GRAND RAPIDS – The Michigan GOP party faithful Saturday supported two political outsiders backed by former President Donald Trump to serve as the state’s next chief elections officer and top law enforcement official.
Following months of infighting over the future direction of the party, Republican convention delegates endorsed Oak Park educator Kristina Karamo for secretary of state, and Kalamazoo lawyer Matt DePerno defeated former state House Speaker Tom Leonard in a runoff for attorney general.
Neither DePerno nor Karamo has held elected office previously, but the pair rose to national prominence following the 2020 election for their unfounded claims of widespread fraud and vote manipulation.
In addition to the support of the former president, DePerno and Karamo also secured the endorsement of Michigan GOP co-chair Meshawn Maddock. Party leaders typically stay out of contested races. Maddock’s unusual intervention in the races angered some Republicans, including candidates who said they were promised by her that she would remain neutral.
At a Trump rally in Macomb County for DePerno and Karamo, Maddock called on members of her party to “join together” and “lay down” their differences to unite behind the candidates endorsed at the convention.
Following the convention, Maddock thanked Trump “for focusing on Michigan” and said that her party will unite behind his preferred candidates.
But the convention appeared to underscore divisions in the party after the attorney general’s race was forced to a bitter runoff between DePerno and Leonard.
Voters supporting both candidates faced off against one another on the convention floor ahead of the vote. DePerno supporters chanted, “Let’s go DePerno,” one sounded a siren on his megaphone and others clapped noisemakers bearing DePerno’s name.
In the first round of voting, DePerno received 49% of the convention vote while Leonard received 40%. State Rep. Ryan Berman received 11% of the vote and quickly endorsed Leonard ahead of the runoff.
Upon accepting her party’s endorsement, Karamo encouraged delegates to support DePerno in the runoff. Berman appeared to try to take the stage but was rebuffed after his loss and endorsement of Leonard.
In the runoff, DePerno secured 55% of the convention vote to Leonard’s 45%, according to machine totals set to be verified by a hand count.
Following the party’s announcement of DePerno’s victory, Leonard acknowledged his loss, saying the “race did not turn out the way we had hoped,” in a statement that expressed his gratitude for delegates who supported what he called his “positive, issue-focused campaign.”
Voting was still going on more than two hours after the convention was supposed to adjourn. Delegates said that this was the longest convention they could remember attending. At one point, the voting paused because of an error in the order of races that appeared on the screen to guide voting, which at first displayed the attorney general race as the last race when it was the first race on the ballot.
Michigan GOP spokesperson Gustavo Portela defended the convention process, saying that neither the DePerno nor Leonard campaigns expressed concerns about the mix-up and that the party does not believe any votes were affected.
Karamo was seen as a clear front-runner in her race against Chesterfield Township Clerk Cindy Berry — the only candidate with experience as an elections administrator — and state Rep. Beau LaFave, R-Iron Mountain. On Saturday, she sailed to victory to receive her party’s endorsement, winning nearly 70% of the convention vote. Upon accepting her party’s endorsement, Karamo encouraged delegates to support DePerno in the runoff. Berman appeared to try to take the stage but was rebuffed.
Political observers expected a tight attorney general’s race and billed it as a test of Trump’s strength in the party.
Candidates running against Trump’s picks argued that DePerno and Karamo face longer odds of victory in the fall than them. Some Republicans have said that moderate and Democratic voters needed to win elections in the swing state will reject DePerno and Karamo as too extreme.
Beth Antor, a 54-year-old delegate from Sparta Township, said she was going to support DePerno and Karamo but wasn’t sure her two preferred candidates would gain the support of enough independent and Democratic voters.
“I have no idea what they’re going to do, but just the fact that the conservative grassroots base is waking up, I like that,” she said.
“I don’t want somebody that meets in the middle. I don’t want to vote for that.”
Greg Ward, a 51-year-old delegate and Leonard supporter, expressed reservations about DePerno’s candidacy.
