KALAMAZOO, Mich. — As he ran for Michigan attorney general last year, Matthew DePerno touted his endorsement from Donald Trump, condemned pandemic restrictions, called for imprisoning Democrats and regularly reminded voters that he had filed a lawsuit questioning the outcome of the 2020 election.

Six months after losing that race, the man who was once considered a champion of MAGA-style politics was denounced by Republican activists as a turncoat for attacking the state GOP’s new chairwoman and supporting efforts to expel delegates.

Meeting at a dining club in an ornate 1889 mansion in May, a regional GOP committee censured DePerno after 15 minutes of debate, with the “ayes” drowning out a smattering of “nays.” It was the latest skirmish in a broader intra-Republican conflict in Michigan that centers on ideological differences, personality clashes, disputes over religion and arguments about whether to continue stoking false claims of a stolen election.

The GOP schism in Michigan, like those in other battleground states such as Arizona and Georgia, comes as Trump dominates Republican presidential primary polls and taps into the anger of a base in an uproar over his recent indictment for his handling of classified documents after leaving the White House. Over the weekend, Michigan Republicans approved rules that are likely to make it easier for Trump to win the nomination in the state. He has cheered on the state’s party for its commitment to promoting misinformation about the 2020 election.

At least four county parties in Michigan have been at open war with themselves, with members suing one another or putting forward competing slates that claim to be in charge. The night before an April state party meeting, two GOP officials got into a physical altercation in a hotel bar over an attempt to expel members. The state party’s new chairwoman, Kristina Karamo, has struggled to raise money and abandoned the party’s longtime headquarters.

Michigan Republicans were trounced in last year’s midterm elections, suggesting that they have a broad set of problems heading into 2024. Internal struggles will make it even tougher to win next year’s presidential race in the crucial state, veteran party activists say. The discord, along with the hard-line positions many Michigan candidates have adopted in recent years, could also influence the balance of power in the Senate. When Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) recently talked up his best prospects for winning a majority, he didn’t mention Michigan, even though the state will have an open seat next year.

The differences among Michigan Republicans reflect both style and substance. As the party prepares for a June 25 visit from the former president to suburban Detroit, the most active Republicans here broadly embrace Trump’s “America First” maxim but don’t always agree on what that phrase means. Many remain skeptical of the 2020 election results but differ on whether to continue to focus on the issue. They disparage the party’s old guard but often fight over who they consider to be part of the establishment.

The situation has led to mutual suspicion and attempts to oust one another from the party. Those efforts in turn have sparked accusations and counteraccusations that some members are trying to rig party elections.

“There’s no one in control anymore,” said GOP consultant Jason Cabel Roe.

Michigan has played an outsize role in Republican politics dating to the party’s founding nearly 170 years ago. President Gerald Ford came from Grand Rapids in western Michigan. Two of the state’s most politically powerful families, the Romneys and the DeVoses, have made an imprint on national politics for generations. Ronna McDaniel became chairwoman of the Republican National Committee after leading the Michigan party.

In 2016, Michigan voters for the first time in 28 years chose a Republican for president, helping propel Trump to a surprise victory. But since then, Republicans have been on a losing streak that has resulted in Democrats gaining full control of the statehouse for the first time in four decades.

Some longtime Republicans say the state party’s campaign troubles can be surmounted by handing more duties to the RNC or other entities. But they worry the fractures mean a segment of Republicans will lurch so far right that they will repel independent voters and make it impossible to win statewide elections.

After Trump’s victory in 2016, his ardent supporters became active in the Republican Party in Michigan and soon overtook it, said Roe, who served as the party’s executive director for part of 2021. They continue to push people out of the party whom they deem suspect, he said.

“They basically see anyone who has been there as part of the problem and a RINO,” or Republican in name only, he said. “I think there’s been a systemic effort to eradicate people that have been involved for many years, and they’re being replaced by MAGA-aligned folks that have not been involved and engaged that don’t necessarily understand how the process works.”

Jeff Timmer, a former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party, said the latest purity tests are emerging even within the “Make America Great Again” movement just as the party weighs whether to renominate Trump or choose someone else.

“This is more MAGA-on-MAGA violence, or more MAGA versus ultra-MAGA,” said Timmer, who is now an adviser to the anti-Trump Lincoln Project.

