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Weekday mornings on Michigan Radio, Doug Tribou hosts NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to news radio program in the country.

MI GOP conference features conspiracies, a stump speech, and final changes to primary process

Kristina Karamo speaks to Michigan Republican Party delegates Saturday, Feb. 18, 2023, in Lansing, Mich. Karamo, who was overwhelmingly defeated in her bid to become Michigan’s secretary of state, was chosen Saturday to lead the state's Republican Party for the next two years.
Joey Cappelletti
The Associated Press
Michigan Republican Party Chair Kristina Karamo hardly mentioned the 2024 election at the party's Mackinac Island leadership conference over the weekend, but in two speeches, Karamo did take time to attack basic tenets of science.

The Michigan Republican Party wrapped up its biennial leadership conference on Mackinac Island Sunday. The event attracted some elected state officials, party loyalists and one presidential candidate.

Party leaders also voted to make a significant change to the Republican primary process in Michigan.

The conference showcased philosophical divisions Republicans are dealing with across the country. Bridge Michigan reporter Jonathan Oosting reported on the conference and he joined Michigan Radio Morning Edition host Doug Tribou to talk about it.

Doug Tribou: The conference is typically a mix of party pep rally, stump speeches, some policy discussions, and some procedural votes. Before we get into the changes coming to the Republican primary, tell us about who attended this year and what the atmosphere was like.

Jonathan Oosting: There were several hundred people there. It was a fair-sized crowd, but not as big as years past when this thing has drawn sometimes two or three thousand. Part of that is, as you mentioned, there was only one presidential candidate this year. Those are usually a very big draw.

This conference was very much the Kristina Karamo show. Karamo is the new chair of the Michigan Republican Party. She was elected to that post in February and has had kind of a rocky tenure so far. But the folks, by and large, who showed up to this conference were not just Donald Trump loyalists. They were Kristina Karamo loyalists.

"The folks, by and large, who showed up to this conference were not just Donald Trump loyalists. They were Kristina Karamo loyalists."
Bridge Michigan reporter Jonathan Oosting

They were people who wanted her to succeed with this conference, so [they] shelled out several hundred dollars, much more if they stayed in the hotel — the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, to come and support Karamo and her vision for the Michigan Republican Party.

DT: Karamo is a divisive figure in the party. She ran for secretary of state last year, lost, never conceded. And she has floated the same types of bogus election fraud conspiracies that we've heard from former President Donald Trump. What was Karamo's message at the conference?

JO: Again, very different from years past where usually you'd have folks talking almost exclusively about how to win in the next or upcoming election. Karamo barely mentioned 2024 and instead she spent a lot of time delving into, as you mentioned, conspiracy theories. The guests she invited to speak included former Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, who lost her race and also refused to concede in 2022.

And Karamo also spent a lot of time attacking science and scientific consensus. So not just some of the stuff we've heard from conservatives or Trump supporters in the past about COVID-19 and vaccines. But Karamo went so far as to attack biological evolution, Darwinian evolution. In two separate speeches, she called evolution a fraud that was kind of a precursor of removing God from society. She got into theological issues, not just political. It was quite unusual.

DT: Jonathan, let's talk about the primary changes that party leaders approved earlier this year. Democratic state legislators, who have the majority in Lansing, voted in favor of moving up Michigan's primary. The idea there being that being earlier in the process would increase Michigan's influence in presidential politics. What did Republicans do over the weekend in response and why did they do it?

JO: Democrats voted to move the primary date. That's not quite official yet, but it seems likely to happen. But they moved it up in a way that violated Republican National Committee rules. They don't want states trying to jump to the front of the line so they have penalties in place if states do that.

Democrats didn't really seem to care much about the Republican rules, so they moved that and Republicans were kind of in a pickle here. Their solution was to create this somewhat controversial hybrid system where they are still going to recognize the results of the public primary, which could occur as early as February 27. And they're going to award part of their delegates for the presidential nominee through that primary.

But most of them, so 39 out of their 55 delegates to the national convention, will be awarded through a new caucus system. They're going to hold 13 separate Congressional District caucus meetings. So these are, you know, think of Iowa but on a smaller scale. Supporters of presidential candidates will have the opportunity to argue in person and then vote on their presidential choice. Basically party insiders are going to have a lot of say in who the state's delegates go to in awarding the presidential nominee in 2024.

"[Republican] Party insiders are going to have a lot of say in who the state's delegates go to in awarding the presidential nominee in 2024."
Bridge Michigan reporter Jonathan Oosting on the primary and caucus rules amended and adopted by Michigan Republicans at the party's leadership conference

DT: Is it fair to say that the change [announced earlier this year and amended and adopted at the conference] really reduces the weight of a typical Republican Michiganders vote in a primary election?

JO: Yeah, definitely. I mean, 16 out of 55 delegates are going to be distributed based on the results of the public primary. The vast majority of them are going to be awarded through this caucus system where only precinct delegates — so folks who have previously won election to an official membership post and the Michigan Republican Party — are going to be able to vote in these caucuses.

So these are folks, many of whom were at this conference this weekend: the diehards, the loyalists, for the most part, very adamant Trump supporters. A lot of experts I've talked to suggest they think this is really going to help Trump, who, of course, is already up in the polls but is even more popular with this sort of core group of grassroots Republicans who have taken over the state party in recent years.

DT: We mentioned earlier in the conversation that one presidential candidate did attend the conference on Mackinac Island. That was Vivek Ramaswamy, the entrepreneur originally from Ohio. What did he have to say, Jonathan?

JO: One big Trump supporter there who was very impressed with his speech, complimented it by calling it "very Trumpy." Ramaswamy is younger, he's 38 years old, and is a very eloquent public speaker. He talks a lot about what he calls the "woke industrial complex." You know, stuff you hear other Republicans talking about, but [he] sort of packages it in a shiny package that people really seem to eat up.

That said, a lot of the folks there who I talked to said I really liked his speech. But, you know, Trump is still their first choice. So Ramaswamy, you know, seems to be going for the Trump crowd. But of course, his problem in the primary is going to be he has to get past Trump himself. Some Trump supporters I talked to said they'd like to see him as a possible running mate for Trump. Of course, Mike Pence will not be Donald Trump's running mate if he's the general election nominee again this year.

DT: And all of this, [heading into] a week when both former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden are expected [to make stops] here in Michigan.

Jonathan, thanks a lot.

JO: Thanks for having me.

Further reading: "Trump World lands on Mackinac as Michigan GOP sets presidential caucus plan" by Jonathan Oosting for Bridge Michigan.

Editor's note: Quotes in this article have been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the full interview near the top of this page.

Doug Tribou joined the Michigan Public staff as the host of Morning Edition in 2016. Doug first moved to Michigan in 2015 when he was awarded a Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Caoilinn Goss is the producer for Morning Edition. She started at Michigan Public during the summer of 2023.
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