Michigan county conventions give preview of contentious GOP primary races

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

The Michigan Republican Party began its process of picking delegates to its state convention this week with a series of county party conventions, and judging by the events at some of them, a big question for the Michigan GOP is whether the energy and turnout in the meetings will bring it success at the polls — or disarray.

Delegates selected at 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 offices. There are around 6,000 delegates eligible to attend the conventions, and Monday night's turnout involved a large percentage of them. 

The divide within the GOP – at both national and local levels – is largely between the "MAGA" camp of supporters of former President Donald Trump and the more traditional establishment Republicans, a split that became clear following the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and Trump's continuing claims of election fraud. As the BBC put it recently: "Politicians, and prospective candidates, are making calculations on how to succeed in an environment where Mr Trump is out of office but not out of power."

Tensions between the two types of Republicans were particularly noticeable at the convention in Macomb County on April 11. Macomb is Michigan's third-most populous county, and a known Trump stronghold, going for Trump by 48,000 votes in 2016 and 40,000 in 2020. Five of the 14 Michiganders charged with participating in the Jan. 6 assault were from Macomb.

The convention was "raucous," according to some attendees, with people heckling and shouting insults at each other. As reported by the Michigan Advance, at 20 minutes in, the meeting was "in chaos," with police officers attempting to deescalate conflicts among the attendees. 

Macomb County GOP Chair Mark Forton, who had dared his opponents to have him arrested, was ousted from his position during the convention through a vote of no confidence and was replaced by local city councilman Eric Castiglia. Fervent in his belief that the 2020 election was stolen, Forton frequently criticized other Republicans, including Michigan GOP Chair Ron Weiser and State Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, for doing too little to demand further audits of the presidential election.

Castiglia brought a more conciliatory note to the proceedings, saying that the county party should be a "safe haven for all Republicans" and lamenting the excessive use of the term "RINO," or "Republican in name only," to describe those who are not sufficiently loyal to Trump. 

Key to the conventions on Monday was the Michigan attorney general race, split between Matt DePerno, a Trump-backed attorney from Kalamazoo; Tom Leonard, a former state House speaker; and Ryan Berman, a current state House member. DePerno, in true Trump style, had urged supporters to "Storm the convention" at a rally with Trump on April 2 and set up an informational website using the phrase as its title.

The Detroit News' Craig Mauger tweeted on April 12 that Leonard had said, "Matt DePerno's misguided call to storm the convention led only to a light drizzle."

John Yob, a consultant for DePerno, claimed of "Storm the convention": "Purpose was to get attention to inspire MAGA to fill vacant slots in large counties, mostly alternates who will be elevated on the floor. Turnout was fantastic. It worked perfectly. Matt DePerno will win big at state convention." Other supporters thought it 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 claimed to have had successful nights. Berman noted the "kingmaker" role being played by Trump in the race, but said he believes he can beat DePerno in the primaries. Leonard is well-positioned and known personally by many of the delegates, and his campaign thought it won more delegates than it had expected. Neither candidate is dogged by allegations of financial and legal improprieties as DePerno is. 

Matt Marko, the president of the Oakland Republican Party, told the American Independent Foundation that the Michigan Republican Party is divided and "has been for years." Yesterday's anti-establishment, he said, is today's establishment. He believes that the delegates "know President Trump is being fed information and scripts from that biased establishment. Case in point were his negative comments about AG candidate 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. Rep. Peter Meijer, the incumbent, was jeered by some participants. Meijer was one of only 10 Republicans in the House who voted to impeach Trump in January 2021 on charges of instigating the storming of the U.S. Capitol, in a move he acknowledged "might have been an act of political suicide."

"He is a Democrat posing as a Republican," Marko said.

Trump has endorsed Meijer's GOP opponent John Gibbs, who served in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development during his administration. Gibbs has adopted a largely pro-Trump platform, including an "America First" credo on his website that states, among other things, "The American people are precious, unique among the world, and have a fundamental right to exist."

It also cites as an issue important to 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 unfair, hateful, divisive, and often illegal."

In a statement to the American Independent Foundation, Gibbs assessed the evening as a success for his campaign: "Independent polling shows I'm up by 19 points over Meijer, but after seeing how loudly Meijer was booed at the Kent County convention — the largest reaction of the night — I may win by an even larger 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's campaign manager, John Podesta, had taken part in a satanic ritual; criticized Islam; and referred to establishment Republicans as "cucks," a derogatory term favored by the alt-right.

Commenting on the overall influence of Trump in these races, Matt Marko concedes that such influence might prove decisive. He added, "You may also find what may seem a disproportionate influence is an illusion."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.