One year after Jan. 6 riot, Michigan election deniers hold more influence in Republican politics

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One year ago, a fog of tear gas hung over shattered glass as a wild mob of Americans invaded the U.S. Capitol to stop the certification of a presidential election. At the time, the violence and mayhem was widely condemned. But in the intervening year, people who pushed false claims that the election was stolen gained more influence in Michigan politics.

The Michigan Republican Party says it’s moving on from former President Donald Trump’s loss but there are clear signs that members are catering to people who aren’t ready to accept the truth. Election deniers have launched political campaigns and engrained themselves in conservative groups while being spurred on by the former president.

County-level Republican groups censured lawmakers who couldn’t turn up evidence of election interference and hosted dozens of events with speakers who promoted the idea that a vast “deep state” conspiracy caused Trump to lose. Activists are knocking on doors around the state to find evidence of “irregularities” and gathering signatures for petitions to change election laws.

Republicans have also worked to replace members of county election boards who certified the 2020 results. Restocking them would give Trump-loyal members a key role in confirming vote totals.

Former Michigan Republican Party Executive Director Jason Roe said the never-ending hunt for fraud is destabilizing the party and could spoil their advantages in midterm elections. He tried to make that case from within the party, but now he’s on the outside looking in.

Roe stirred up a hornet’s nest of Trump supporters after pushing back on false fraud claims. They demanded Roe’s removal, and he resigned.

Roe said the state party faces an identity crisis. Republican Party officials who are plugged in with the grassroots, Trump-supporting base are “channeling the crackpots,” he said.

“I think they certainly have strengthened their hold on the parties, and I mean that as plural because the state party is doing what it needs to do — they’re focused on the blocking and tackling that’s needed to win elections — but I think that when you get at the county level a lot of these county parties have become grievance coffee klatches,” Roe said “All they want to talk about is 2020. I think the hold of those folks is really strong at the local level.”

Officially, the Michigan Republican party concedes Biden won.

Party spokesman Gus Portela said Biden won the 2020 election, and going into 2022 every Republican should be focused on winning races for governor, attorney general, secretary of state, members of Congress and the state Legislature. But the 2020 election is top of mind for many.

“We’re just excited to see so many activists excited about this 2022 election,” Portela said in an interview. “The one thing they took away from 2020 moving forward to 2022 is they want to make sure that election integrity is at the top of every candidate’s mind.”

But with Trump himself weighing in on local races, candidates embracing allegations of voter fraud, and grassroots groups entrenched in ideas about fraud, it’s not clear moving on will be that easy.

No reconciliation after election mistrust

Kaitlyn Buss was hired last year to run communications for the Michigan Republican Party. She left after less than a week in the role. Buss said the party was being torn in different directions and lacked a clear vision at the time.

“There’s not been that reconciliation moment from Republican leadership of saying ‘the election was legitimate and we are moving on,’” Buss said. “I think that’s very important, and I think it needs to come from congressional leadership, more state leaders, more people need to say stuff like that to really move on.”

Trump’s most devoted followers are having a big influence on the party, Buss said, causing the GOP to become “a cult of personality.” Newcomers also don’t trust the Republican Party itself, she said.

“(The Michigan GOP) should listen to voters but without leadership, there’s no one to follow,” Buss said. “There’s no moderate voice and I think they’ll keep convincing people that extremism is popular, because the moderate voices are scared to talk or not willing to, or honestly just quite exhausted.”

The Republican Party officially has two co-chairs — staid conservative fundraising powerhouse Ron Weiser and Meeshawn Maddock, who rose to prominence in grassroots activism supporting Trump.

It’s Maddock who’s been the more visible of the two, and she maintains a close relationship with conservative groups that pressured Republicans to force another audit of the 2020 results.

Maddock helped organize transportation for Michiganders to protest the certification of Biden’s win in Washington, D.C. She was also among a group of Michigan Republicans that tried to cast their own electoral votes for Trump.

Appearing on a December podcast hosted by the Rescue Michigan Coalition, founded last year to support election reform and build the grassroots, Maddock said outrage over perceived election fraud is an opportunity to recruit organizers for the next round of elections.

Looking ahead to 2022, she encouraged listeners to apply for a new “election protection team” through the party. The team aims to recruit 10,000 paid election workers to “flood the system” with poll challengers, Maddock said, and the Republican National Committee is investing early to recruit election workers in Michigan and several other battleground states.

