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Laser-focused on 2020, Trump seeks a Michigan Legislature that could help him in 2024

Trump has endorsed seven candidates for state House or Senate seats who have made election administration and investigating last year’s vote central to their platforms.
Former President Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Sarasota, Fla., on July 3, 2021.
Former President Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Sarasota, Fla., on July 3, 2021.Eva Marie Uzcategui / Getty Images file

Jon Rocha was settling in to watch the new “Ghostbusters” with his young daughter at the movies last week when he got the news: Former President Donald Trump had endorsed his bid for state representative in Michigan.

“I was checking my phone to make sure it was on silent, and all of a sudden I got a notification that I was tagged in a tweet” about the endorsement, Rocha said. He was unaware that Trump’s backing was coming. “Imagine going through an entire movie with your phone blowing up.”

It’s unusual for a former president to endorse in races so deep down the ballot, especially nearly nine months before the Republican primary. But Trump has backed seven candidates for state House or Senate seats in Michigan, an electoral battleground that he lost narrowly to Joe Biden last year — more than anywhere else. Most of the endorsements, including Rocha’s, were announced in recent weeks. All of the candidates have one thing in common: They’ve made election administration and investigating last year’s vote central to their platforms.

Trump’s focus on the state illuminates just how driven he is to exact revenge on those who haven’t supported his baseless claim that the last election was stolen from him. It’s also a play to install allies who could be helpful should he run for president again in 2024 and find himself locked in another close race. The Republican-controlled Legislature spent eight months investigating the results of the 2020 presidential election and found no reason to doubt their legitimacy. GOP leaders have also refused to accede to Trump’s demands for a ballot review like the one Republicans authorized in Arizona, which found no proof of fraud and concluded that Biden defeated Trump in the state by even more votes than the certified tally showed.

“Michigan needs a new legislature,” Trump wrote in his Nov. 15 endorsement of Rachelle Smit for state representative. “The cowards there now are too spineless to investigate Election Fraud.”

Trump also has endorsed candidates for attorney general and secretary of state, a key position in charge of election administration, as well as GOP primary challengers to two Michigan members of Congress who voted to impeach him in January after his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in an effort to block Biden’s victory. All of his picks have questioned the legitimacy of the 2020 election results.

He hasn’t yet endorsed in Michigan’s crowded Republican primary for governor, but he has met with contenders eager for his blessing.

“President Trump is committed to saving America and saving Michigan by endorsing and supporting candidates up and down the ballot who will fight for his America First agenda,” Taylor Budowich, a Trump spokesperson, said in a statement to NBC News.

But Trump has made it clear that denying the results of the 2020 presidential election is central to his support, if not his agenda.

“There are so many great Trump people in Michigan,” he wrote in his endorsement of Rocha. “I love Michigan. It has some of the best people, and some of the worst elected officials.”

Trump’s attempt to undermine the last presidential election has met with heavy resistance from some Republicans in Michigan.

Jason Roe, then the executive director of the Michigan GOP, told Politico last year that there was no fraud and that Trump had no one but himself to blame for his loss. State Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and then-House Speaker Lee Chatfield, who met with Trump at the White House after the election, ultimately declined to interfere. State Sen. Ed McBroom investigated Trump’s claims before declaring he had found no evidence of widespread fraud.

But there also have been signs of enduring loyalty to Trump. Meshawn Maddock, who later became a co-chair of the state party, helped organize buses to Washington in January and spoke briefly at a rally there before the riot at the Capitol. Her husband, state Rep. Matt Maddock, scored Trump’s endorsement for his re-election bid this month.

“The Trump train is coming and I wouldn’t want to be in the way,” Maddock said in an email, adding two arm-flexing emojis to underscore his message.

Jeff Timmer, a former Michigan GOP chair who has soured on the party and backed Biden last year, said Trump’s focus on the state is the result of his going “so far down this rabbit hole” about 2020.

“What started off as talking points about the election being rigged has become the sole gospel in his mind,” Timmer said. “He actually believes the election was stolen from him in Detroit and that he actually did win Michigan. That might be propelling a lot of this attention.”

Biden’s 3-point victory over Trump in Michigan — a 154,000-vote win — has been affirmed by court rulings, state canvassers and risk-limiting audits, which examine samples of the overall vote to confirm whether the outcome is correct. A number of claims that had circulated about the vote were debunked in the McBroom report, outraging Trump, who issued multiple statements.

The report, supported by every Republican on the state Senate Oversight Committee, was the product of an eight-month inquiry, and it concluded that there was no basis or evidence to support the Trump campaign's repeated claims that the election results failed to reflect the will of the voters.

Mike Detmer, a state Senate candidate backed by Trump, is challenging incumbent Lana Theis, who signed off on the report. Detmer said he believes that if the Trump-backed candidates win seats next fall, “we're going to at least have a coalition of people that are working for the same goal.”

“I just want to find out the truth,” Detmer said of 2020. “Was it the ‘Big Lie’? Or is there something more to it?”

Detmer, who fell short in a U.S. House primary last year, made local headlines then for defending the neo-fascist Proud Boys on Facebook and separately suggesting on Twitter that people should face “firing squads” if they are deemed to have engaged in “fixing” or “election fraud.”

Trump’s candidates for the Legislature have appeared at a number of election fraud rallies throughout Michigan over the past year. Rocha, who initially was running for a U.S. House seat this cycle until Trump backed one of his opponents, was at the Capitol on Jan. 6, although he said that he “never got close to the actual steps” and that he was unaware of the severity of the riot inside until he left at 3:30 p.m. and regained a cell signal.

“We need to restore the faith in the election, because people are not moving on,” he said. “They are just as angry today, a year later, as they were a year ago.”

Rocha is the only candidate who is running in a Democratic-leaning district, while Detmer is the only candidate taking on a GOP incumbent. Still, much about the races is subject to change when redistricting is completed and Michigan’s new electoral maps are finalized.

Lavora Barnes, the chair of the state Democratic Party, said Trump’s endorsements “reflect his out-of-touch and unfounded wild conspiracy theories.”

“Michigan voters,” she said, “will not be fooled by his support of fringe candidates that are attempting to keep the ‘Big Lie’ alive.”

Tudor Dixon, a Republican candidate for governor who has met with Trump to seek his endorsement, sees his interest in Michigan as being more about the future — specifically 2024, when he could run again for president.

“Michigan was a huge state for him in 2016, and he sees that, as Michigan goes, sometimes goes the nation,” said Dixon, a conservative commentator. “So for him, whether it is Donald Trump running in 2024 or he is supporting another candidate in 2024, he is looking forward to the future.”