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The Republican nominee for Michigan attorney general is under investigation himself

Matthew DePerno, the Republican nominee for Michigan attorney general, speaks during a Trump rally on Oct. 1 in Warren, Mich. DePerno is being investigated for his involvement in an alleged scheme to tamper with voting machines.
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Matthew DePerno, the Republican nominee for Michigan attorney general, speaks during a Trump rally on Oct. 1 in Warren, Mich. DePerno is being investigated for his involvement in an alleged scheme to tamper with voting machines.

LANSING, Mich. — An attorney general is often called a state's top law enforcement official.

But what happens when a candidate running for that office is someone who could face criminal charges?

That's playing out right now in Michigan, where Matthew DePerno, a Trump-backed Republican nominee for state attorney general, is under investigation for an alleged plot to seize and tamper with voting machines.

DePerno — who has pushed former President Donald Trump's false claims of widespread election fraud — has slammed the probe, which is now led by a special prosecutor. But it leaves him running to lead the agency that could indict him.

DePerno rose to fame questioning Trump's 2020 election loss in court. He hadn't yet become the GOP nominee for attorney general when the office began looking into the alleged plot to obtain and tamper with voting machines.

Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel, who's running for reelection against DePerno, says she faced a choice. "Could I proceed on the other potential defendants and not Matthew DePerno?" she said in an interview. "But as it turned out, he was so intertwined with everything that had occurred that it was just impossible to extricate him."

Nessel said the referral to look into the voting machine tampering came from the Michigan Department of State. She says she then asked for the special prosecutor to avoid a conflict of interest. Her request named DePerno as "one of the prime instigators of the conspiracy."

It's not his first brush with controversy. DePerno has falsely said some voting machines were rigged. And he's facing accusations that he's using those baseless claims to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"The things that he's said and the things that he's done should be disqualifying for him," Nessel said. "And I think it's just a matter of people learning about him — not just Democrats but independents and Republicans. The more you know about Matthew DePerno, the less likely you are to cast your ballot for him."

Nessel refuses to debate DePerno, partially citing the investigation. She believes he would bring it up and ethical standards from the American Bar Association would prevent her from discussing it, leaving her at a disadvantage.

Beyond that, Nessel, who's also the first openly LGBTQ person to serve in statewide office, accuses DePerno of consistently making homophobic and bigoted remarks.

"If he can't raise money to put his own television commercials on the air, I'm not going to give him a forum," Nessel said.

Michigan Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel speaks at a campaign rally Sunday in East Lansing, Mich.
Bill Pugliano / Getty Images
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Michigan Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel speaks at a campaign rally Sunday in East Lansing, Mich.

In response, DePerno has been calling Nessel a coward. He's framing the investigation as a distraction from substantive issues.

"All of those things we're not talking about because the media wants to ask questions about what Dana Nessel is doing to me — and usually not in a negative way like in terms of how bad that is for her," he said backstage at a recent rally with Trump.

DePerno's strategy of late has been to branch out and attack Nessel on issues like abortion and crime.

"Dirty Dana has sat on the sidelines as crime has skyrocketed in this state, and as your next attorney general, I will fight to clean up this state," DePerno told the rally crowd.

Culture war issues have increasingly played a role in the campaign. While speaking at a conference this summer, Nessel reportedly made an offhand joke about how "drag queens are fun" and they would make schools better.

At the Oct. 1 Trump rally, DePerno seized upon the remarks.

"She said she wants to put a drag queen in every classroom," he said, before asking the crowd, "Do you think we need drag queens in every classroom?" When the crowd responded "no," DePerno answered, "No, people. Not just no — hell no."

DePerno's Trump-like ability to rally a crowd has made him popular among grassroots conservatives. But other Republicans are increasingly worried about a candidate who's under active investigation.

"Republicans basically had the ball in their court and the mandate was just, don't be crazy. And I feel like that's the trap people have fallen into," said former state Rep. Aaron Miller.

He says Nessel, who narrowly won in 2018, should have been vulnerable. She's made her own headlines for stances like refusing to enforce Michigan's anti-abortion law and for occasionally going off script.

Still, polling has shown Nessel consistently up and she's been dominating the fundraising battle.

It's unclear what exactly would happen if DePerno wins and is subsequently indicted and convicted. Michigan election law says the attorney general position becomes vacant upon the officeholder's conviction of an "infamous crime." While that's not spelled out in statute, the Detroit Free Press has noted that it's been historically interpreted as a crime punishable by a sentence in state prison.

Some have wondered about the long-term effect candidates with a track record of denying election results — like DePerno — will have on the Republican Party.

University of Michigan professor Walter Mebane says the future of the GOP is still undetermined.

"Parties can adapt pretty quickly," he said. "You can throw out the people you formerly were supporting and get in new people and people can suddenly pretend they didn't know who they were yesterday."

But he says election denialism must be dealt with now.

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

Colin Jackson, Michigan Public Radio Network