In early June, roughly 250 Michiganders filed into a windowless banquet hall for the Macomb County GOP’s annual Lincoln Dinner. The dining tables were decorated with white tablecloths, tiny American flags, and famous Lincoln quotes, while the silent auction display off to the side featured Trump Wine, a cardboard cutout of Donald and Melania, and 30 mm rounds the size of a baby’s torso that had “Jesus is Lord!” etched into the shells.
After I introduced myself to my tablemates, they were happy to provide an overview of the local political scene. Macomb was home to the middle-class Reagan Democrats who famously broke with their party and their unions. Neighboring Oakland County was home to Rockefeller Republicans who’d become Democrats, and a Muslim woman was now a deputy county executive there.
“A Muslim woman,” Tom, the older white man sitting next to me, repeated in disbelief. “What does she know about America?” The way Tom saw it, the “whole mess” in this country was “coming down to good versus evil.” A lot of people saw it that way—including Kristina Karamo, the fundraiser’s featured guest.
Until a few years ago, Karamo was a single mom stringing together jobs and recording a one-woman Christian podcast. But following the 2020 election, she emerged as a fixture of Michigan Republican politics by alleging in litigation and Fox News appearances that she’d witnessed voter fraud in Detroit while working as a poll watcher. In 2022, she became the party’s nominee for secretary of state. She lost by 14 points—the worst performance of any candidate running for the state’s top offices—but never conceded. In February, the base picked her to run the Michigan Republican Party.
Just seven years ago, Donald Trump became the first Republican presidential candidate to win Michigan since George H.W. Bush. But as the state GOP moved further and further to the right, Democrats capitalized on the extremism to string together major victories in 2018, 2020, and 2022, when they took full control of the state government for the first time in four decades. In the wake of this rout, the GOP has doubled down. Karamo’s ascension to chair is what a Republican Party freed from the constraints imposed by consultants and donors looks like in the Trump era. It is messy, short on cash, and arguably more democratic than ever before.
While Karamo and her supporters fixate on “election integrity” and culture war issues like transgender rights, convinced that it will lead to future victories, ousted moderates look on with schadenfreude. This battleground state fissure is a gift to President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign and Democrats’ efforts to hold an open Senate seat that is essential to maintaining control of the chamber.
When Mark Forton, the Macomb GOP’s 76-year-old leader, took to the Lincoln Dinner stage, he noted that elected Republican officials had donated next to nothing to the county party. It helped explain why the first speaker of the night was a local educator who read from Beowulf and riffed on American Girl dolls going woke. Next up was Christopher Thoma, a Lutheran pastor and the author of a four-volume tome on whiskey called The Angels’ Portion, which he has promoted online with a thirst-trap picture of himself drinking in his clerical collar. “The Democrat Party is the party of Satan,” he fumed to an applauding crowd.
When it was her turn to speak in front of the almost entirely white audience, Karamo, a Black 37-year-old, struck a different tone, stressing the importance of being “happy warriors.” Much of her talk, which argued Republicans could build power by being good neighbors, could have been given by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with minimal modification. “We cannot win people over by yelling and screaming and being angry,” she said. “We have to win people over with kindness.”
But her account of American politics flipped the way the left sees the world. Democrats are the ideologues. “They’re evil. They’re definitely a Lucifer,” Karamo explained. “But they have their standards, and they stick to ’em.” Republicans, meanwhile, were always moderating in the face of a “Marxist” opposition that sought to “implode America from the middle.”
“We have got to come together for our children’s future, and just fight like never before—lawfully and in a Christlike manner,” she said in closing. “Because if we don’t, we’re gonna lose our country. Lose our kids’ future. And we have no one to blame but ourselves.” She received the only standing ovation of the night.
The story of how the Michigan Republican Party was transformed begins with the last line on the ballot. Every two years, primary voters elect a few thousand precinct delegates to attend county-level party conventions. There, they pick delegates to the statewide conventions where the party chair and the nominees for some of the state’s top positions are selected. That structure has always made the party vulnerable to a grassroots takeover: The tea party came close in the early 2010s, but the establishment prevailed. In 2015, delegates elected Ronna Romney McDaniel, Mitt’s niece and a granddaughter of late Gov. George Romney, as the head of the party. When she became national chair in 2017 after backing Trump, she was succeeded in Michigan by Ronald Weiser, a Jewish businessman and moderate Republican who covered much of the party’s budget out of his own pocket. (“He’s a globalist—part of the Atlantic Council” was how Forton summed him up in a phone interview.)