“I understand this is a party convention, but he’s run negative and Trump forever and I don’t know that those are winning-ticket items come November,” he said.
DePerno might even struggle to win over some members of his own party. Jessica Nieto, a 37-year-old delegate from Taylor who supported Leonard, said she wasn’t sure she could vote for DePerno in November, calling his personal attacks “embarrassing” for her party. The attorney general’s race has been mainly defined by “one candidate’s mudslinging at another, that is ridiculous to me,” she said.
State Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, who spearheaded the GOP-led state Senate Oversight Committee investigation into the 2020 election that debunked claims the vote was rife with widespread fraud suggested that a DePerno and Karamo endorsement would put his party on a path toward defeat in the general election.
Speaking outside the voting hall minutes before delegates began casting their ballots, he said that the endorsement of the two Trump-backed candidates would signal that “a majority of the people here would rather send a very strong message about what they want and the message they want to deliver to the party and to the nation, rather than winning the election in November.”
Michigan GOP Chairman Ron Weiser called those in his party who said that DePerno and Karamo cannot defeat the Democratic incumbents “poor losers.”
He said that the party is going to “unite together” and “win this election this fall.”
The weekend GOP gathering in Grand Rapids marked the party’s first-ever endorsement convention. Republicans had hoped it would unite Republicans and boost the chosen candidates’ campaigns months before the midterm election.
Some said that internal debate was inevitable. David Robbins, a 56-year-old alternate delegate at the convention, said that “in the end, the boxing match is with the Democrats in November.”
“When you’re training for a boxing match, you have to spar, you have to sweat, you have to bleed,” he said.
The party will convene again in August for another convention in which GOP precinct delegates — the lowest-ranked elected Republicans who essentially constitute the party’s base — will officially nominate candidates for the November ballot. The August convention will include delegates newly elected during the primary.
Michigan is among only a handful of states that select nominees for major statewide offices at party conventions instead of in primary elections. Nominations for governor, congressional and state legislative seats will be made by voters in the Aug. 2 primary.
DePerno secures GOP support after attorney general’s race sees vicious personal attacks
DePerno gained notoriety in 2020 when he represented an Antrim County resident in a lawsuit that served as a vehicle to advance conspiracies about electronic voting machines used to tabulate ballots. Antrim County, a rural GOP stronghold, was the site of a clerical error that briefly led to an inaccurate report of unofficial election night results. The Michigan Court of Claims Thursday upheld a trial court’s ruling dismissing DePerno’s lawsuit. DePerno has vowed to appeal the decision to the Michigan Supreme Court.
But Trump seized on a debunked report filed in support of DePerno’s lawsuit to falsely claim that the election was stolen from him. He cited the report extensively in a draft executive order to order the military to seize voting machines that was never issued.
On the campaign trail, DePerno repeatedly attacked Leonard as an establishment Republican and sought Leonard’s firing from his private law job, suggesting that his opponent had access to privileged information DePerno provided as a client of the firm where Leonard works.
In the letter to Leonard’s employer, DePerno said he retained the law firm in response to an investigation by the Michigan Attorney Grievance Commission related to his lawsuit in Antrim County. The commission has the authority to initiate disciplinary proceedings that can revoke Michigan lawyers’ licenses to practice in the state.
A comprehensive report on the 2020 election by the GOP-led state Senate Oversight Committee also called on the attorney general’s office to investigate “those who have been utilizing misleading and false information about Antrim County to raise money or publicity for their own ends.” Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office subsequently launched an investigation. Nessel has identified DePerno as a potential target of the investigation but said that her office set up a firewall preventing her participation in the probe against her political opponent.
DePerno has repeatedly pledged to investigate and charge Nessel, along with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Secretary and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. He has suggested Michigan’s three highest ranking Democrats have all committed misconduct. Berman and Leonard have blasted his statements as unethical.
But the candidates found agreement on other issues on the campaign trail.
All three called for the end of the Whitmer administration’s legal efforts to shut down Line 5 to prevent a spill or leak of the dual gas and oil pipeline into the Great Lakes. And the three also touted themselves as opponents of abortion rights, a potentially key issue in the event the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the 1973 landmark decision Roe v. Wade.
