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This weekend's Michigan GOP convention marks a key moment for election denialism

Rallygoers hold signs at an event hosted by former President Donald Trump in Michigan on April 2.
Scott Olson
/
Getty Images
Rallygoers hold signs at an event hosted by former President Donald Trump in Michigan on April 2.

Michigan Republicans will meet this weekend to decide which candidates to nominate for a number of key statewide positions, marking an early swing-state test of former President Donald Trump's influence in the midterm elections.

It could also be the first time the GOP moves forward in a battleground state with an election-denying candidate to oversee voting as secretary of state.

Michigan doesn't hold primaries for a number of down-ballot races, including secretary of state and attorney general. Instead, a few thousand party delegates from across the state meet at a convention and choose a nominee for those positions.

Here are four things to know ahead of Saturday's Republican endorsement convention at DeVos Place Convention Center in Grand Rapids.

1. It's a key moment for election denialism

As NPR has documented, election-denying candidates across the country are running in 2022 for positions that oversee voting.

But with primary season only just kicking off in earnest, none of those candidates has officially become the GOP's nominee for secretary of state in those places.

That's expected to change on Saturday.

Kristina Karamo, a community college professor who has spent much of the past year and a half arguing that there were gross irregularities in the 2020 election, is widely favored to be endorsed by the party at the convention.

She already has the endorsement of Trump, who hosted a rally with Karamo and others in Washington Township, Mich., earlier this month.

"This is not just about 2022; this is about making sure Michigan is not rigged and stolen again in 2024," Trump said. "I don't do this often for state people, but this is so important. What happened in Michigan is a disgrace."

Karamo rose to prominence in the world of election denialism as a poll watcher at Detroit's TCF Center, where absentee ballots were being counted in 2020. She claimed to have witnessed election fraud, although Michigan's former elections director explained to The Guardian that Karamo seemed to just misunderstand what she was watching as someone without formal training.

Outside of politics, Karamo has also voiced a number of other fringe beliefs. A CNN review of her podcast appearances and writings found that she has opposed the teaching of evolution, and declared herself an "anti-vaxxer."

She also appeared at a QAnon-adjacent rally in Las Vegas last year.

For those reasons, experts say that if nominated, she may have a hard time in November's general election unseating incumbent Democrat Jocelyn Benson, who also holds a massive fundraising advantage in the race.

"Every ad from April 24 through November is going to say 'QAnon Karamo is too crazy for us,' " said state Rep. Beau LaFave, who is running against Karamo on Saturday.

Karamo's campaign did not respond to an NPR request for an interview.

2. The AG's race is likely to be closer

While Karamo is expected to win the race for secretary of state, the convention contest for attorney general will probably come down to the wire, said Jason Roe, the former executive director of the Michigan GOP.

"No outcome would surprise me," said Roe.

Matthew DePerno, who is seeking the Michigan GOP nomination for state attorney general, appears at the April Trump rally.
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Matthew DePerno, who is seeking the Michigan GOP nomination for state attorney general, appears at the April Trump rally.

Matthew DePerno is an attorney who has pushed Trump's false claims of election fraud, and also received the former president's endorsement in the race. Of the two candidates he faces, former state House Speaker Tom Leonard is expected to give the toughest challenge, and is considered the more mainstream, establishment candidate.

Trump held a telephone town hall this week in support of DePerno, in which he claimed Leonard refused to stop election fraud in 2020, even though Leonard was last in office was 2018. Trump also nominated Leonard in 2019 to be U.S. attorney for the Western District of Michigan. (The nomination was blocked.)

"When Trump came into Michigan, he thought he had a blank canvas on which he could paint a portrait of who Tom Leonard is and that nobody would know any better," Roe said. "Except the reality is that everybody in Michigan knows Tom Leonard. So when Trump says that he's a RINO [Republican in name only] ... it just doesn't ring true with the base."

Roe added that DePerno may also struggle to fundraise should he get the endorsement, because of his inability to reach voters outside of Trump's supporters.

DePerno has pushed a number of election conspiracies since 2020, and has also been endorsed by MyPillow founder and election denial leader Mike Lindell.

3. It's a test for Trump

The former president has made it clear that Michigan may be his highest priority in this fall's midterms; he has endorsed more than 15 candidates in the state already.

Roe says that means this weekend's convention will be a major test of the influence Trump holds over the party nationally, a year and a half after losing the 2020 election by more than 70 Electoral College votes, and 7 million votes in the popular vote.

"If Tom Leonard manages to pull it out, it will show that the mainstream forces within the party, those people that are more focused on winning elections than ideological purity, will have prevailed," said Roe. "If Matthew DePerno secures the nomination, I think it will demonstrate that the MAGA wing of the party is in control."

4. This is no primary

Among states voting to elect a secretary of state this year, Michigan is the only one in which voters will not have a say in who is on the ballot in November.

The state has a complicated convention model for those several down-ballot races.

Michigan law states that nominating conventions need to take place in August. But a few years ago, Democrats in the state figured they could get a head start on building name recognition for their candidates and party unity by deciding their nominees earlier.

Thus, the endorsement convention was born. Democrats began meeting in the spring to vote on which candidate the party would nominate a few months later.

This is the first year Republicans in the state are following suit.

The convention model is generally thought to advantage more extreme candidates than a primary, since the voting pool is made up of people more dedicated to the party than the average voter.

"The convention harkens back to the old imagery of the smoke-filled room," said Julio Borquez, a political science professor at the University of Michigan. "You have staunchly conservative Republicans gathered in one place, and that could result in a very solidly right-of-center candidate."

The process also changes what a campaign looks like.

LaFave, the state representative who is running for secretary of state, told NPR this week that he had a pile of 64 pages of voting delegates and their phone numbers and that he was calling them one by one to ask for their votes.

"I vacillate between 'all hope is lost' and 'I won this thing six weeks ago,' " LaFave said.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.