A test for Trump as Michigan GOP gathers
This weekend presents a major test for former President Trump's influence over Republicans in the battleground state of Michigan, where GOP activists will gather to endorse candidates for secretary of state, attorney general and other statewide offices.
Trump has thrown himself into the middle of the Michigan GOP's nominating process. He is backing two candidates who have embraced his false claims that there was widespread fraud in the 2020 election: Kristina Karamo, who is running for secretary of state, and Matthew DePerno, who is running for attorney general.
The former president went to Michigan earlier in April to rally for the pair of candidates and will have a video message supporting them at a party on the eve of the convention vote. Trump also held a telephone town hall on Wednesday night for DePerno.
"This choice is not just about 2022," Trump said during the call, according to The Detroit News. "This is about ensuring the state of Michigan cannot be stolen from Republicans in 2024 or ever again."
It won't be voters weighing in on whether these candidates advance to the general election. In Michigan, state party activists nominate candidates for secretary of state, attorney general, state supreme court, the state board of education and university boards.
That means about 2,500 Republicans will decide if Trump's chosen candidates will represent their party in the fall. The former president remains incredibly influential with the state GOP's grassroots members and the convention will test his influence among some of the party's most active members.
That's especially true in the attorney general race, where DePerno is facing a tough challenge against former Michigan House Speaker Tom Leonard, who narrowly lost the attorney general race in 2018. State Representative Ryan Berman is also running for attorney general.
"It's a huge milestone for the Michigan GOP, but it's most definitely a milestone for Trump because he made it a test of his influence," said John Sellek, a Republican public relations consultant and owner of the firm Harbor Strategic. "A loss at the convention in the attorney general's race will likely be seen nationally as a sign that his grip is not as strong as it once was."
DePerno was the lawyer on a case that attempted to challenge the 2020 election results in Antrim County, Michigan.
Initial unofficial results from the traditionally Republican county suggested that Mr. Biden won Antrim county. But a human error had caused the county's tabulators to improperly communicate the election results to the county's central election management software. When the equipment was reprogrammed, the results found that Mr. Trump had won the county by nearly 4,000 votes and a hand recount of the ballots later confirmed that result.
Some GOP activists and leaders used the error in Antrim County to spread the conspiracy theory that Dominion Voting machines were switching votes. Mr. Trump was among those who repeated the false claims about Antrim County following the election and during his telephone rally on Wednesday night he called the ongoing litigation "explosive."
A report from a Republican-led Michigan Senate committee in June 2021 asserted that "ideas and speculation that the Antrim County election workers or outside entities manipulated the vote by hand or electronically are indefensible." That same report said the committee "found no evidence of widespread or systematic fraud in Michigan's prosecution of the 2020 election."
On Thursday, a Michigan appeals court rejected claims in DePerno's legal challenge, saying his client "failed to allege any 'clear and positive' factual allegations that 'make out a clear case of right.'"
"Instead, plaintiff merely raised a series of questions about the election without making any specific factual allegations as required," the court wrote in a unanimous opinion. "There are no allegations in the complaint to support that the purported irregularities in Antrim County 'might have affected the outcome' of the presidential election, as the cited case law clearly requires."
DePerno pledged to appeal the decision to the Michigan Supreme Court. He and his campaign did not respond to requests for comment from CBS News. In a statement after the court's decision, he said, "I will continue to fight for election integrity at the highest levels and that includes as attorney general of Michigan."
Republicans in Michigan believe Karamo is in a more comfortable position to win her race at the nominating convention. She is facing state Representative Beau LaFave and Chesterfield Township Clerk Cindy Berry to be the Republican nominee running for the office that oversees elections.
Karamo gained a following after the 2020 election, when she claimed to have witnessed fraudulent activity where Detroit was counting absentee ballots and later testified in front of a state Senate committee. She made several cable news appearances to spread unfounded claims of widespread fraud and filed to intervene in Texas' case at The Supreme Court that sought to overturn the 2020 election.
One of Karamo's central fraud claims was about a ballot that had straight-ticket voting bubbles filled out for Democrats and Republicans. She claimed a worker wanted to count the ballot for Democrats and a supervisor told the worker to "push it through."
Chris Thomas, the longtime elections director in Michigan who was at the absentee counting facility in Detroit, told CBS News that "push it through" meant that the ballot would be registered as an overvote and would not count for either party.
"(The supervisor) maybe could've been a little clearer with her if her rendition is accurate and said, 'look we agree with what you're saying and they're going to push it through, it's an overvote. Biden's not getting a vote,'" Thomas said. "That may have worked a little better, but it doesn't make as good of a story."
Kararmo's campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
Conservatives are embracing both Trump-endorsed candidates. Michigan GOP co-chair Meshawn Maddock, who has close ties to Trump, endorsed both DePerno and Karamo in her personal capacity.
"Having these two champions, Karamo and DePerno, in office will ensure that we stop stolen elections and they will be important to a real forensic audit of the 2020 election," she said in a statement. Several state and federal courts in Michigan rejected attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election and more than 250 audits conducted by the state affirmed the election's results were accurate.
Gustavo Portela, the communications director for the Michigan Republican Party, stressed that the endorsement was made in a personal capacity and said party leaders have weighed in before. Ultimately, he said, "it's the delegates who will be choosing who will be successful in terms of receiving the party endorsement."
The Michigan Conservative Coalition, which has worked to get conservative delegates elected to the state convention, is also backing the two candidates.
"We think that they are the best people for the job. They are Trump picks and we align ourselves with President Trump," said Rosanne Ponkowski, president of the Michigan Conservative Coalition. Ponkowski is also working with Karamo's campaign.
But some Republicans worry that DePerno and Karamo may cost the GOP general elections in November in a year where the political environment is favorable to Republicans.
Tony Daunt, a member of the Michigan Republican Party State Committee and former executive director of the conservative Michigan Freedom Fund, said he couldn't vote for either candidate in November at this point, although he said he could eventually support Karamo if she did "a whole lot of mea culpa." He said it should be a "warning" that Republicans like him don't want to vote for these candidates.
"People who are in a position to help tamp some of it down, instead of doing that, they're feeding into it. And they're pushing these cancerous, malignant figures on the delegate base," said Daunt, who won't be at the convention. "Unfortunately, the lesson will have to be learned the hard way that if they nominate people like this they're likely throwing away a race that is otherwise extremely winnable because the Democrats have been such failures."
Republicans will formally nominate candidates at their convention in August, but it would take 75% of delegates at that event to overturn the results from Saturday.
Saturday's convention will also feature a hand count of ballots, after grassroots members of the party demanded that there be one to validate machine-counted results.
"They didn't want use of Dominion voting machines and they had concerns about voting machines not getting it correct," Portela said. "That's part of the reason we established an audit committee, to reassure our grassroots that this is going to be a safe and secure election."
CBS News political reporter.