On the same podcast, though, Marian Sheridan, grassroots vice-chair for the MIGOP, was looking backward to 2020. She said a growing number of Republicans believe Biden is an illegitimate president.

“We’re seeing that number grow as time goes on and people realize, you know what, there’s just no way that Americans could have been that stupid to elect this guy legally,” said Sheridan, who was also among the group of “alternate” Republican electors and who organized screenings of election conspiracy documentaries in Southeast Michigan last year.

Roe said Republicans have to address “the perception of fraud” to keep supporters engaged, but the base seems singularly focused on seeking justice for Trump’s loss.

“Keeping people engaged using that seems like it would be helpful, but the problem is that’s all they care about,” Roe said. “Trying to channel the enthusiasm for election reform into constructive things is impossible. You say ‘OK let’s get some voter ID,’ and they say ‘when are you going to support the forensic audit? That’s what we care about.’”

A year later, many of the lies that inspired a mob of Trump supporters to siege the U.S. Capitol persist. Michigan, a battleground state that changed hands between Democrats and Republicans in the last three presidential contests, is a central figure.

Trump was charged with inciting an insurrection, but his popularity among supporters hasn’t waned. His endorsement is a prize for Michigan Republicans who promise to probe deeper into the 2020 results.

“It’s very difficult for the leadership of the party to admit Donald Trump is at fault,” said Michael Traugott, a University of Michigan political science professor who studies mass media. “He has a lot of influence on candidate selection and he’s a very formidable fundraising force within the party. His endorsement is a very valuable quality for candidates to receive. Anybody who aspires to run for office on the Republican side has to seek his blessing.”

Bipartisan election officials in Michigan completed 250 audits reaffirming President Joe Biden’s victory. An eight months-long oversight investigation led by Republican lawmakers found no evidence that fraud had an impact.

Regardless, many Republican voters just don’t accept it.

Base, candidates still focused on voter fraud

Mike Detmer, a Trump-endorsed state Senate candidate, had no qualms about defining the election as stolen at a rally outside the state Capitol in December.

“What happened was nothing short of treason, bottom line,” Detmer said.

A new NPR/Ipsos poll conducted at the end of 2021 found 45% of Republicans think fraudulent votes changed the results and 66% believe fraud helped Biden win. Another new poll by USA Today/Suffolk University found 58% of Republicans don’t believe Biden was legitimately elected.

Neither do a number of Republican candidates running in Michigan, including a wide swath of the gubernatorial field.

There are traces of the election mistrust sown by Trump on other potential ballot items, too.

The Michigan Republican Party endorsed a ballot petition that seeks to tighten Michigan’s voter ID law, prohibit clerks from accepting donations to administer elections and prevent officials from mailing unsolicited absentee ballot applications.

Conservative activists are also collecting signatures for a ballot initiative aimed at reinvestigating the 2020 results. The proposal was drafted by Tami Carlone, coalitions vice-chair of the Michigan Republican Party, and several Trump-endorsed 2022 candidates.

Either proposal needs at least 340,047 valid signatures to make it to the Republican-led legislature, which could pass it into law without input from Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Looking ahead, the party is also focused on training poll watchers to get an accurate pulse on what happens in the field.

Several Republicans who spoke with MLive said the party did not train enough poll workers in 2020, which caused chaos on election day.

A recruiting website paid for by the Michigan Republican Party lists sponsor groups that challenged Biden’s win. Among the names are Rescue Michigan, a blog run by former state Sen. Patrick Colbeck and a Virginia Political Action Committee named for a noted conspiracy theorist.

Trump seeks a new legislature

Conservative activists are angry with Republicans for ignoring their demands for more investigations.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, Michigan’s top Republican, enflamed Trump supporters when he predicted most candidates endorsed by the former president will lose. Hillsdale County GOP Secretary Jon Smith responded with a statement telling Shirkey to go away and let others “fight this cold and brutal war for Liberty.”

“We are not afraid of standing up against tyranny, no matter how powerful it’s perceived,” Smith wrote. “With God and We the People, together we will destroy the devil and the tyranny that comes along with it. We are the power and don’t you ever forget that Senator Shirkey.”

Trump endorsed 14 Republicans running for statewide offices and seats in the Michigan legislature. Each of them has challenged the legitimacy of the 2020 election.