At their April 2022 convention, the delegates below Weiser nominated Karamo for secretary of state. For attorney general, they backed Matthew DePerno, a smalltime lawyer who made his name promoting conspiracy theories about Dominion voting machines. (He was recently indicted for allegedly gaining unauthorized access to a voting machine.) A few months later, primary voters nominated right-wing news host Tudor Dixon for governor.
Like Karamo and DePerno, Dixon had never held elected office and had claimed the 2020 election was stolen. Meanwhile, following the Dobbs decision, progressive groups put an amendment protecting abortion on the ballot. (If it failed, a 1931 abortion ban could have snapped into effect.)
The Michigan GOP ended up having its worst performance in decades. DePerno, Dixon, and Karamo lost by 9, 11, and 14 points, respectively. Democrats took back the state House for the first time in more than a decade and gained control of the state Senate for the first time since 1983. On top of that, Trump-backed congressional candidate John Gibbs lost his bid for a seat by 13 points after successfully primarying freshman GOP Rep. Peter Meijer, who had voted to impeach Trump and belongs to one of Michigan’s wealthiest families.
Meanwhile, urged on by Steve Bannon’s call to take control of the GOP from the bottom up, a new crop of right-wing precinct delegates had gained power after winning many of their races uncontested. The moderates did little to stop them. “It was political malpractice, if I’m being honest, on the part of the establishment for the last 13 years,” says Dennis Lennox, a GOP consultant who is critical of the party’s current direction.
Earlier this year, state party delegates settled on DePerno and Karamo as their favorites for chair. Trump backed DePerno, saying he was the “only candidate running who can get the job done.” But Karamo outorganized DePerno, Lennox says. And unlike DePerno, she’d cemented her election integrity bona fides by never conceding in 2022. She prevailed by 16 points. As Lennox puts it, “The truest of the true believers went with the truest of the believers.”
The result has been predictable disarray. Major donors have stopped giving to the state GOP. The largest individual contribution listed in a recent filing was the $1,776 given by the owner of an Upper Peninsula propane company. Republicans’ traditional headquarters in Lansing has been abandoned; Karamo doesn’t think it’s worth spending $12,000 a month to keep it open. The party’s official address is now a P.O. Box at a UPS store in Grand Rapids.
The internal battles can resemble a Coen brothers caper. In Kalamazoo County, Karamo supporters are suing the local chair, Kelly Sackett, for pushing them out. DePerno is representing Sackett, which he hopes will allow him to question Karamo under oath. Forton, the Macomb chair, says DePerno has been “butthurt” since getting beat by Karamo. In April, the news site Bridge Michigan published a leaked video of Sackett knocking a phone and a cigarette out of the hands of the secretary of the Macomb GOP. The police were called.
Romney Republicans—a once-important faction in the state—have offered withering critiques from the sidelines. “MAGA-on-MAGA violence, fighting over scraps that are basically worthless,” says Jason Watts, who lost his position in the state party and got death threats after criticizing Trump. “Doubling-up on dumb” was how another put it.
Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes finds herself in the unusual position of worrying that the opposition will be seen as so “dysfunctional and crazy” that her own side gets complacent. She stresses that conservative donors will find ways to work and fundraise around their own state party—something that moderate Republican operatives are quick to say as well. There are PACs, super-PACs, and many other places to which the DeVos family and its allies can funnel money. But none of the alternatives can fully replicate a state party, particularly the field operation that will be responsible for turning out voters in 2024.
Watts believes it will take years for the grassroots to realize their approach isn’t working. “I think the actual structure of the Michigan Republican Party needs to burn to the ground for a couple of cycles before we realize that we’re headed down the wrong path,” he says. “That’s a hard lesson to learn, especially when you don’t know what you’re doing.”
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the legislature have already used their newfound power to repeal the “right-to-work” law that sapped unions of members and dues, ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, and require universal background checks for gun purchases. The victories, which have solidified Whitmer’s status as a rising star, may one day be featured in presidential campaign ads. At the congressional level, Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a former CIA analyst whose 2018 victory embodied Democrats’ success among suburban voters turned off by Trump, is clearing the Democratic field in the race to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow. Republicans, meanwhile, are struggling to field a viable candidate.
