Question 1): The new Michigan Republican Party chair is conservative activist Kristina Karamo of Oak Park, the first person of color to lead the state GOP. She lost her race for Secretary of State last fall to incumbent Democrat Jocelyn Benson by 14 percentage points but recharged her batteries and defeated 10 Republican opponents at an 11-hour convention and three rounds of voting Feb. 18 at the Lansing Center.
Karamo, considered a favorite among the party’s grassroots but viewed as divisive by the so-called ‘establishment,’ beat out the Republican nominee for Attorney General, Matt DePerno, 58% to 42%, in the third round of voting. DePerno, who also lost on 11/8/22, had been endorsed by former President Donald Trump.
The Detroit News has quoted former state Rep. Aaron Miller (R-Sturgis), now a banker in the private sector, as saying that Karamo’s victory indicated some Michigan Republicans want to keep losing elections. Miller called it a sad day for the GOP.
“The Republican Party is now pretty well cemented as the party of election denying, conspiracy theories, tin hats and supporting Capitol riots,” Miller said. “I’ll pass. I’ll continue to write good people in on my election ballots. The sooner they can return to the party of sensibility and economic prosperity, the sooner they can start winning.”
While some feel there is an opportunity for Karamo to surprise political observers simply because there is nowhere to go but up after the GOP was shellacked in the general election, others aren’t so sanguine.
The News also quotes Jason ROE, a former Republican Party executive director, doubting that there is a formula for Karmo to be successful because she and her followers”burned bridges with just about everybody.” Roe said waging a “hot war” with the party’s large donor community wasn’t smart, and “You can’t spend your time kicking major donors in the teeth, and then say ‘Give me your money.’”
Roe said he doesn’t believe leadership has a grasp on how much money needs to be spent to run digital fundraising programs, recruit new donors and even just keep the lights on. “You need major donor fundraising to have the funds to do small donor fundraising,” he said, and many of the conservative activists like Karamo who speak the loudest have never given a dollar to the state party.
Several candidates for Republican state chair have complained bitterly that they didn’t receive support from the state party while running campaigns, but Roe observes that the reason the party didn’t give to those candidates was because the party didn’t have it to give. Why was that? Because major donors were freaked out by “flawed” candidates who looked like sure losers and didn’t deserve to be funded.
So, what about Karamo’s chances for success? Is she doomed to failure from the get-go? Is she an unprecedented kind of chair, with no similar predecessors? Certainly her Democratic opposition and the news media will use her as a punching bag at every opportunity, so what can she do to counter that?
ANSWER 1): Karamo needs to do two things quickly that will be very difficult for her — 1) Stop talking and hire a crack public relations team, if one can be found; and 2) Raise a boatload of money.
No, the fact that Karamo is a woman heading a party that has just been decimated in an election is not unprecedented, but Michigan’s political commentariat is ignorant and scornful of history and wouldn’t know that. With just a pinch of intellectual curiosity, they might “study up” and learn about Elly Peterson, the state’s first female chair of either political party. Like Karamo, she had been drubbed in a statewide race (for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Democrat Phil Hart) in the previous general election. When Peterson was recruited to run for and be elected chair in early 1965, Peterson inherited Republican George Romney in the governor’s office, but that’s all she could count on after the GOP was wiped out everywhere on the ballot in the 1964 election by Lyndon Johnson’s landslide win over Barry Goldwater. With Peterson at the helm, Michigan Republicans turned it all around in 1966 when they knocked off a former Democratic governor (Soapy Williams) to win a U.S. Senate seat, unseated five incumbent Democratic Congressmen, ousted a Democratic Supreme Court justice, regained control of both the state House and Senate which they had lost two years before, and swept the statewide education board races.
The problem for Karamo is that things are different now, and she has a persona and background that are nothing like Peterson’s. Peterson, who was an inspiring organizer, was ‘plugged in’ to the state party’s power elite but also was in sync with women’s groups and grass roots activists; Karamo lacks those qualities. Furthermore, back in 1966, the state party — while momentarily defeated and inpecunious — was institutionally a major factor that was more or less united with county and district committees and the legislative delegations and various officeholders and candidates and their campaigns. In those days, the state party even ran the two annual fundraising dinners for the state House and Senate GOP caucuses. That all changed beginning in the 1970s, when a slow erosion of the power of state parties began, not just in Michigan but all across the country.
Today, it would be unthinkable for the state party to control legislators’ fund-raising events. Other factors like the rise of Political Action Committees (PACs) following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Buckley decision and, later, Citizens United, have resulted in decentralized power that has increased the independence of candidates, ballot committees, billionaire donors, grass roots organizers, and the entire fund-raising apparatus. Unless the Michigan Republican Party has state chairs who are personally wealthy like Betsy DeVos, Bobby Schostak or Ron Weiser, all of whom could contribute large sums of campaign cash themselves and also raise money from major donors, it’s going to be largely feckless. It therefore must make sure it isn’t actually obstructing and hurting the various Republican groups and individual actors who are trying to win elections.
Jason Roe is right. He’s the son of another, longtime former state GOP executive director, Jerry Roe, who operated when Michigan’s was one of the most effective Republican parties in the country. Jason Roe contends that in coming months, candidates and Republicans will likely have to “work around” the state party to get things done because the Lansing HQ is no longer the centralizing mechanism in which political factions and statewide candidates would prefer to operate, but can’t.
Karamo should know that the Republican fundraising wing is estranged from other elements of the party, who have spent much of their time and energy disparaging the major sources of financial aid they desperately need to win. Already, the most recent figures on fund-raising indicate the ‘donor class’ is deserting the Republicans in the wake of the ’22 election. If the GOP doesn’t correct this in a hurry, it’s in permanent trouble.
Question 2): MPHS ENGLER INTERVIEW