Swing state Republican parties are in chaos. That could matter in November.

Leadership fights have roiled the GOP in Michigan, Arizona and Georgia.

Video byJulian Kim
February 20, 2024, 3:26 PM

In Michigan, Arizona and Georgia, intense internal battles are tearing through the state Republican parties. The fights largely pivot around divisions that opened up in the wake of the last presidential election. A new cadre of Trump-loyalist party leaders, in many cases propelled into power based on their defense of the Big Lie that former President Donald Trump actually won in 2020, have found themselves at war with more establishment-aligned Republicans … and, increasingly, with each other.

These rifts in three potential swing states are one of the many ways that Trump's hold on the GOP and the rise of election denial in the aftermath of the 2020 election are defining not only the election this fall — when Trump loyalists could be looking at their 2020 playbook for ways to influence the outcome — but also the Republican state party organizations that will shape their states' politics for years to come.

In Michigan, Republicans decided they'd had enough of former state party chair Kristina Karamo, whose refusal to concede either Trump's 2020 loss or her own loss in the 2022 secretary of state contest was a core part of her profile as an election activist. Karamo beat out a Trump-endorsed fellow election denier for the role early last year, promising to help the struggling party organization rebound after the 2022 Democratic sweep of the state and attract more grassroots donors. But the fundraising she promised never materialized. By the time the party hosted its biennial conference on Mackinac Island in September, it had to take out a $110,000 loan to pay for the keynote speaker. Disagreements in the party even led to physical fights at party meetings.

Fundraising woes, lackluster attendance at the biennial conference and insufficient organizing ahead of the 2024 election increased dissatisfaction with Karamo's leadership, according to state party members. "The fundraising has been just absolutely dismal with the state party," said Vance Patrick, chair of the Oakland County Republican Party, one of the largest in the state, covering the suburbs northwest of Detroit. "Unfortunately, there's just no money in the bank, and the candidates rely on the state party not necessarily [just] for money, but for the canvassing, or the door knocking, or the other things."

The state committee voted Karamo out on Jan. 6 (this year), an unintentionally ironic date. Perhaps fittingly, she hasn't recognized that vote as legitimate either. But state and national party leadership (including Trump) have recognized her successor, former Ambassador Pete Hoekstra, and they're scrambling to make up lost time in this critical election year when Republicans hope to deliver the state for Trump, win a crucial Senate seat and regain control of the state House. "We have been a divided state for way too long. There's only nine months left before the election," Patrick said.

With slightly fewer fireworks, a similar upheaval played out in Arizona — another state that swung from Trump to Biden in 2020 and saw a wave of Democratic victories in 2022. There, the state GOP chair, Jeff DeWit, resigned on Jan. 24 after Republican Senate candidate and former gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, a MAGA favorite, leaked an audio recording of him apparently offering her money and a job to step out of the Senate race. A candidate backed by Lake and Trump, Gina Swoboda, has since taken over Republican leadership in the state. Like Karamo, she rose to prominence as an activist working with organizations that have made unsupported claims of election fraud in 2020. Her elevation seems to cement the role of election denial as a driving force in the state party, four years after fake electors in Arizona were also involved in the effort to overturn the 2020 election. While DeWit was also a Trump supporter, he had been selected on a promise to move on from 2020, beating out further-right candidates who'd advocated for replacing vote-counting machines in response to alleged fraud.

In Georgia, though, Republican party leaders like Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger thwarted efforts to cast doubt on the election results, irking some rank-and-file Republicans in the state and leading to rifts there. The Trump-aligned wing of the party included former state party chair David Shafer, who stepped down in June 2023 and has since been charged in the Fulton County election fraud scheme in which Trump is also charged. Attempts to discredit District Attorney Fani Willis and Nathan Wade, the lead prosecutor in that case, have brought it back into the spotlight and once again divided Georgia Republicans. The state party is also footing the legal bills for some of the fake electors involved in the scheme. The new party chairman, Josh McKoon, has generally aligned himself with Trump; the state convention in which he was elected featured a speech from Trump lambasting Willis, and Kemp was absent.

These intraparty divisions are also playing out, in various ways, across the country. While Trump appears to be coasting to his party's nomination, he drew 10 major challengers. With an eye to his continued influence in the party, most of his opponents avoided criticizing him directly, but those who did generally maintained that his refusal to concede in 2020 was divisive and damaging for the party and the country. Those arguments clearly didn't gain steam with GOP primary voters, but the extent to which the party remains divided over its former — and likely future — leader will be a defining question for Republicans heading into the 2024 election season.

State parties traditionally don't play a huge formal role in presidential elections, but they can certainly have an impact. While national candidates and party organizations have their own turnout and fundraising machines, state parties filter money from the national parties, recruit local and state candidates, and play a role in driving turnout. Even more directly, in some states, including Arizona, Georgia and Michigan, state parties also choose electors for the Electoral College vote, an issue that has become newly salient in the wake of 2020 election denial. "If there's a question about who gets on the ballot as electors … [state party leadership] comes into play, because a lot of times the state party rules specify how electors are chosen," said Douglas Roscoe, a political science professor at UMass-Dartmouth.

In 2020, Shafer wasn't the only Trump-affiliated high-ranking GOP state official apparently involved in a fake elector scheme. And in a scenario where fake electors challenge the results in their states, which is the central allegation in the Fulton County case against Trump, election-denying party officials could contribute to a repeat of the Jan. 6 insurrection, or other complications in the case of a close election.

With election deniers helping to shape state parties, another battle could open up if election results in a state are close and subject to court challenges, in which these organizations traditionally play a role. "[They] line up the attorneys, have a legal strategy for questioning the results or calling for recounts or litigation and so forth," Roscoe said. "So they can be an entity that sues." That may matter most in states like Arizona, Georgia and Michigan, where the presidential race could be close and legal challenges could originate.

More broadly, state parties play a major role in selecting candidates for down-ballot races. A dearth of young Republican leaders seems to be an emerging challenge for the GOP, as support for Trump and the Big Lie remain a litmus test for those who would run for office — these younger, Trump-aligned Republicans are often less experienced than their more establishment peers, more focused on grandstanding than policymaking. Matt Grossmann, a professor of political science at Michigan State University, pointed to Michigan Republicans' electoral failures in 2022, where the nomination of inexperienced anti-establishment candidates like Karamo, whose major qualifications were that they were championing the Big Lie, resulted in Democratic victories. "If they really are nominating inexperienced people who are caught up with refighting the last elections," Grossmann said, "I think, basically, it could get a lot worse for the Republican Party."

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