LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Former President Donald Trump's extraordinary effort to mold Republicans' 2022 tickets will be put to the test this weekend in Michigan, where thousands of party activists will endorse candidates, including in a contentious attorney general's race.
Trump, who continues to levy false claims about his 2020 loss in the swing state, is clear about his intentions. He wants to oust Democratic officials who ensured the results stayed intact and replace them with allies Matthew DePerno and Kristina Karamo, political newcomers who are running for attorney general and secretary of state, respectively.
“This choice is not just about 2022. This is about ensuring the state of Michigan cannot be stolen from Republicans in 2024 or ever again,” Trump said Wednesday in a call with DePerno backers.
His preferred slate for the state's top law enforcement and election jobs is drawing criticism, however, within a wing of the GOP that views the candidates as unelectable in November and is frustrated that state party leaders have openly backed them rather than be neutral.
“We're going to find out if we're going to be held hostage to second-tier candidates who can't win general elections in pursuit of genuflecting to the dear leader, or if we're going to focus on winning elections and making sure that conservatives control state government and make the policies that we all have to live under,” said Jason Roe, a former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party.
DePerno helped a voter sue after human error led Antrim County to erroneously show a local victory for Joe Biden over Trump. It was quickly corrected but was used to spread misinformation about voting equipment.
DePerno's main rival for the nomination is Tom Leonard, a former legislative leader and the party's 2018 nominee. State Rep. Ryan Berman also is running.
Leonard lost to Dana Nessel by under 3 percentage points in a big year for Democrats but fared better than Republicans who lost the governor and secretary of state's races by larger margins.
Trump, who nominated Leonard to be the U.S. attorney for western Michigan, now labels him as an establishment “RINO" — or Republican in name only —- lobbyist. He has accused him of not doing enough to fight the 2020 election outcome.
Leonard said he has built a bigger coalition than DePerno, outraised him, undergone more extensive vetting and can unify rather than divide the party. He said he is not surprised Trump is “all in” for his candidate.
“What this has done is it's forced me and my team to work harder and it's forced us to hone our skills,” Leonard said in an interview. “I believe I'm going to be a much stronger candidate because of that when we head into November.”
DePerno said his opponents do not care about the 2020 election and that he can draw the biggest contrast with Nessel on COVID-19 mandates and other issues. Having Trump's support, he said Wednesday in Trump's virtual town hall event, is a “huge and great achievement" that will result in a “resounding victory" and party unity.
Roughly 2,500 delegates will vote at Saturday's "endorsement" convention in Grand Rapids, which Democrats initiated a decade ago. The candidates have pledged to honor the results, clearing the way for the winners to turn toward the general election before being nominated at another convention in August.
The secretary of state’s race has been less heated. Karamo, a community college instructor, is expected to advance to face Democrat Jocelyn Benson. Others running are state Rep. Beau LaFave and Cindy Berry, a township clerk.
In a sign of how pervasive election falsehoods have become, the party will use a machine to tabulate votes but, in a change, also do hand counts.
Richard Czuba, a pollster who worked at the state GOP decades ago, called the attorney general's race the most pivotal Republican contest in the country. Trump has signed an open letter to delegates and rallied in Macomb County for DePerno.
“Trump has staked so much on it. He is trying to send the establishment a message, ‘If you cross me, I will take control and and I will purge you,’" he said. “This is a must-win race now for Trump. ... It's going to tell us so much about where the Republican Party is just in general. Does Donald Trump have complete control of it or not?"
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David Eggert, The Associated Press