But Karamo’s supporters still project optimism. They are thrilled to have rid themselves of the RINOs who Forton says represent the “uniparty.” “[For] the first time in history, the grassroots have actually stood up to it all and put in an actual individual who is not one of them,” he says of Karamo. He sees no need to moderate to attract independents and the “well-heeled.”
“No, you be who you are,” Forton argues. “You get out there and you tell the truth.”
When we spoke later in June, Karamo described growing up in the middle-class Michigan that has been decimated by decisions made by both parties. Her grandparents had fled racial violence in the South; her dad was an autoworker, earning enough so that Karamo’s mom could stay home with the kids. The family attended a church steeped in MLK- and Malcolm X–inspired Black liberation theology.
But it didn’t stick with Karamo, who turned right as a teenager. She has cited a 1958 book by Manning Johnson, a Black communist turned anti-communist informant, that argued that white leftists manipulated African Americans into developing a persecution complex as one of the works that has most influenced her thinking.
After finishing college in 2011 and divorcing her husband in 2014, Karamo worked a jumble of jobs to support her two daughters, including doing sales at O’Reilly Auto Parts, teaching an orientation class at a community college, and coordinating events for a trolley company. In 2020, after obtaining a master’s degree in Christian apologetics, a discipline focused on defending the faith against outside objections, she started a Christian podcast called It’s Solid Food. (“Milk is for babies,” read the promo copy. Karamo promised facts that are hard to digest and accept.)
In her monologues, she attacked what she saw as Satan’s hold over pop culture. Her claims later prompted headlines like “Beyoncé, Yoga, Billie Eilish: Trump-Backed Candidate Thinks Everything Is Satanic.” Karamo told me she’d never expected reporters to dig through everything she’d ever said when she started her podcast. Still, she defended herself. She was trying to say that yoga is a Hindu spiritual practice unsuited for followers of Christ. The “post-Enlightenment reality of America is that we secularize so much that’s actually spiritual,” Karamo explained. “People who speak on spiritual things oftentimes do sound crazy because our society is just so secular.”
At the time, Karamo’s political experience mostly came from volunteering with her local party and a failed bid for county office. (She lost the primary by 21 points.) During the 2020 election, she was one of many observers watching the vote count at Detroit’s TCF Center. After claiming to have seen fraud firsthand, she got booked on Fox News. A veteran Michigan elections official who was on-site wrote in an affidavit that it was clear that Karamo and others alleging fraud in Detroit did “not understand absent voter ballot processing and tabulating.” He then thoroughly rebutted each of their points. But the fact-checking had little impact on Karamo’s growing reputation on the right. In less than two years, she went from being an almost complete unknown to the nominee for secretary of state.
Two weeks before last year’s election, Karamo and others sued to try to force people to vote in person or obtain their absentee ballots at the clerk’s office. The lawsuit would have only applied to the voters of overwhelmingly Democratic Detroit. A county judge quickly dismissed the case, writing that the plaintiffs had failed to “produce any shreds of evidence” of voter fraud. In June, he imposed more than $58,000 in sanctions against Karamo and her fellow plaintiffs for bringing the case.
I asked Karamo why her party spent so much time talking about supposed fraud and transgender people instead of focusing on more traditional issues like the economy. “That we want to have a strong economy so people have more money in their pocket? That’s a no-brainer,” she said. “That’s not something I need to convince everybody is important. But I’m being told that men are women. I’m being told that if I ask questions about elections, I’m a threat to national security.”
“This stuff doesn’t make sense,” she continued. “So, what’s driving people is the absurdity. It’s like we’re living in an upside-down world.”
Karamo said she hopes to be a party chair who promotes unity while still respecting the country’s diversity. But she appears increasingly unable to hold even the true believers together. In late June, yet another intraparty feud emerged when state Co-Chair Malinda Pego accused Karamo of hiding key financial information and removing former Budget Committee Chair Matt Johnson without consulting her. After being pushed out, Johnson publicly said that spending is “so far out of proportion with income as to put us on the path to bankruptcy.” Karamo responded by claiming the internal squabbling was distracting them from stopping the “Marxists in Lansing.”
