Michigan's Republican Party in disarray amid dueling convention confusion

The party is set to allocate delegates on Saturday.

March 1, 2024, 6:27 PM

The Republican Party in Michigan, a major battleground in the upcoming 2024 general election, is set on Saturday to allocate the lion's share of its delegates to the Republican National Convention, determined at a state convention.

But it comes after a dramatic leadership dispute threw the state party into disarray, generating confusion over just where those Republican delegates would be apportioned, including, for a time, dueling conventions.

The fight came to a head this week when Michigan courts affirmed that former Michigan GOP Chairwoman Kristina Karamo had been ousted.

Karamo had planned one convention, which until Friday afternoon was set to convene Saturday in Detroit.

But after Michigan's GOP state committee voted to oust Karamo in January, former Rep. Pete Hoekstra -- now recognized by the Republican National Committee as state party chairman -- organized a separate convention on the other side of the state, in Grand Rapids.

That is the only gathering that will count for determining delegates in the eyes of the RNC.

In an interview with ABC News on Thursday -- after the Michigan Court of Appeals denied an emergency motion she filed asking to remain chair -- Karamo acknowledged she is no longer the legal head of the Michigan Republican Party and said she was unsure if the Detroit convention would still convene.

Then, on Friday, communication via text messages or party memos to delegates planning on attending the Detroit convention began to stream out, alerting the group that the gathering was canceled. Huntington Place, the venue for the convention, confirmed the cancellation to ABC News.

Kristina Karamo speaks to Michigan Republican Party delegates, Feb. 18, 2023, in Lansing, Mich. Michigan Republican Party chair Pete Hoekstra listens at a campaign rally in Waterford Township, Mich., Feb. 17, 2024.

Hoekstra's team did not respond to an ABC News request for comment. It's unclear who made the final decision to pull the plug on the Detroit convention, but Karamo has said that she wouldn't be making the final call.

"I can't cancel [the Detroit convention] because I can't act as an agent of the Michigan Republican Party," Karamo said on Thursday, noting that the convention planning all happened through official Michigan Republican Party procedure.

The possibility of dueling conventions from dueling party chairs has exposed chaos in the Michigan Republican Party -- in a pivotal purple state where both Joe Biden and Donald Trump have already started campaigning.

Macomb County Republican Party Chair Mark Forton said he was initially a Karamo supporter, but after months of fundraising lulls, intraparty fighting and legal disputes, he worked to unseat her in hopes of focusing the party on winning upcoming elections.

"[W]e need people to start passing out literature to start supporting candidates. They have no intention. They've spent their whole time avoiding raising money and going after the counties," Forton said. "We're determined to make this change. Mr. Hoekstra has promised us that's all over with now, no more going after the counties, no constitutions, no bylaw changes, no, nothing. We're going to win elections."

Hoekstra, whose bid to take over as party chair has also had been endorsed by Trump, addressed his desire to move past the disorder in a statement shortly after a Michigan county circuit court judge on Tuesday ruled Karamo was no longer the state party chair.

"The MIGOP State Committee, the RNC, President Trump and now a court of law have all reviewed the January 6th meeting and there is unanimous agreement that the former Chair was properly removed, and I was elected as the new Chairman of the Michigan Republican Party," he said. "It is time to unite and move forward with the business delivering the state of Michigan for our Party's presumptive nominee, Donald J. Trump."

How did the party get here?

Members of the Michigan Republican State Committee voted on Jan. 6 to remove Karamo as party chair during a meeting that she and her allies claimed was illegitimate.

"It was a combination of things," 7th District Chair Dan Wholihan said as to why a faction of the party voted to oust Karamo. "Her inability to raise money and spending it improperly -- those were two of the big reasons. And attempting to, with policies, take over and interfere with county and district parties was another major reason."

A failed secretary of state candidate in 2022 who was later backed by Trump for chair, Karamo is a grassroots Republican activist whose leadership signaled a major shakeup for the Michigan GOP.

But the cash-strapped party, which was not bolstered by the small dollar donations that Karamo had promised, went even deeper into debt after their Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference this summer. And after fiery events at a few contentious local meetings and some legal disputes over the party's former headquarters building in Lansing, a quorum of the Michigan GOP voted to oust her.

The party elected Hoekstra as chair shortly after, and the RNC confirmed Karamo had been legally removed as chair. Donald Trump's endorsement of Hoekstra, the RNC's recognition that Hoekstra was chair and eventually the Michigan Court of Appeals' affirmation of the timeline.

Who is participating in the convention?

Now that it's clear there will be just one convention in Grand Rapids, a number of the delegates who had planned to attend Karamo's convention in Detroit may travel to the Hoekstra-led gathering. But it's unclear whether they will be allowed to participate, because they didn't make the Feb. 21 deadline to submit delegation credentials.

The Republican Party in Michigan's 1st Congressional District, chaired by former state Rep. Daire Rendon, argued that Hoekstra's team has denied their efforts to send delegates to the state convention.

They said they will hold their own convention in their district on Saturday to "accommodate the voting rights of their disenfranchised delegates."

Kristina Karamo, who is running for the Michigan Republican party's nomination for secretary of state, gets an endorsement from former President Donald Trump during a rally, April 2, 2022, near Washington, Mich.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

The group said 24 counties planned to send delegates to the Karamo-led convention in Detroit, before the judge's ruling this week.

"The newly declared administration of MRP appears to be inviting dissent and disregarding rules with the consent of their Republican National Committee allies. We will not play that game by falling into their confusing messaging and backtracking," Rendon said in a statement. "Denying the majority of the Delegates elected at County Conventions in the 1st Congressional District their right to be heard at the State District Convention is not acceptable."

Rendon later added: "What is happening to these 24 counties is the type of leadership that Karamo was falsely accused of. The grassroots are watching their party being stolen from them."

In a memo to delegates obtained by ABC News, Rendon further defends Karamo, saying, "Over the last year, you have been a victim of deceiving propaganda and fake news against our grassroots leader, who has been a fearless warrior for freedom."

In an interview on Friday, Rendon told ABC News that she thought the RNC and Trump's backing of Hoekstra was "another bad call." Asked to clarify, Rendon said, "I don't think Trump should have made any endorsements. I don't think it's his business to make endorsements. But that's my personal opinion."

Jim Copas, the former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party under Karamo, said he anticipates that the Hoekstra camp will deny many of the delegates who had planned to attend the Detroit convention.

"Pete will not credential the real delegates that show up there. Because if he knows if he does, they're going to call for a motion from the floor and remove him as chair. And he won't allow that to happen. So, he will have effectively stolen the election of that like what I think happened in 2020," Copas told ABC News.

Kristina Karamo watches the big screen for votes to be tallied at the Michigan Republican Convention in Lansing, Mich., Feb. 18, 2023.
Sarah Rice for The Washington Post via Getty Images

What will the convention decide?

The Saturday convention will assign 39 of Michigan's 55 convention delegates through a proportional system according to the state's 13 congressional districts.

"Who the delegates are going to be, I think is somewhat in question right now. But who they're going to be committed to I don't think is. President Trump is going to garner all of the 39 District delegates, I think," said Jamie Roe, a Michigan Republican strategist who has been working with Hoeksta's team.

Three delegates per congressional district will be awarded. A candidate can take all three if they receive the majority of votes, or just two if they earn a plurality with one going to whoever is in second place.

The results of Tuesday's GOP primary, which Trump won resoundingly, will determine 16 of the party's delegates, but those will be formally awarded based on a resolution to be considered at Saturday's convention.