Meshawn Maddock was beaming. She said she was in God’s Country in the Upper Peninsula. It’s her opinion, of course, but she’s certainly acting as if she’s in heaven.
Gliding from table to table, the cochairwoman of Michigan Republican Party checked in on the attendees of last Thursday’s Dickinson County GOP event like the hostess of a small wedding reception.
If they weren’t having a good time, they didn’t tell Maddock that. Sharing a laugh. Sipping “Old Fashioneds.” Nobody wearing a mask. Only six were seated per table. They seemed spread out more than what’s typical. Otherwise, everything looked back to pre-pandemic normal.
For the Republicans here, “normal” is wanted so badly they’re just doing it. Revealing in the COVID-be-damned attitude is Maddock and three MRP officials she drove up with, two of whom formed Michigan Trump Republicans with her back in the day.
There’s Marian Sheridan, now the MRP Grassroots vice chairwoman. She’s the leader of the Michigan Conservative Coalition.
She helped bring downtown Lansing “Operation Gridlock” that self-created traffic jam last April and the outdoor hair cut-be-damned event at the Capitol grounds in May. That’s the one that lionized Owosso barber Karl Manke and had six hairstylists criminally charged with misdemeanors. Those were dropped last month when the AG didn’t show up to court.
There’s also Newaygo County GOP Chairwoman Diane Schindlbeck. Last month she ran against the incumbent state GOP cochairperson, who had spoken out against Maddock’s cohort — now-MRP chair candidate Ron Weiser — in the $200,000 payoff flap. She did not. She won on the first ballot.
Any questions about the Republican Party’s future — particularly in Michigan — can start to be answered here, in this rural venue.
The stock for all three party officials soared because they volunteered for former President Donald Trump back in the day. At an indoor venue that’s unfathomable to most people reading this report, the crew slammed Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
Today’s it’s her “hush money” payments to outgoing department heads. Before that, it was her administration’s move to allow recovering COVID-19 patients in nursing homes. Based on what Maddock posted in her Facebook live video the get-together was a success.
“Let’s not let it stop,” Maddock said. “Let’s keep getting together again.”
In Michigan, at this point in time, the GOP is still the party of Trump. His large sign hangs at this venue to the left of the podium. The American flag is posted to the right.
“Donald Trump has a solid grip on the Republican Party,” said state Rep. Matt Hall R-Marshall, the Michigan House Republicans caucus chairman. “That’s because he fights, and people are looking for people who are going to fight for our values.”
For the people in the room and for Republicans, et al., it’s not about the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riots. They ask, “What about the 99% of pro-Trump supporters who didn’t destroy property?”
It’s not about camouflaged Michigan militia marching around the state Capitol grounds with AR-15s flung around their shoulders. “We’re not violent. We just want our voice to be heard,” says congressional candidate Mike Detmer.
Stains of violence — or perceived displays of potential violent activities like the alleged Whitmer kidnapping plot — are ignored by party followers or quickly dismissed as deplorable acts instigated by unhinged.
“Seeing our Capitol desecrated was dispiriting and sad,” said political consultant Jamie Roe. “It was the product of some misguided individuals who did something that was an anathema to the Republican Party.”
The Democratic Party’s framing of the GOP as gun-toting conspiracy-theory fanatics led by a democracy-threatening megalomaniac is nothing but fanatical, leftist liberal spin to those who still proudly fly the “Make America Great” flag.
They view themselves as the true Americans. In their hearts, Trump won the election, even if hard evidence says otherwise. They’re crawling through the final stages of grief, slowly approaching “acceptance.”
Watching Trump speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference got them a little closer. It at least galvanized the national issues they’ll focus on for now.
To them, it’s about border security. Limited government. Individual freedoms. Free and fair trade. Stopping endless wars. Government restrictions. Fully opening up businesses. Transgender women participating in high school sports.
This is what is stoking the passionate fires of Republican activists and to hear it from the people on the ground, there’s still lots of it.
“I’ve been around a long time, I mean I was a college Republican in 1988, so I’ve seen a lot of these election cycles, and I would say that this is the most energized,” said political consultant Scott Greenlee.
Getting kicked off Facebook or social media isn’t stopping their interest. To them, that’s “cancel culture” trying to muzzle their voices. The coastal elites don’t want them heard.
Unfavorable news coverage gets ignored. Many stopped reading the “fake news” long ago at a time in history in which people digest news with the slant they’re looking for.
The life they’re living right now is restricted by a Democratic governor they feel used a partisan hammer to pound down overly harsh mandates to control an unseen virus that knows no laws. The virus wasn’t stopped by closing restaurants or curtailing weddings, funerals and family reunions.