“Michigan needs a new legislature,” Trump said in a November 2020 endorsement. “The cowards there now are too spineless to investigate Election Fraud.”

Among those he endorsed are:

  • Rep. Matt Maddock, R-Milford, who worked to overturn the 2020 results and is campaigning to become the next House speaker. Former House Speaker Lee Chatfield refused to replace Democratic electors before Michigan’s results were certified in accordance with state law, but Maddock tried to have Republican electors cast votes for Trump anyway. Maddock is the husband of Michigan Republican Party Co-Chair Meshawn Maddock.
  • Attorney General hopeful Matt DePerno, a lawyer who waged an unsuccessful legal campaign against Dominion Voting Systems, and Secretary of State hopeful Kristina Karamo, a Detroit poll challenger who claims she witnessed alleged fraud.
  • State House candidates Jon Rocha and Angela Rigas. Trump noted their hunt for voter fraud evidence in his endorsement. Rocha and Rigas were both in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6 and have spent the last year promoting efforts to force another audit of Michigan’s results.
  • State Rep. Steve Carra, R-Three Rivers, who had planned to challenge U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph. He introduced legislation to create a “forensic audit” of 2020 results. New political maps also put U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, in competition for the same seat.
  • Detmer, the state Senate candidate, who has pledged to cancel all contracts with voting machine vendors until another probe of the 2020 results is completed. Detmer aims to challenge state Sen. Lana Theis, R-Brighton Township, who is vice-chair of the Michigan Senate Oversight Committee that investigated fraud claims. The investigation found no evidence of widespread fraud, but Trump denounced it as “trash” and said Theis “forgot she’s a Republican.”

And even in races where he hasn’t endorsed, Trump’s influence looms large.

Ryan Kelley, an Allendale Republican, is running for governor after joining rioters who pushed past police barriers at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Kelley was recorded in multiple videos encouraging the crowd to follow him, though he says he did not enter the Capitol.

Kelley spent much of 2020 organizing protests against pandemic health orders, cozying up to paramilitary groups and calling for the arrest of “treasonous” Democrats. The following year, he hit the campaign trail.

Kelley, Rigas and Rocha joined a December event encouraging people to recall board members at Forest Hills Public Schools in Kent County. The crowd cheered when Kelley mentioned his participation in the Jan. 6 riot.

“I get called an insurrectionist because I went to Washington, D.C.,” Kelley said. “We cannot be fearful of what they’re going to say about us, what they’re going to call us.”

Republicans mark attack anniversary

Trump and his allies have downplayed the seriousness of the Jan. 6 attack, calling it a non-violent protest or blaming left-wing activists. Misinformation about the riot being a “false flag” attack is prevalent on social media.

The president marked the one-year anniversary with a speech warning of the ongoing threat to democracy. Conservative groups are promoting their own events to mark the occasion.

The Hillsdale County Republican Party is hosting an “insurrection anniversary” fundraiser at a local church.

Young America First Republicans is hosting a “bullets and beer” fundraising event at an Oakland County gun range featuring “Jan. 6 patriots.” The group’s website states it is focused on “pressuring other conservative youth groups to be more hardcore” and promoting “guerilla-style activism.”

Traugott said the country is headed down a dangerous path if we remain polarized about what happened in the 2020 election and on Jan. 6.

“I don’t think we realize how fragile our democratic system is, and how much it depends upon a set of assumptions that are commonly held and accepted,” Traugott said. “Like when you lose an election, you concede and there’s an orderly transfer of power. That’s the violation of democratic norms that underlies the big lie: ‘I’m not conceding, and I’m not giving up because you cheated.’

“We have to be able to withstand that and reverse course back to the point at which we again share these commonly held assumptions. That is not going to happen in the Republican Party while Donald Trump maintains this undue influence.”

In the last four years, Republicans lost control of Congress, the presidency, two Michigan congressional seats, all three of the top statewide offices and a handful of legislative seats. Biden’s unpopularity could propel Republicans to take those offices back, but Roe said Democrats could just as easily “snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.”

“If we don’t stop relitigating a past election that we can’t change and focus on 2022, what vestiges we have will be gone and we will be in a completely blue state,” Roe said. “I think it’s short-sighted and it’s frankly handing ammunition to our opposition.”

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