Michigan Republicans choose 2020 election denier Kristina Karamo as party chair

LANSING — Kristina Karamo, a Republican who has made unsubstantiated allegations of widespread fraud in the 2020 presidential election and has yet to concede her 14-point loss in the 2022 Michigan election for secretary of state, was elected chair of the Michigan Republican Party Saturday.

Karamo defeated unsuccessful GOP attorney general candidate Matt DePerno of Kalamazoo, a fellow election denier who was endorsed in the party chair race by Trump. Karamo had 58% of the vote on the third – and final – ballot at the state convention. DePerno had 42%.

"We will not betray you; we will not lie to you," Karamo said in a brief victory speech as convention delegates were hustled out of the Lansing Center. The cash-strapped state party had only paid to rent the hall until late afternoon. Officials extended the arrangement until 8 p.m., but told delegates they had to leave quickly after the third ballot.

Karamo is the first Black chair of the state GOP. Black women now head both major parties in Michigan, with Lavora Barnes serving as chair of the Michigan Democratic Party.

Scott Greenlee, a Lansing business and campaign consultant who has been active in the party for 35 years, was dropped after the second ballot, where he received 23% of the vote.

Only those top three candidates had advanced to the second ballot, under convention rules. About 2,600 delegates and alternates are attending the convention at the Lansing Center. There were 11 candidates in the race, although two withdrew Saturday.

Karamo's election as chair signals the party leadership's shift to nearly full alignment with Trump's Make America Great Again (MAGA) messaging. Many longtime party stalwarts stayed away from Saturday's convention, unhappy with the party's direction.

Long considered an organizational and fundraising juggernaut, the Michigan Republican Party took a historic shellacking in the November election, losing every statewide office and losing control of the Michigan Senate for the first time in 40 years. So dismal are the party's finances that delegates to this weekend's convention, in a historic first, were charged a convention entry fee — $50 if paid in advance or $75 at the convention door.

Jeff Sakwa, an Oakland County businessman and former state GOP co-chair, stayed away from Saturday's convention and branded it "the Super Bowl of election deniers." He said party performance and fundraising will continue to suffer by choosing a new party chair who wants to continue to relitigate the results of past elections.

Both Karamo and DePerno blasted current party leadership and blamed a lack of state party support for the party's poor showing in November.

Karamo drew enthusiastic applause when she said she has yet to concede her 2022 race for Michigan secretary of state, citing unspecified and unsubstantiated fraudulent processes. In calling for change, Karamo said the Michigan Republican Party "operates like a political mafia" adding, "our party is dying."

Karamo made "election integrity," including greater restrictions on absentee balloting, a central thrust of her campaign for secretary of state. At an Oakland County forum last month for candidates for state party chair, she said protecting children and families will also be a priority for her in that role.

A video of Karamo speaking at a 2021 conference in Las Vegas with ties to the QAnon conspiracy movement that falsely asserts the government is run by a "deep state" cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles shows her thanking former Nevada secretary of state candidate Jim Marchant for creating the coalition.

"We owe him so much because when I first was asked to be a part of the coalition and we came here to Vegas and we sat in the room and we met and we talked all of us on the coalition together and we realized how well-coordinated, how nefarious this agenda was to undermine the will of the American people," she said.

During the race for secretary of state, Karamo's campaign said that she has never supported the conspiracy movement.

Karamo, DePerno and Greenlee — who had support among Republicans who pre-date the Trump era — were well ahead of the nearest challengers in the first round of voting.

Michigan Republican Party delegates convened in Lansing Saturday to elect the next state party chair.
Michigan Republican Party delegates convened in Lansing Saturday to elect the next state party chair.

DePerno, who rose to prominence by pursuing a lawsuit (ultimately dismissed) in Antrim County that transformed an error in the posting of unofficial county 2020 presidential election results into a conspiracy theory related to the integrity of voting equipment, is currently under criminal investigation for allegedly orchestrating an effort to gain unauthorized access to voting machines in Michigan.

More:Here's who's running to be the next Michigan GOP chair

More:Trump endorses Matt DePerno in race for Michigan Republican Party chair

DePerno did not take the stage to accept his nomination, instead showing a video that included Trump's endorsement message. But at a January candidate forum in Oakland County, he pledged to fix the party's financial woes by pursuing small donors and then high-level donors, "and I'm not talking about the 20 or so families that have largely run the GOP in the past," he said, in an apparent slap at western Michigan's DeVos family, among others.

Delegate Annette Helmuth, president of the Hillsdale County Women's Republican Party, said the party needs to change. She was backing Karamo, though she would also be happy with DePerno as chair.

Annette Helmuth
Annette Helmuth

"I just think she is really in touch with what is going on around her," Helmuth said of Karamo. "She's quite honest, and she would do a good job."

Claudia McCrackin, a delegate from Clinton Township, said she was backing DePerno.

He is the only candidate who has pursued a lawsuit related to election integrity, and he is endorsed by Trump, McCrackin said. "I think he's the strongest candidate."

Outgoing party Chair Ron Weiser, a University of Michigan regent, was not visible at the convention. He was returned for a third stint as state GOP chair in 2021, after a bitter fight against against Laura Cox, a former state representative. Weiser, who was a U.S. ambassador to Slovakia under President George W. Bush, formerly served as state party chair from 2009 to 2011 and from 2017 to 2018.

In 2021, Weiser was elected with co-chair Meshawn Maddock, an avid Trump backer who departed from past practice and angered some in the party by endorsing candidates for attorney general and secretary of state prior to the 2022 convention.

Dan Pero, a longtime Michigan Republican consultant who was campaign manager and chief of staff to former Michigan Gov. John Engler, was vacationing in South America on Saturday and one of many longtime GOP stalwarts who stayed away from the convention.

Pero told the Free Press on Friday he stands behind recent comments he made in a Facebook exchange in which he defended the contributions of the DeVos family and Weiser to the state party and condemned the turn the party has taken in recent years.

It is wrong, he said, for those who have done nothing for the party over the last 40 years except support Trump, who Pero described as a "sometimes Republican," to now declare who is a Republican.

"And those who follow them like rats seeking the cheese are nonsensical," he said.

Contact Paul Egan: 517-372-8660 or pegan@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @paulegan4.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Karamo, who echoed Trump election fraud claims, to chair Michigan GOP