Karamo in February defeated DePerno and eight others to become the party’s chairwoman in a race in which every candidate embraced Trump. Her victory came three months after she lost a bid for Michigan secretary of state by 14 points, having campaigned with a heavy focus on false claims about the 2020 election.

GOP delegates in the state have rallied behind her refusal to concede her loss, while her critics in the party have argued that her focus on election denialism risks dooming Republicans. Trump backed DePerno in the race to lead the state’s party, but he immediately praised Karamo after she won, calling her “a powerful and fearless Election Denier” in a post on his Truth Social platform.

Re-litigating the 2020 election is “just a loser of an issue,” said Jamie Roe, a Republican consultant based in the Detroit suburbs who is not related to Jason Roe. “It helped get people power within the grass roots of the party, but it doesn’t influence voters at all.”

Michigan Republicans on Saturday adopted a plan to break from tradition and award most of their delegates to next year’s Republican National Convention based on the results of party-run caucuses instead of the state’s primary. That means those active in the party will have much more say in whom the state nominates than ordinary voters will. DePerno called the changes unfair and said he is considering suing to block them.

Republican strategists contended after the November election that Karamo, DePerno and other GOP candidates lost their races in part because they focused on discredited theories about the 2020 election while Democrats talked about guaranteeing access to abortion. In two recent interviews, Karamo rejected those arguments, described abortion as killing babies and said she didn’t think Republicans should back away from focusing on election policies.

Republicans chose her as their chairwoman because she didn’t change her tone after winning the party’s nomination for secretary of state last year, she said.

“After the primary, there’s this pressure that you kind of pivot, and I feel like that’s deceptive,” she said. “And after the primary, people saw that I would not pivot and they were like, ‘She’s actually one of us.’”

DePerno, who has become one of Karamo’s loudest critics on fundraising and messaging, is seeking to question her under oath as he defends the Kalamazoo County Republican Party in a lawsuit brought by party members. He said he is bewildered by the attacks he has taken from fellow Republicans.

“Some people in the party have always said that I was too far to the right in terms of my messaging, and yet here I have somehow become the RINO,” DePerno said.

He and others are being investigated by a special prosecutor who is examining whether there was a conspiracy to gain unauthorized access to voting machines after the 2020 vote. DePerno dismissed the investigation as politically motivated because it was conducted by Attorney General Dana Nessel (D) while he was running against her.

DePerno’s Republican opponents have raised few concerns about his work with other election deniers and instead have lambasted him for siding with Kelly Sackett, the Kalamazoo County Republican Party chairwoman, who led a recent effort to remove Republican delegates who she argues broke party rules.

Sackett, who unsuccessfully sued over a school mask requirement and lost a race for state representative last year, said she acted because she believes Democrats and independents have infiltrated the party to sow chaos. She said she is baffled that Republicans are now attacking her and DePerno for supposed insufficient fidelity to the party’s rank and file.

“Matt was the most grass-roots candidate that I’ve ever met,” Sackett said of DePerno. “I’m the mom that sued our schools over the mask mandate. I’m not certain how you get more grass roots than the two of us, and now we’re considered to be establishment.”

The dispute in Kalamazoo County has rippled across the state. In April, Macomb County GOP Secretary Melissa Pehlis confronted Sackett at a hotel bar the night before a state party meeting and berated her for attempting to remove party delegates, according to a video of the incident that was posted online. Sackett slapped at a cigarette in Pehlis’s hand, knocking her cellphone to the floor. Pehlis, who did not respond to requests for comment, pushed Sackett’s head back, the video shows. A prosecutor is investigating the matter.

Republicans in Macomb County, part of metropolitan Detroit, held competing political conventions last summer after a pro-Trump faction contended that it was in charge. Farther north, Saginaw County Republicans, who have been divided over election denialism and other issues, saw tensions grow so intense ahead of a convention in January that dueling segments of the party each called the police.

In Hillsdale County, a rural area bordering Ohio and Indiana, Republicans from one wing of the party posted armed guards outside their convention last year to keep out about 80 delegates they had disavowed, labeling them members of the establishment. A judge recently ruled that control of the local party belongs to the group that had been left out of that convention.