To those who live in far-flung areas like Dickinson County or spacious suburbs where social distancing was a personal choice long before it became part of America’s vernacular, closing small garden shops when you could buy the same seeds at Home Depot made no sense.
Allowing canoes but not motor boats because one involved purchasing gasoline and other didn’t was whipped-up hysteria to anecdotal stories. Pushing off high school basketball into February when Indiana had gyms full of unmasked people watching hoops in January prior defied common sense.
Whitmer’s orders to the pandemic restrict people’s movements regardless of the hats they wear — employee, parent, business owner, son, daughter, volunteer, coach, parishioner.
They’re inconvenienced by an effort they don’t see as having much impact on the overall public good. It emboldens Republican leaders like Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, who supports “something similar” to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s full opening of businesses and the lifting of the mask mandate.
“There’s a good number of people in the private sector and political outsiders who are upset with the governor,” Roe said. The agitation hasn’t gone unnoticed nationally, Roe said.
Michigan, Wisconsin and Kansas are states the Republican Governors Association and outside interests see as hosting the nation’s top governors races in 2022, he said.
Roughly 600 days before Whitmer faces the voters again, finding candidates willing to run against her isn’t the hard part for the MRP brass. The field as it stands now is a trio of alt-right saber rattlers who may or may not have the organization to gather the needed 15,000 signatures to make a primary ballot.
Nigerian-born Austin Chenge wants to end Black History Month. Patriot rally organizer Ryan Kelley marched on the U.S. Capitol grounds Jan. 6. Ford retiree Bob Scott wants to make Michigan a “RINO (Republican In Name Only)-free zone.”
The fact grassroots candidates like Chenge can get a few dozen people to stand shoulder to shoulder with him at an Alpena gathering shows the extent of party enthusiasm. Maybe one of them catches fire, but the Republican brass like new chairman Ron Wesier isn’t banking on that.
The RGA folks aren’t either. They plan to steer millions of dollars into the Great Lakes State next year to take out a Democrat whose star is rising nationally. They’re getting behind a horse with the best chance to win an election, not the candidate who drifts the closest to the lunatic fringe without going over.
When they’re in town, they’re meeting with former U.S. Senate candidate John James, former House Speaker Lee Chatfield and car dealership owner Kevin Rinke. Macomb County Public Works Director Candice Miller said she’s out, but is she? Really?
Former congressional candidate Lena Epstein is fielding calls about a run. U.S. Rep. Lisa McClain, R-Bruce Twp., is still a possibility, but she’s still learning how to do her job as a member of Congress. Another name to watch is Garrett Soldano, a Kalamazoo chiropractor, who headed up Stand up Michigan and has a significant media presence.
The goal is to prevent a super-competitive primary. Trump will probably end up preventing one. At some point, the super-serious candidates will fly to Mar-a-Lago, if they haven’t already, according to one GOP insider. It’s all about making the case. Kissing the ring. Praying for an endorsement. Dreaming of national dollars from a Trump-backed SuperPac.
Do you doubt Trump’s influence? Susy Avery, who cochairs the Michigan Political Leadership Program at Michigan State University, does not.
A former state party chairwoman, Avery says once Trump dismissed the idea of creating a third party at CPAC, the die was cast. Whether The Donald runs again or not, he’ll play the kingmaker role in 2022 and maybe 2024.
“Trump got more votes out of Michigan than just about any other presidential candidate ever had,” she said. “I think that goes to the activism of all the new people that Republicans brought in.”
The numbers show she’s right. Our state has roughly stayed about 10 million people for the last 20 years. The presidential candidates to receive the most votes ever out of Michigan are Barack Obama in 2008, Joe Biden in 2020 and Trump in 2020. In order.
Voter turnout last year in rural or outer-flung suburbs like Livingston County were off the charts: close 80% in some locations. The vote in these areas wasn’t close, either. Trump won in Missaukee County, for example, with 75% of the vote.
Trump blew a tire in upper-middle class suburbia — Western Wayne, Oakland County, Kent County and Kalamazoo, in particular. But he did well in middle-class, blue-collar areas like Downriver, Macomb County, Bay City or Genesee County.
Dave Dulio, an Oakland University political science professor, looks at numbers like these and sees big opportunities for Republicans. Can they “thread the needle?” Can they find candidates who appeal to Trump voters while not chasing away the traditional, establishment George W. Bush or Mitt Romney voters?
Or will they need to choose one path or the other?
“That’s the million-dollar question right now,” Dulio said. “The Republican Party is at a fork in the road. They have got decisions to make or they can try to thread the needle, but that’s going to be hard.”