The decision nullified a 1931 Michigan law that makes performing almost any abortion a felony. Leonard was the only candidate in the race who said he would enforce the law but not prosecute pregnant people who seek an abortion.
Karamo receives overwhelming support among Republicans
Candidates running against Karamo said she would struggle to win a general election.
But Karamo received overwhelming support among GOP convention delegates to take on current Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat who has characterized the contest as a battle for the future of democracy.
Right-wing media embraced her as an election fraud “whistleblower” for her unfounded claims that she witnessed fraud and misconduct in Detroit where she worked as an election challenger observing the absentee ballot count.
“I’ve got a big mouth,” Karamo said ahead of the convention when asked how she caught the attention of the former president.
Trump endorsed her last fall and held a rally in Michigan before the endorsement convention encouraging Republicans to support her and DePerno. Appearing alongside Trump, Karamo thanked him for his support and said he “pulled the scales off of so many people’s eyes about (how) there’s a cabal of people in leadership bent on destroying our country,” using language evocative of the QAnon conspiracy that a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles run the U.S.
During the campaign, LaFave nicknamed his opponent “QAnon Karamo” and pointed to a conference in Las Vegas with connections to the QAnon movement that Karamo spoke at last fall. Karamo’s campaign told Bridge Michigan ahead of that gathering that she “does not and never has supported QAnon.”
She is part of a group of so-called “America First” secretary of state candidates whose campaigns have peddled misinformation and conspiracies about the 2020 presidential election. She said at the Oakland County GOP convention held a week before the state party convention that the coalition “is just to return the rule of law” and “citizen oversight to the election system.”
Even though the group is made up of GOP candidates, she said that “everybody should be excited” about the group’s focus on election security, which she called a voting rights issue. “It’s to benefit all people. It’s not to benefit Republicans, it’s to benefit the republic,” she said.
She said that while the Michigan secretary of state’s race is a partisan election, the “office is not partisan” and said her campaign has focused on gaining the support of independent and “soft” Democratic voters.
Speaking about the Michigan GOP’s own election procedures, she heralded her party’s decision to pair a machine count of ballots at the convention with a hand count. She said that there are “some legitimate concerns” with electronic voting systems despite no evidence to support claims that surfaced in the wake of the 2020 election that voting tabulators incorrectly read ballots.
Karamo said that the use of a hand count for the first time at a Michigan GOP convention would help unify Republicans.
If officially nominated at the party’s fall convention, she will be the first Black woman Republicans back for one of the top three statewide offices.
Board of Education and university board races
GOP convention delegates also endorsed candidates for State Board of Education and university boards.
The state Supreme Court race was uncontested with incumbent Justice Brian Zahra running for reelection and lawyer Paul Hudson vying for the second open seat on the court.
For the State Board of Education, the party backed Tami Carlone and Linda Lee Tarver. Democrats hold a majority on the eight-member board that currently has only two Republican members. Democrats currently hold the two seats that are up for reelection. Carlone is the coalitions vice chair for the Michigan GOP. She previously ran for the State Board of Education in 2020 and lost. Tarver is a former Michigan Department of State employee who participated in legal efforts to delay the certification of the 2020 presidential election.
The party also endorsed Christa Murphy and Craig Wilsher for the Wayne State University Board of Governors. Democrats hold the two seats that are up for reelection. For the University of Michigan Board of Regents, the party supported Lena Epstein and Sevag Vartanian against two incumbent Democrats running for reelection. Finally, the Michigan State University Board of Trustees race saw Mike Balow and Travis Menge receive the backing of the Michigan GOP.
Staff writer Dave Boucher contributed to this report.
Clara Hendrickson fact-checks Michigan issues and politics as a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Make a tax-deductible contribution to support her work at bit.ly/freepRFA. Contact her at email@example.com or 313-296-5743. Follow her on Twitter @clarajanehen.