Dueling pro-Trump factions in Michigan throw the swing state’s Republicans into disarray

By THOMAS BEAUMONT and JOEY CAPPELLETTI (Associated Press)

WATERFORD TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) — The Michigan Republican Party was deep in debt when a longtime party donor who had given more than $1 million over the past decade asked for a meeting with its chairwoman.

Kristina Karamo turned down the donor. Her reasoning, according to two people familiar with the matter, was that he was a “Republican in Name Only,” or a “RINO,” an insult long used to denigrate members of the party seen as not conservative enough.

Today, the party’s finances are so dire that Karamo has sued former party leaders so she can get permission to sell the organization’s headquarters. And she’s refusing to leave her post even as former President Donald Trump and national Republicans have installed a new ally in her place.

The cash crunch and power struggle within the Michigan GOP, long a bastion of traditional conservatism, is a case study in the party’s new phase nationally in the era of Trump, where no longer are the competing elements simply for or against him. Instead, pro-Trump factions in Michigan and elsewhere are fighting over how best to represent his “Make America Great Again” movement, with some openly alienating lifetime Republicans and undermining the party’s work in key swing states.

While Trump is widely expected to win Tuesday’s Michigan primary, his campaign is trying to improve Republican standing in a state that could decide a potential Trump rematch in November with Democratic President Joe Biden. But some of Trump’s most ardent supporters aren’t going along with his efforts to replace Karamo and they openly question his judgment.

“I don’t think he should be involved in state politics to begin with,” said Steve Willis, chair of the Clinton County GOP, in south central Michigan near Lansing. “He’s just listening to people that have his ear and he makes a decision.”

Trump’s allies have moved to replace Karamo with Pete Hoekstra, a former nine-term congressman who was Trump’s ambassador to the Netherlands. Hoekstra is now responsible for assembling a functioning network of activists, donors and political staff while acknowledging, as he said in an interview, that he “can’t build a whole political party in eight months.”

“We need to build the brand back, with our grassroots and our donor class,” Hoekstra said. “My intention is to rebuild those relationships.”

Karamo, who did not respond to several text messages and phone calls seeking comment, retains control of the party’s bank accounts, social media and email. A lawsuit seeking to force her to relinquish power is being heard by a Michigan judge.

Elected party chairwoman last year, Karamo is an ardent Trump supporter who rose to prominence by repeating false claims about voter fraud in Detroit and denying that Trump lost the 2020 election.

She inherited a state party torn by infighting and facing millions in debt. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a rising Democratic Party star, had easily won reelection and Democrats clinched control of the Legislature.

But many donors and longtime activists say Karamo refused to work with them. In turn, many of them stopped giving, cutting off resources to a party that had been accustomed to raising at least $20 million — and at times more than $30 million — to help candidates statewide.

John Kennedy, the longtime CEO of a medical implant manufacturer and part of a core of Michigan’s most loyal donors, was told that Karamo would not meet with “RINOs,” according to two people familiar with his story who weren’t authorized to discuss it publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Kennedy declined to comment in response to an email inquiry.