A few weeks later, the police got involved once again after James Chapman, a Wayne County Republican with a long criminal history, tried to gain access to a meeting for members of the state party committee. Mark DeYoung, the head of the Clare County GOP, opened a door after he heard Chapman trying to get in. “He kicked me in my balls as soon as I opened the door,” DeYoung later told the Detroit News. He said from the hospital that he was planning to press charges: Chapman had broken one of DeYoung’s ribs after throwing him into a chair.
On Facebook, DeYoung made a plea for being kind to one another, even when there was disagreement. “No,” replied a local Republican activist who goes by Logger Larry. “No we don’t. I’m not Jesus and I’m not turning the other cheek anymore.”
After the Lincoln Dinner, one of the party’s district committees put on a rally in Big Rapids, a city of 8,000 an hour north of Grand Rapids. On the way into the Mecosta County Fairgrounds, I walked past a pickup with a huge decal across the back of the cab that previewed the theme of the day: “Real Woman by Definition. Nothing Hard About It!”
It was an unusually hot day, and only a few people had gathered around the detached flatbed that was doubling as the stage. As in Macomb, the crowd was almost entirely white. One exception was Michigan GOP Ethnic Vice Chair Bernadette Smith, the Black woman leading the group in a battlelike prayer. “[Jesus] already won the victory for us,” Smith said with fervor. “So, we must execute from the place of authority he has given us…and eradicate this evil agenda that Satan has brought into our world.”
Bree Moeggenberg, the Moms for Liberty–affiliated emcee who took the stage after Smith, had the all-smiles energy of a small-town homecoming queen. But there was menace behind the facade. “I mustacheyou a question,” Moeggenberg asked Nikki Snyder, a member of the state board of education, as she held a fake mustache to her upper lip. “Can you please, in one word, tell me, what makes a woman?”
A woman has a vagina, Snyder said.
What about a man?
“A man is someone who has to tuck it to be considered a woman,” Snyder replied.
Young children sat attentively in front of her. Off to the side, a group of young men who looked like Danny McBride stand-ins—wraparound shades, a mullet of curls, a camo USA baseball jersey—held homemade signs that combined to read, “If you tuck, you suck.”
This was merely a warm-up act for the day’s headliner: Riley Gaines, a former University of Kentucky swimmer touring the country to talk about her experience competing in the NCAA Championships against Lia Thomas, a transgender woman who transitioned during college. Compared to Moeggenberg, Gaines was muted. Parts of her story would likely evoke some sympathy from many independents and even Democrats. But it remained surreal to see how central attacking a small and once largely ignored community had become for an entire party.
Later in the day, I caught up with Pego, who’d taken over the Muskegon County GOP before becoming the state co-chair. During Black History Month last year, Pego, who is white, tried and failed to pass a county resolution honoring William Ellison, a Black enslaver who she said had “set the Example for Attaining Wealth.” Pego laughed when I asked if the state party believed Republicans had really performed poorly in recent elections. “No, most of us are called election deniers,” she replied. “You should know that.”
Pego was joined by Andy Sebolt, the district chair who’d helped put together the rally. He said that in the two decades he’d been involved in the party, there’d rarely been events like the one we were at on that day. “We’re not elites who are going to sit in a room or a high tower. The party is you,” Sebolt said with conviction. “If you want to be a Republican—you believe in these values—come right in the door. We’ll welcome you. One day you could be chair.”
“You’ve just got to open it up to people and let them know, ‘Look, you’re the future. You’re a part of the party. We just work here,’” he continued.
“It can be whatever they want to make it,” Pego interjected excitedly. “It’s supposed to be we the people, for the people, by the people.”
As I headed out, I tried to interview another speaker named Shane Trejo. He said he wasn’t interested in talking. When I looked him up later, I saw that he’d once hosted a neo-Nazi–leaning podcast called Blood Soil and Liberty. His co-host was a member of the white nationalist group Identity Evropa. One episode had been titled “Tanner Flake for Fuhrer,” a reference to a senator’s son who’d posted racist and antigay comments under the screen name “n1–erkiller.”
Trejo had been assigned to speak during the “unity rally” portion of the day. As Pego had made clear, a party could be whatever the people wanted it to be.