Former President Donald Trump returned to Michigan on Saturday night to boost support for two Republican candidates he wants to see become the state’s chief law enforcement and elections officials, inserting himself into the nominating process three weeks before state GOP delegates are to begin selecting their nominees for down-ballot races.
The two Trump-backed candidates — Matt DePerno for attorney general and Kristina Karamo for secretary of state — are political newcomers who gained prominence after the 2020 election for peddling misinformation and unproven claims of corruption in that year’s presidential balloting, which Trump lost to Joe Biden in Michigan by more than 154,000 votes.
Beginning his speech about 7:30 p.m., Trump immediately attacked President Joe Biden and began hammering at false claims that the 2020 election in the state was rife with fraud and corruption.
“The presidential election was rigged and stolen and because of that our country is being destroyed,” he said as the speech began. “We did win, we did win. … We won by a lot, not just a little.”
In his remarks at the Michigan Stars Sports Center in Washington Township, which lasted about an hour and 45 minutes, Trump talked about high inflation and a surge in migrants along the southern border, as well what he described as a botched withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan. He also claimed that, if he had remained in office, Russia never would have invaded Ukraine and inflation wouldn’t have gone up.
“The only thing they (Democrats) are good at is fixing elections,” Trump said. “That’s about the only thing they do.”
He also got huge applause when he teased another run for president in 2024.
“Would anybody like to see me run?” he asked and the crowd of about 5,700 people exploded with cheers.
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Trump’s relentless disinformation campaign about the last election has left Michigan Republicans divided. While some continue to push for another review of the last presidential election, as Trump and his allies have demanded, others have condemned attempts to relitigate the contest, saying it’s time to move on.
During the speech, Trump said, “We have to get to the bottom of what happened in 2020,” though he wasn’t more specific than that.
“This is about making sure Michigan is not rigged and stolen again in 2024,” he said.
Throughout the speech, Trump also attacked Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer as well as Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. He called DePerno “a tough cookie” and Karamo “a fearless champion for election integrity.”
He urged Republicans to support both, calling theirs “critical nominations.”
Following the speech, the Democratic National Committee put out a statement saying Trump “took the stage alongside some of the most extreme members of the Republican Party to remind the people of Michigan what today’s Republican Party stands for.”
Trump’s endorsement of candidates before the endorsement convention for down ballot races, including these, has also upset some Republicans, however, as has the fact that a party co-chair, Meshawn Maddock, who appeared at the rally, has followed his lead.
But those feelings clearly were not in evidence Saturday at the event in Macomb County: Trump supporters lined up hours early to attend the rally, sporting Make America Great Again apparel and waving signs.
Taking the stage for a brief speech, DePerno, who led a failed lawsuit questioning the accuracy of voting machines in a northern Michigan county claimed to prove “how fraud occurred in this state.” But he did no such thing: A judge dismissed the case last year but DePerno is appealing the ruling.
He did not explain what proof he had had for the audience.
DePerno also said, when elected, that he would take action against Whitmer, Benson and his would-be opponent, Nessel, to hold them “accountable.”
“For far too long, we’ve allowed these radical, leftist Democrats to destroy our state and it’s time we take it back,” he said. “I’ve fought for everyone in this state.”
He also contradicted himself by saying on the one hand the Republican Party in the state was unifying behind his candidacy while on the other calling for supporters to “storm” upcoming local conventions to elect delegates to determine, beginning at an endorsement convention, who will be the party’s nominees for attorney general, secretary of state and other down-ballot races.
Many Republicans have voiced concerns that DePerno and Karamo could be viewed as too extreme and too linked to Trump by voters and cost them chances to win with more mainstream voters in November.
DePerno also spoke out against vaccine and mask mandates as well as the teaching of critical race theory in schools — taking up themes that have motivated Republican voters in other states.
Trump attacks DePerno’s opponent by name, has trouble with ‘Meijer’
In his remarks, the former president continued to go after the candidate many consider the most likely threat to DePerno’s nomination for attorney general, former state House Speaker Tom Leonard.
Following up on a letter he wrote attacking Leonard as a weak candidate, Trump said Leonard “had a chance” to correct election fraud “but he didn’t have the guts to do so.” But it’s far from clear what the president meant, given that Leonard wasn’t in office at the time of the 2020 election.
It’s also strange given that Trump had previously nominated Leonard to be a U.S. attorney in Michigan. Leonard, however, who has a solid conservative record as a politician, does have close ties with mainstream Republicans.
Trump said Leonard is a RINO, or a “Republican-in-name-only.”
The former president also went after U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Grand Rapids, who voted to impeach Trump for instigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. Trump made fun of Meijer’s name and its pronunciation, saying he had never heard it before.
“What the hell kind of spelling is that? Nobody knows him,” he said. But Meijer’s family name — and its pronunciation — is extraordinarily well known in Michigan, given that his family founded the huge grocery store chain of the same name.
Karamo calls Benson ‘authoritarian’
The event began about an hour later than expected, around 5 p.m. Oakland County Republican Party Chairman Rocky Raczkowski led the audience in the Pledge of Allegiance and Maddock — whose endorsement of DePerno and Karamo ahead of the endorsement convention has angered many Republicans — gave a brief message, saying, “whoever wins these (nominations), we are marching forward to win … in November.”
In her speech, Karamo, a community college teacher from Oak Park, decried what she called the demonization of election skeptics by the news media and Democrats, saying both are corrupt.
As for Benson, who she would face if she wins the nomination, she said: “She’s not even a Democrat. She’s an authoritarian leftist who treats the people of Michigan like they’re the unwashed masses.
