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Michigan Republicans are in turmoil as their leaders navigate tricky Trump terrain

Republicans are now completely out of power in the Midwest battleground state and struggling to settle on a path forward.
Former President Donald Trump throws a MAGA hat as he arrives a rally at Macomb Community College in Warren, Mich.
Former President Donald Trump at a rally at Macomb Community College in Warren, Mich., on Oct. 1. Sarah Rice / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

After a shellacking that wiped them out of power in every branch of state government for the first time in 40 years, Michigan Republicans are discordantly wrestling with an uncertain future.

The front-runners to be the next state GOP chair are failed candidates from 2022 who lost their races after hewing closely to former President Donald Trump’s election conspiracy theories. A sizable faction of Republican state lawmakers, meanwhile, is eager to move on from Trump, who is running for the White House again in 2024, and encouraging Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to challenge him.

Another messy primary is brewing in the race for Michigan’s open Senate seat in 2024. The most likely GOP prospects represent a mix of these dueling wings of the party: the milder conservatives whose antipathy toward Trump could make it tough to win the nomination and the Trump-loyal election deniers who have shown they have limited appeal in general elections.

“When we let passion have its way, sometimes we forget who our competitors are,” said state Rep. Phil Green, one of 18 GOP legislators who in December signed a hand-delivered letter urging DeSantis to challenge Trump. “The fear is that we hurt ourselves in the process.”

The divide is not unique to Michigan. Republicans in other presidential battlegrounds, from Arizona to Pennsylvania, have struggled to balance the demands of their Trump-loyal base with the broader support needed to win closely divided states. But the returns have been particularly frustrating in Michigan, where after Trump’s 2016 victory the GOP appeared to be on the verge of building a decisive coalition of working-class voters.

Whether the future is steeped in Trumpism or a throwback to a more traditional and less combative brand of Republicanism, those on both sides are presenting themselves as peacemakers.

“Subtraction is the worst way to win an election,” said former U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who acknowledged to NBC News that he is considering a return to politics, possibly as a Senate or White House candidate in 2024. 

Rogers said that the Trump years introduced a “constant state of chaos” and a raft of conspiracy theories that have alienated and exhausted the more mainstream voters in the state.

“Remember ‘The Gong Show?’” Rogers asked, referring to a late '70s televised talent show where losers were voted off by the sound of a gong. “I think we got a double gong.”

Trump took a substantial interest in Michigan after narrowly losing the state in 2020. Last year, he endorsed candidates up and down the ballot, in hope of having GOP allies in place for the 2024 election. But Democrats there found an easy contrast and cast Republicans as threats to democracy, appealing to swing voters who didn’t buy Trump’s conspiracy theories. State party officials cited these and other tensions when assigning blame for their losses last year.

“At the end of the day, high quality, substantive candidates and well-funded campaigns are still critical to winning elections,” Paul Cordes, the state party’s chief of staff, wrote in a memo after the November election. “We struggled in both regards to the detriment of Michiganders across the state.”

But Trump remains ever-present. In the 11-candidate race for state party chair, the former president has endorsed last year’s losing candidate for attorney general, Matt DePerno, who is being investigated by the state on suspicions that he and eight others illegally tampered with the state’s voting machines. DePerno has denied any wrongdoing. GOP observers believe Trump’s backing gives DePerno the edge over Kristina Karamo — another election denier who lost a race for secretary of state last year — at this month’s state party convention, where Ron Weiser, the current chair, is not seeking a new term.

“Depending on who you talk to, you’re going to get differing views and opinions on both Donald Trump and the direction people think the party should go,” DePerno said. “What we need to do as a party in Michigan is come together and stop the infighting and the tribalism.”

DePerno’s case to be party chair centers more on internal party process than on policy. And though he said he shares Trump’s distaste for absentee voting by mail, DePerno said the party needs to “adapt our strategies” to match Democrats. Unlike Trump, DePerno advocates for robust early voting — so that Republicans can reclaim power and pass restrictive voting laws.

“We cannot be a party that just sits there in the town square and screams about election fraud constantly but is unable or unwilling to get dirty, so to speak, and get in the arena with the Democrats and fight the battle on the level they’re fighting it,” DePerno said. “I am the barbarian that’s ready to get in the mud with the Democrats and beat them at the system they’ve created.”

DePerno’s position illustrates the challenge Republicans have in neutralizing the competitive disadvantages Trump has brought to the party. Green, the DeSantis-backing state lawmaker,  insisted that he can be loyal to both men, even as their 2024 rivalry intensifies.

“I’m 100% for DeSantis,” Green said. “On the flip of that, I’m 100% pro-Trump as well. Everyone has their mind made up about President Trump. There’s room for DeSantis to be a fresh voice.”

Jason Roe, a Republican strategist who resigned as executive director of the Michigan GOP in 2021 after criticizing Trump, said he believes it’s inevitable that the MAGA wing will take control of the state party this month. He is more optimistic that primary voters will choose differently in 2024. 

“We lost everything in the last four years — everything — and we’re now starting from scratch,” Roe said. “It’s time to try something different because for the last four years what we’ve been doing has failed us.”

Next year’s Senate race, an attractive pick-up opportunity for Republicans with the retirement of Democrat Debbie Stabenow, could be a major proxy war. 

Former Reps. Peter Meijer and Fred Upton, two of the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump after the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, are among those mentioned as possible candidates (Upton opted not to run for re-election last year, while Meijer lost in the primary). So are Tudor Dixon, Trump’s endorsed candidate for governor last year, and Ryan Kelley, a right-wing activist who lost to Dixon in the primary after facing charges that he participated in the Capitol riot.

“The mainstream media continues to attempt to pit Republicans against each other and spin their choice narrative of division within the party,” Dixon said in a statement to NBC News. “Republicans should not take the bait, and instead should focus on working together to build the ground game and infrastructure needed to win Michigan for our eventual nominee.”

One unknown as the party sorts out its future is what role Michigan’s powerful DeVos family might play. Dick and Betsy DeVos — he a former GOP candidate for governor, she a former state party chair and Cabinet secretary in the Trump administration — wield enormous influence. Their support of Dixon in last year’s primary and marshaling of political donations had her well positioned for the nomination even before Trump’s endorsement. 

Along the way, Dixon’s rivals and others cast the DeVos family as meddling establishment insiders who were working against Trump’s other preferred candidates — and they then cried foul when the family was not as generous with her or other candidates during a general election in which Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and her fellow Democrats won comfortably. Republican state Rep. Matt Maddock told The Detroit News in December that Dixon would have won and the GOP would have kept their majorities in the Legislature if Dick DeVos had spent as much to promote Dixon as he did his own campaign for governor in 2006. 

A DeVos spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment. 

“You’ve got a bunch of political malcontents who don’t seem concerned about winning elections but do seem concerned about who qualifies to be a Republican in their definition of the Republican Party,” Roe said. “You can’t spend all your time bashing the people that you are counting on to help win your campaigns, and that’s what they’re doing.”