Internal tumult affects Republicans in Michigan with U.S. presidential poll ahead

The Michigan Republican Party is in turmoil, raising fears among some Republicans that support for Trump’s re-election bid could suffer in a battleground state that Biden won by 2.8 percentage points in 2020

March 02, 2024 08:00 am | Updated 08:00 am IST - MOUNT PLEASANT, Michigan

Michigan Republican Bree Moeggenberg interacts with two children in her home day-care, in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, U.S. File

Michigan Republican Bree Moeggenberg interacts with two children in her home day-care, in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, U.S. File | Photo Credit: Reuters

A threat of duelling party conventions to choose a presidential nominee this weekend. Accusations of adultery, corruption and incompetence. A barrage of social media attacks and a police investigation.

The Michigan Republican Party is in turmoil, raising fears among some Republicans that support for former President Donald Trump's re-election bid could suffer in a battleground state that Democratic President Joe Biden won by 2.8 percentage points in 2020.

The fight to oust Kristina Karamo, elected as Republican party chair in Michigan last year, has become increasingly bitter and personal, leaving deep divisions in the local party, according to three dozen party members who spoke to Reuters.

At the centre of that battle is Bree Moeggenberg. The 44-year-old member of the Republican state committee — a governing board for the party in Michigan — helped organise a January 6 vote by some committee members to remove Ms. Karamo.

Ms. Moeggenberg and others blame Ms. Karamo — a fiery grassroots activist who backs Mr. Trump's false claims of election fraud — for stifling dissent within the party, a lack of transparency in decision-making, and driving away wealthy donors.

The Republican National Committee — which helps to coordinate the party's fundraising and election strategy across America — ruled in February that Ms. Karamo's removal was legitimate and recognised Pete Hoekstra, ambassador to the Netherlands during Mr. Trump's presidency, as the new chair. Mr. Trump has thrown his support behind Mr. Hoekstra.

Ms. Karamo has contested the vote and the rival factions have announced duelling conventions on Saturday to choose a presidential nominee and award delegates to the party's national convention in July.

Ms. Karamo retains a loyal following among a contingent of the party's roughly 2,000 precinct delegates and its 107-person state committee, but a court ruling this week affirming her removal as chair has put her convention and future with the party in doubt.

Among Republican activists, the fighting has become personal. Several Karamo supporters and anonymous online trolls have, without evidence, accused Ms. Moeggenberg of having an affair with a married man, Andy Sebolt, another state committee member.

Both Ms. Moeggenberg and Mr. Sebolt deny the allegations. Ms. Moeggenberg has accused Ms. Karamo and her supporters of character assassination. "Such destructive behaviour has been a core cause of division in the party," she told Reuters.

Ms. Karamo's signature was on an official email newsletter in January that directed party members to a Telegram messaging chatroom with a series of anonymous posts repeating the adultery allegations, some uploaded days before the crucial party vote.

Ms. Karamo did not respond to a request for comment on the adultery allegations and intra-party strife.

A number of the three dozen party members in Michigan who spoke to Reuters expressed concern that the acrimony risked leaving Republican activists disillusioned and less likely to volunteer or vote. Among the disenchanted are many grass-roots donors Ms. Karamo courted with promises of breaking the party's reliance on the moneyed elite.

Daniel Harrington, 62, who wrote two $1,776 checks last year in support of Ms. Karamo, says he won't be donating to the party or helping it get out the vote in November if she is ousted. As precinct delegate, he was planning to participate in Ms. Karamo's convention in Detroit.

"We're upset with Trump, absolutely," said Mr. Harrington, who voted for the former president in 2016 and 2020 but was angry at how he abandoned Ms. Karamo. "I'd like to send a message wherever the convention is going to be to not elect Trump."

A conservative, Mr. Harrington said he would probably still vote for Mr. Trump in November, if given the choice of him and Democratic President Joe Biden. Mr. Trump won Michigan's primary convincingly on Tuesday, securing 12 of 16 delegates up for grabs. The remaining 39 of Michigan's 55 delegates are due to be allocated on Saturday.

The impact of the turmoil within the party has already hit campaign coffers. Donations into a state-level account came to just under $20,000 from the start of Ms. Karamo's tenure to the end of 2023, down sharply from $690,000 during the same period four years earlier, according to a Reuters review of filings.

Contributions to the state party's federal account also suffered, with reported fundraising totaling about $900,000 last year, down from about $1.5 million four years earlier in 2019.

Personal divisions

The tensions in Michigan are driven as much by personal animus as any ideology. Ms. Karamo and her supporters describe "establishment" Republicans — those aligned with business interests and traditional donors — as corrupt, and tend to be very conservative in their policy beliefs. The members backing Mr. Hoekstra are also conservative but told Reuters they are willing to work with wealthy donors. They accuse Ms. Karamo of incompetence.

"We're so very fractured," said Kelly Sackett, one of two people from the rival factions claiming to be the party chair in Kalamazoo County, where a battle for control has been playing out in courtrooms and police reports. "I don't see it all coming back together."

A judge in Kent County, Michigan on Tuesday issued a preliminary injunction saying that Ms. Karamo was properly removed and preventing her from representing herself as chair of the party in Michigan. On Thursday, a three-judge panel of the Michigan Court of Appeals denied Ms. Karamo's request to suspend Tuesday's ruling while it weighs her ongoing appeal.

Despite the rulings, Ms. Karamo has yet to call off Saturday's planned convention in Detroit. Mr. Hoekstra has convened a meeting the same day in Grand Rapids, confident his delegates will be recognised at the national convention in July.

No stranger to controversy

Ms. Moeggenberg, a single mother of three who runs a daycare at her home, is no stranger to controversy. She was until recently chair of the Isabella County chapter of Moms for Liberty, a conservative nonprofit that fought COVID-era mask mandates and teaching about LGBT rights.

When Mr. Sebolt's wife Jennifer first messaged her privately on Facebook last June accusing her of sleeping with her husband, a tense exchange ensued.

Ms. Jennifer told Reuters she was also upset with her husband for working with Ms. Moeggenberg and others to undermine Ms. Karamo, who she supports. Ms. Jennifer did not provide evidence of an affair.

In July, as Ms. Moeggenberg ramped up pressure on Ms. Karamo, Charles Ritchard, a backer of the embattled chair, started attacking Ms. Moeggenberg and Mr. Sebolt with Facebook posts containing sexual innuendo and unsubstantiated claims of corruption.

Mr. Ritchard told Reuters he targeted Ms. Moeggenberg because she was pressuring others in her district to move against Ms. Karamo.

Following an adultery complaint submitted by Mr. Sebolt’s wife, the state police opened an investigation that prosecutors in both Oceana and Isabella counties declined to pursue, citing a lack of evidence and jurisdictional issues, according to a letter from the Oceana prosecutor on October 9 and police report dated October 10, reviewed by Reuters.

In November, Ms. Jennifer nonetheless went public with adultery allegations against her husband, posting them on Facebook. Other Karamo supporters piled in.

Mr. Hoekstra said he was confident the party would come together to back Mr. Trump and work towards winning a U.S. Senate seat up for grabs in November after the Democratic incumbent announced she would not run. Mr. Hoekstra told Reuters he has spoken with several big donors ready to write checks for the party, once leadership has changed. He did not identify the donors.

Penny Swan, a precinct delegate from the city of Hillsdale, is less sanguine about the party's prospects.

"Our party is too involved in this turmoil and the fight within the party to do what we're supposed to be doing: helping candidates and fundraising," said Penny Swan, a precinct delegate from the city of Hillsdale. "I am absolutely worried."

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