“The problem is corrupt people,” she said. “The MAGA movement isn’t about a person, it isn’t about a party. It’s about defending our republic, the United States of America.”
Outside before the event began, Karamo drew crowds seeking photographs and wanting to shake hands with her. Speaking with reporters, she declined to say whether she would take any specific action to review the 2020 election if elected. But she took issue with characterizations of conservatives who want more security around balloting as racist, calling it “insulting.”
“As a Black American I take it extremely personally insulting,” she said. She added that she feels the charge of racism is used “to pretend like we care about Black people” when it really masks election corruption “that disenfranchises all Americans.”
Experts agree that while election fraud exists, there is little evidence that it is widespread. Numerous audits, reviews and other studies have not found any indication of widespread corruption in the 2020 election in Michigan, including an investigation led by Republican state legislators.
Trump has attacked those he considers disloyal
Trump has lashed out at Republicans he has deemed insufficiently loyal by not supporting his claims of a stolen election, including those in Michigan. And he has thrown his support behind candidates like DePerno and Karamo, who have backed efforts to keep looking at that election, even if that could hurt the party’s chances in November.
Along with Leonard, state Rep. Ryan Berman, R-Commerce Township, is also running for attorney general. Vying for the party’s secretary of state nomination are Chesterfield Township Clerk Cindy Berry and state Rep. Beau LaFave, R-Iron Mountain.
Before the rally, Kevin Miller, 40, of Croswell, a small city in the Thumb, said he had never heard of DePerno or Karamo but that he was excited to learn more about their platforms. Although both candidates are running on promises to make elections more secure, Miller said that wasn’t a top priority of his in the upcoming election.
“Small business, bring the small businesses back up,” Miller said. “The bottom is suffering terrible. I’m at the bottom, suffering, we’re suffering.
“We can take care of (election fraud). That’s something we can take care of. But there’s other more important things.”
Reginia Kubeck, 61, of Howell, said she supports Karamo and wants her to do away with mail-in voting despite Michigan voters overwhelmingly approving a constitutional amendment to allow no-reason absentee voting in 2018.
John Cipriano, 54, of Macomb Township, said he hadn’t heard of Karamo, either. But the last election was “absolutely” rife with fraud, and the results should not have been certified, he said.
“I’m happy it played out this way to be honest with you, because it woke a lot of people up,” he said.
DePerno, Karamo thrust into spotlight after 2020 election
Neither DePerno nor Karamo were considered political players before the 2020 election.
DePerno, a Kalamazoo lawyer, led the legal effort that advanced conspiracies about voting machines in tiny Antrim County in northern Michigan after a human error briefly led to inaccurate results reported on election night. Trump easily won in the county as expected, but early results initially showed Biden winning. The issue was quickly fixed but DePerno’s lawsuit caught Trump’s attention.
Karamo, meanwhile, has made unsubstantiated claims that she observed voting irregularities while working as an election challenger in Detroit on election night. She also participated in legal efforts to try to delay certification of the vote and and overturn the election.
That Karamo has spent the bulk of her campaign focused on the 2020 election is in itself far different from past campaigns. Michigan candidates for secretary of state have traditionally been seen as somewhat apolitical, focusing on branch office services such as applying for driver’s licenses and renewing vehicle registrations.
Both are controversial candidates within the Republican Party. Some, like Maddock — an avid Trump supporter who was seated next to the stage Saturday with her husband, state Rep. Matt Maddock, R-Milford — say DePerno and Karamo embody the spirit of the former president and can carry on his “America First” policies that have resonated with many in the GOP base.
Other local, state and national party leaders are concerned that making the false claims of election fraud in 2020 the hallmark of every campaign and promoting candidates who’ve championed election conspiracies could backfire with more mainstream voters.
“We can’t always be looking in the rearview,” said Michelle Smith, a Republican state House candidate who currently chairs the local Republican Party’s 9th District Committee, before Saturday’s rally. She blamed Trump’s endorsement of DePerno for creating infighting among Republicans.
Norm Shinkle, a GOP member of the state panel responsible for certifying elections, said Trump erred in backing DePerno instead of Leonard, who narrowly lost the attorney general’s race to Nessel in 2018.
“I mean Trump made a mistake. Everybody’s entitled to make a mistake and in this case the (former) president made one,” Shinkle said.
The Michigan GOP will hold its first-ever endorsement convention on April 23 when a few thousand delegates will decide which candidates to back for attorney general, secretary of state and other down-ballot races. The party will officially nominate candidates for the 2022 general election at a separate convention in August but rely on the April convention results for their choices. Other nominees, including for governor and U.S. House seats, will be determined by voters in an Aug. 2 primary.
Typically, party officials remain publicly neutral before its members or voters decide so as not to appear to be favoring one candidate over another unfairly.
“It’s going to be very interesting to see what happens in this convention,” said Mark Forton, the chair of the Macomb County GOP, a vocal critic of Republican politicians he says have not done enough to investigate the 2020 election. “All we know is this, when it comes to the Republican Party in Michigan, we’re going to have a new one.”
Ahead of Saturday’s rally, Benson said that Trump’s visit was part of a campaign to elect officials who might overturn the results of future elections.
“This election year will decide the future of our democracy in a moment where democracy is under threat like never before,” she said. She called Michigan “ground zero” for attacks on voting rights and efforts to subvert elections.
County Republican parties will select the GOP delegates at conventions across the state on April 11. Those selected will attend the state party’s convention in Grand Rapids on April 23 and ultimately decide which candidates receive the Michigan GOP’s endorsement.
Contact Dave Boucher: [email protected] or 313-938-4591. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Boucher1.