Michigan county conventions provide insight into controversial GOP primary races

Tensions between Trump supporters and other Republicans were particularly noticeable at the convention in Macomb County, Michigan.

The Republican Party of Michigan has begun its process to choose delegates to its state convention this week along with a series of county party conventions, and judging by the events of some of those, a big question for the Michigan GOP is whether energy and attendance at meetings will bring him success at the polls – or disarray.

Delegates selected from the 83 county conventions will attend the party’s state convention in Lansing on April 23 and endorse candidates for state attorney general, secretary of state and other positions. There are about 6,000 delegates eligible to attend the conventions, and Monday night’s turnout involved a large percentage of them.

The divide within the GOP — nationally and locally — is largely between the “MAGA” camp of supporters of former President Donald Trump and the more traditional establishment Republicans, a split that became clear after the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the United States Capitol and Trump’s ongoing election fraud allegations. As the BBC said recently: “Politicians and potential candidates are making calculations on how to succeed in an environment where Mr. Trump is out of office but not in power.”

The tensions between the two types of Republicans were particularly noticeable during the Macomb County convention on April 11. Macomb is Michigan’s third-most populous county and a known Trump stronghold, opting for Trump by 48,000 votes in 2016 and 40,000 in 2020. Five of the 14 Michiganders charged who took part in the January 6 assault were from Macomb.

The convention was “noisy”, according to some attendees, with people heckling and shouting insults at each other. As reported by Michigan Advance, at 20 minutes, the meeting was “in chaos”, with police to attempt to defuse conflict between participants.

Macomb County GOP Chairman Mark Forton, who had defied opponents to have him arrested, was ousted from his position at the convention by a vote of no confidence and was replaced by local councilman Eric Castiglia. A fervent believer that the 2020 election was stolen, Forton has frequently criticized other Republicans, including Michigan GOP Chairman Ron Weiser and state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, for having does too little to demand new audits of the presidential election.

Castiglia brought a plus reconciliation note to the proceedings, saying the county party should be a “safe haven for all Republicans” and lamenting the overuse of the term “RINO” or “Republican in name only” to describe those not loyal enough to Trump.

Key to Monday’s conventions was the race for Michigan attorney general, split between Matt DePerno, a Trump-backed attorney from Kalamazoo; Tom Leonard, former Speaker of the State House; and Ryan Berman, a current member of State House. DePerno, in true Trump style, had urged his supporters to “storm the convention” during a rally with Trump on April 2 and set up an information forum website using the sentence as a title.

Detroit News’ Craig Mauger tweeted on April 12, Leonard had said, “Matt DePerno’s misguided call to storm the convention only led to a light drizzle.”

John Yob, consultant for DePerno, claims from ‘Storm the convention’: “The goal was to get attention to inspire MAGA to fill vacancies in the big counties, mostly alternates who will be high on the ground. The turnout was fantastic. It worked perfectly. Matt DePerno will win big at the state convention.” Other supporters thought it was likely that DePerno would win many delegates from high-population areas like Macomb, Wayne, and Oakland counties.

For their part, the Leonard and Berman campaigns also claims having spent successful nights. Berman noted Trump’s “kingmaker” role in the race, but said he believed he could beat DePerno in the primaries. Leonard is well positioned and known personally by many delegates, and his campaign believed it won more delegates than expected. Neither candidate is being prosecuted by allegations of financial and legal irregularities as is DePerno.

Matt Marko, the chairman of the Republican Party of Oakland, told the American Independent Foundation that the Republican Party in Michigan has been divided and “for years.” Yesterday’s anti-establishment, he says, is today’s establishment. He believes delegates “know that President Trump is receiving information and scripts from this biased establishment. For example, his negative comments about AG nominee Tom Leonard.”

“Most delegates,” he said, “will do their homework and determine the best candidates who can win the general election.”

Two candidates in the race for Michigan’s 3rd congressional district made an appearance at the Kent County convention. Representative Peter Meijer, the incumbent, was mocked by some participants. Meijer was one of only 10 House Republicans to vote to impeach Trump in January 2021 for instigating a storming of the US Capitol, in a move he has recognized “could have been an act of political suicide.”

“He’s a Democrat pretending to be a Republican,” Marko said.

Trump endorsed Meijer’s GOP opponent, John Gibbs, who served in the US Department of Housing and Urban Development during his administration. Gibbs took a broad approach pro-Trump platform, including an “America First” creed on its website which states, among other things, “The American people are precious, unique in the world, and have a basic right to exist.”

He also cites as a significant problem for Gibbs the “widespread irregularities and statistical anomalies in the 2020 election” and notes: “Diabolical schemes such as critical race theory and similar ideologies, which seek to demonize and blame all white Americans for all the ills of our past, are unjust, hateful, divisive and often illegal.”

In a statement to the American Independent Foundation, Gibbs called the night a success for his campaign: “An independent poll shows I’m ahead of Meijer by 19 points, but after seeing how Meijer was booed at the Kent County convention – the biggest reaction of the night – I can win by an even bigger margin.”

Meijer’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

In a series of tweets in 2016, Gibbs repeatedly promoted a conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton campaign manager John Podesta participated in a satanic ritual; criticized Islam; and called establishment Republicans “cucks,” a pejorative term favored by the alt-right.

Commenting on Trump’s overall influence in these races, Matt Marko concedes that such influence could prove decisive. He added: “You may also find what may seem like disproportionate influence to be an illusion.”

Published with permission of the American Independent Foundation.

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