

A Quinnipiac University survey released last week showed President Joe Biden with a 3-point edge over Trump among registered voters — a margin that was just outside the poll’s margin of error. It was also an improvement for Democrats from Quinnipiac’s October survey, which showed Trump ahead by 1 point, a virtual tie within the margin of error.

The survey also showed Casey leading McCormick by 10 points, a 4-point improvement for the Democrat from the October poll.

On the other hand, a Detroit News/WDIV-TV survey published last week found Trump with an 8-point edge over Biden in Michigan, well outside the poll’s margin of error. Biden carried Michigan over Trump by about 3 percentage points in 2020, while beating him in Pennsylvania by slightly more than 1 point.

Mike Detmer, who lost a Michigan state Senate primary in 2022 after earning Trump’s endorsement and left the GOP within the last few days to join the Constitution Party, said that differences between how both states are positioned ahead of 2024 “comes down to the individuals who are leading the charge.” 

“Perhaps the personalities that you have in Pennsylvania might be a good driving force there,” said Detmer, who still plans to vote for Republicans in the upcoming elections. “We don’t have that here. You really have a polarization within the GOP. You have those who are anti-establishment — they want nothing to do with [the establishment]. And then you have those who are pro-establishment who want nothing to do with the grassroots.”