For now, it’s embracing the Trump wing majority — the 40% of Michigan who still believe the 2020 election results weren’t legitimate — and praying their antics don’t repel the reasonable white collar-business types who once ran the party.
After all, those people who report to shareholders cut checks, a lot of them to untraceable accounts. Cutting those checks becomes harder when Shirkey is popping off conspiracy theories about some mysterious puppet master who made Jan. 6 happen or candidly daydreaming about fist-fighting the governor on the Capitol lawn.
But this is where the party is going.
It puts U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Grand Rapids, U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, and like-minded pragmatists in a tough spot. They voted to impeach Trump. History may prove that to a strong, courageous vote. Kind of like U.S. Sen. Edmund Ross of Kansas casting the deciding vote not to remove President Andrew Johnson from office in 1868.
Ross never won another election, though.
Trump called Meijer and Upton out by name at CPAC. He basically pledged to get behind a primary opponent with whatever PAC money he raises to take them out.
“It’s what I expected,” Meijer said. “I’m focused on legislation to get things done rather than a bunch of hot air and threats.”
The two may not be as worried given their districts’ makeup. Upton has been elected 18 times to his Southwest Michigan seat. Last time he won his district by 16 points. Trump won it by four.
Meijer outperformed Trump in his Grand Rapids-based 3rd Congressional district, too.
It’s primary challenges from their political right that make them nervous. Meijer already has one of those in former opponent Tom Norton. His Kent County Republican Party executive board came with one vote of censuring him. Upton has had three county party censure votes against him.
As for the near censure, “I am always grateful for the opportunity to talk with local political leaders,” he said. “We had a spirited exchange and I appreciate that. Even when we disagree, we can do it without being disagreeable.”
Divisive primaries aren’t anything new to Republicans. What’s new is the degree to which candidates have slid further right down the ideological. The idea that a moderate fashioned in the mold of the ‘70s Gov. Bill Milliken will have much success is fading into history. By today’s standards, Rick Snyder was a moderate. He’s the same guy who signed off Right to Work and expansive emergency manager laws.
Today, people like Mellissa Carone, the infamous sharp-tongued Rudy Giuliani witness who openly mocked GOP state legislators for questioning her unsubstantiated election conspiracy claims, are emerging as legitimate political contenders.
“Saturday Night Live” parodied her? It raised her stock in the eyes of the grassroots. Carone has a national fundraising universe from which to draw. In 2023, the chances of her sitting next to Matt Hall, the state representative she ridiculed, aren’t bad.
The bright red Oakland County district Carone is running in won’t be represented by a Democrat. The current alt-right representative is term limited. Yeah, the current 46th District could vote for her.
These types of conservative Republican candidates are sprouting out of the political earth these days like crocuses.
They love Trump so much, they’d say anything to keep him in power. They’ll believe at face value outlandish claims if it helps Trump politically.
They’re hanging on to the fantasy that Santa slides down the chimney every year because they want it to be true.
Only 45 days or so ago, Public Policy Polling conducted for Progress Michigan found 41% of Michigan voters still don’t believe the 2020 election results were legitimate.
“It’s not unusual for the party that loses the presidency to remain somewhat tied to their losing candidate, but it is very usual for that candidate to maintain this level of allegiance within the party,” said Matt Grossmann, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research.
The Democrats’ depicted reality TV clown is out of office, but he’s not politically dead. To the political right in 2021, having Twitter cancel your account is a badge of honor. Those blissfully dancing on Trump’s undug political grave do so at their own peril in 2022.
He’s the galvanizing figure for a party that history shows will be back. Eighteen of the last 21 Michigan gubernatorial elections were won by the party’s not holding the presidency at the time, Grossmann said.
Weiser didn’t put himself through the nastiest character assassinations of his long career in unseating Laura Cox because he thought Republicans would lose in 2022.
Republicans are plowing through the immediate past. The Trump loss. Pictures of the armed Michigan militia standing in front of the governor’s Capitol office. Video of people crawling through broken U.S. Capitol windows.
Images you’d think would sentence the perceived responsible party into political purgatory are already fading in our minute-to-minute society. The powers-at-be are putting their heads down. Ignoring media requests. Issuing canned statements.
They’re waited for the news cycle to pass so questions about questionable $200,000 payments to a former GOP secretary of state candidate are replaced with questions about five-and six-digit payments to former Whitmer department heads.
They’re waiting for questions about Jan. 6 to be replaced with questions about why Portland is on fire again.
The ebb and flow of good and bad news rolls on. Will the Republican Party in Michigan? Listen to them. They seem to think so.
Says Weiser, “If we have the right organization and right resources in Michigan, we could sweep this state like we did in 2010.”
If Democrats don’t remember that year, they wish they could.