HILLSDALE, Mich, Feb 17 (Reuters) – Jon Smith, a local leader in rural Michigan of America First, a far-right Republican faction that denies the results of the 2020 election, wants to shift the entire party to the right – even if it means short-term losses at the ballot box. “We need to redefine what it means to be a Republican,” he said in an interview.
In pursuit of that aim, Smith and other hardliners deployed armed guards to bar moderate delegates from a county meeting last August, threatening to bring criminal trespassing charges against them, according to an email to the moderates seen by Reuters.
Smith, who is running for party chair in his congressional district, also helped persuade state party officials to exclude moderates from his county from a vote on Saturday to choose the leaders who will steer Michigan Republicans into the 2024 elections.
Far-right Republican groups are making inroads across the state, according to Reuters’ interviews with two dozen party leaders, grassroots members and political experts, sidelining moderate voices, risking relationships with major donors and complicating the state party’s efforts to rebuild after their worst election results since 1984.
America First Republicans now control local party leadership in more than half of Michigan’s 83 counties, a senior party official estimated, paving the way for an important victory on Saturday when an election denier is expected to be elected to state party chair.
Critics say the Republican Party’s continued lurch to the right after midterm losses of candidates backed by former President Donald Trump could imperil its chances in a state that will likely prove critical to control of the White House and Congress in 2024, with one of Michigan’s Senate seats in play.
The local skirmishes mirror Republican infighting in other swing states and in Congress, where Kevin McCarthy made important concessions to hardline lawmakers to win election as speaker of the House of Representatives last month.
“What’s going on in Michigan is a microcosm of what is going on with the Republican Party nationally,” said Michael Traugott, a professor at the Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan.
‘LIKE A COUP’
In Smith’s Hillsdale County, allegiance to Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election were stolen runs deep. Trump won more than 70% of the vote in 2020. In January 2021 local congressman Tim Walberg voted against certifying Joe Biden’s victory.
Last July, the far-right faction adopted a resolution to “protect the party from a hostile takeover of actors with intent to dilute or destroy the values of the party,” voting to expel 70 moderates. The resolution, which Reuters has seen, claimed the party had been “infiltrated” in the 1970s by members who practice socialism.
“To me, this is like a coup of the Republican Party,” said Penny Swan, who joined the moderates after seeing the armed guards at the August meeting. “It’s like the radical right is trying take over.”
For Smith, 44, who sells commercial restaurant and industrial equipment online, party leaders should adhere strictly to conservative principles of limited government, low taxes, and expansive gun rights. They should shun compromise with Democrats, he said.
In 2021, Smith helped charter buses to bring Hillsdale residents to Washington to take part in the Jan. 6 protests on the Mall, though he said he did not enter the Capitol.
He said he still questions the integrity of the 2020 election and wants an audit of the state’s results.
While moderate Republicans in Hillsdale share the hardliners’ support for low taxes and limited government, they describe the far-right members as absolutists and accuse them of improperly seizing control.
In October, Hillsdale moderates sued to be recognized as the rightful leaders of the local party, and this month asked the judge to prevent the far-right faction from sending their slate of delegates to Saturday’s convention.
The judge declined to intervene, leaving it up to Michigan Republican Party officials to set the rules on delegate selection. The moderates continue to pursue the case in court
Saturday’s meeting is expected to cement Michigan Republicans’ shift to the right.
The top two candidates for state party chair have both promoted conspiracy theories in support of Trump’s false claims about voter fraud. Nine other candidates are running, including Scott Greenlee, a political consultant favored by moderates who is seen as having an outside chance.
Trump has endorsed Matthew DePerno, who lost his election for state attorney general in November and is under investigation for an alleged conspiracy to gain access to voting equipment, according to state authorities.
DePerno, who has denied wrongdoing and called the investigation politically motivated, declined to be interviewed for this story.
His main challenger Kristina Karamo lost her election for secretary of state last November.
The selection of an election denier could discourage top donors from supporting the party directly, especially if the next chair backs extreme candidates, three major fundraisers said in interviews.
“If they continue to use that rhetoric to inspire the base rather than focusing on the future it will make it very difficult to raise funds from major donors,” said Robert Schostak, founder of the Templar Baker Group consulting firm and a former Republican state party chair.
Karamo said some traditional donors only wanted “minions” and that the party could find new donors among grassroots members and wealthy individuals who had never given before.
Smith, who will attend the state meeting as a delegate, believes such tensions are natural as the party changes direction.
“There’s some people that are thinking this is the end of the Republican Party,” he said. “I think there is light at the end of the tunnel.”