The decision has done little to quell the fight. Jon Smith, who is active in the branch of Hillsdale County Republicans that lost the recent court case, said the various fights among Michigan Republicans could take years to work out. In the meantime, he said, they may lose elections.

Smith, 45, was drawn to conspiracy theorist Alex Jones years ago because of his false claims that the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the United States was an inside job. He later got involved in his local chapter of the Republican Party, emphasizing the needs of the working class and using Trump’s tactics to battle the establishment. He blamed the party’s troubles on “globalists” and moneyed interests who don’t pay attention to the needs of ordinary Americans.

“People are embarrassed to say they’re Republican,” he said. “The George Bush-type crowd, the Mitt Romneys, the John McCains, all these pompous, rich, White globalists really have crippled our name for a long time.”

Karamo was received warmly by several dozen Republicans during a recent stop in Jackson, a small city known for hosting an 1854 meeting that was instrumental in the founding of the Republican Party. Attendees drank Faygo and ate pizza as Karamo argued that Democrats had turned into Marxists who want to “erase the human family,” called for impeaching and jailing President Biden, and said the country suffers from “mass psychosis.”

“Our government has been captured,” she told the group. “If you and I were out there breaking the law, we’d be in jail. We’d all be sitting in jail. But yet these individuals in our government are free to break the law.”

Karamo’s short tenure has been controversial. In March, as Michigan lawmakers promoted gun safety legislation, the state Republican Party tweeted an image of a soldier inspecting a bin of wedding rings taken from Jews before they were killed by Nazis. The caption said the Nazis took their guns before they took their rings.

Jewish groups, Democrats and some Republicans called for an apology and the removal of the tweet. Karamo declined, saying in a recent interview that during the Holocaust and other genocides, “if the citizens would have been armed, they could have defended themselves.”

In May, the state party’s general counsel, Daniel Hartman, drew fresh criticism when he said on a podcast, “It’s crazy, as Christians, that we’ve allowed any other voice but a Christian voice into the marketplace of ideas.” Hartman this month said he meant that Christian views need to be heard and not that others need to be excluded. Karamo defended him, arguing that he was speaking against secularism rather than other religions.

The importance that Karamo and her allies put on religion is part of what puts off DePerno, a Catholic. After losing his race for attorney general by more than eight points, DePerno said Republicans need to focus on attracting voters in the Detroit suburbs who have drifted away from the party. But Karamo and other evangelical Christians, he argued, are conducting a religious purge of the party that will make it harder to win elections.

“The questions that I got almost every night at these events during the chair race were, you know, ‘Man, why don’t you publicly evangelize?’” he said. “‘You can evangelize, right? Why don’t you say amen? Why don’t you raise your hands to the sky when people are talking?’”

Karamo denied any effort to purge the party on religious or other grounds and called DePerno a sore loser.

One of Karamo’s toughest challenges comes down to money. In March, she told Republicans that the state party had $460,000 in debt. In recent interviews, she declined to say where the debt stands or describe her fundraising plans other than to say she believed donors would return.

“You put the people first and the dollars will come,” she said. “There are lots of very wealthy people who quit giving to political candidates and parties because of the corruption.”

After she took over, Karamo stopped using the party headquarters because doing so costs about $12,000 a month. A trust owns the headquarters and allows the party to use it if it pays for taxes, maintenance and other costs.

Karamo called the disputes within county parties commonplace in politics. But the wounds cut deep in Kalamazoo County, where members have brought a lawsuit against the local party and filed complaints with police against each other.

Ken Beyer, the chairman of the party’s Fourth Congressional District committee, which includes Kalamazoo, said establishment members of the party are lashing out at Karamo because she is pointing the state GOP in a new direction.

“This is about a group of people that have been in there a long time, that have had control, that have lost control,” he said. “And they’re trying to do everything they can to get it back.”

Beyer presided over the May meeting where members censured DePerno and, moments later, approved drafting a similar resolution against Sackett, the county chairwoman. Before the attendees wrapped up, one woman called for finding candidates who could mount primaries against Republicans who she believes have stepped out of line.

Jason Mikkelborg, one of the few attendees to defend DePerno and Sackett, told the group they were focused on the wrong targets as they headed into the 2024 election. “I’d like to fight Democrats,” he muttered.

Most of the others ignored him.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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