The problems began with the governor's race. Surprisingly, no top Republican ran for governor. The GOP actually has a decent bench, but most seem unwilling to run for any race that is less than a sure thing. There are former statewide office holders (Miller, Cox, Land, Schuette, Johnson), congressmen (Hoekstra, Camp, Rogers, Trott, Huizenga, Moolenaar, McClain), and state senators, almost all of whom would have been better than anyone who ran this year.
The nominal front-runner was former Detroit police chief James Craig, but he seemed unwilling to actually campaign and was unable to secure his own campaign launch against protesters. Without a strong front-runner, a bunch of lightweights, nuts, and random rich dudes entered the race, resulting in an absurd 10-candidate field.
Anyone running for governor needs a large number of signatures, and voters are not allowed to sign for more than one candidate. It was obviously impossible for all the candidates to get legitimate signatures, and many turned to crooked signature collection firms, who took their money in exchange for fake signatures. Five of the ten candidates were disqualified, including Craig and self-proclaimed "quality guru" Perry Johnson. Shady political consultant John Yob had the non-distinction of working for both Craig and Johnson while failing to get either of them on the ballot.
Most of the remaining five candidates spent much of the primary seeking Donald Trump's endorsement. This led to them embracing the Stop the Steal election conspiracies, which were poison in the general election. The best of the bunch was probably Tudor Dixon, who eventually got support from both Trump and the DeVos family, and won the primary. It isn't clear why rich car dealer Kevin Rinke never caught on with major party insiders. The fact that January 6 rioter Ryan Kelley, who was arrested mid-campaign, was taken seriously as a candidate says a lot about how out of touch with reality some primary voters were.
After winning the primary in August, Dixon was broke. Somehow, she was never able to turn grassroots anger at Governor Whitmer into substantial fundraising. Major funders on the right didn't see her as viable, and mostly avoided donating to her. Meanwhile, Whitmer had been raising tens of millions of dollars. She used it to hammer Dixon on abortion and Stop the Steal. Dixon was mostly unable to respond, and her campaign had no clear message. A few late polls showed the race close, but this turned out to be a mirage, and Dixon lost by over 10%.
Meanwhile, the AG and SOS nominees were selected by GOP precinct delegates, unofficially at an endorsement convention in April and officially at a convention in August. Traditionally, GOP delegates are a good mix of establishment Republicans and grassroots activists who carefully vetted candidates and had a history of picking strong nominees. Over the past few years, however, these positions have increasingly been taken by Trump-loving MAGA types who knew little about what it takes to win a general election.
Most of these activists embraced 2020 election conspiracies that inspired the Stop the Steal movement. These lies have been repeatedly been debunked, both by me and by serious Republican elected officials. However, there was no reasoning with the MAGA crowd, who believed Trump and refused to listen to evidence to the contrary.
Trump endorsed the most fringe candidates for both AG and SOS. For AG, he went with Matt DePerno, a trail lawyer of no distinction. DePerno has been involved in many ethical controversies, and is under criminal investigation related to the Stop the Steal investigation of voting machines. He had no history of involvement with the conservative movement prior to the Stop the Steal movement. He raised a bunch of money from gullible MAGA voters, and of course didn't Stop the Steal.
For SOS, Trump endorsed Kristina Karamo, a low-level GOP activist who teaches a "welcome to college" class at a community college. She had absolutely no qualifications for running elections. It appears that Karamo's website was never updated after the endorsement convention. It features endorsements from Trump, General Flynn, and a bunch of R county chairs and precinct delegates. Karamo appeared to limit her campaign to Republicans, ignoring swing voters. She refused to meet with the (mildly conservative) Detroit News, which later endorsed her opponent. She also filed a lawsuit the week before the election to halt the count of Detroit absentee ballots, which was laughed out of court. Karamo lost by almost 14%.
The trouble continued in the 3rd congressional district, where Trump endorsed John Gibbs over Peter Meijer, who had voted for impeachment. Gibbs had no ties to the district, and had made a bunch of impolitic statements that played poorly in a district that was gerrymandered to favor democrats. The other R candidates for congress in competitive seats performed respectably. John James won a narrow victory, Tom Barrett did as well as could be expected, and Paul Junge was a respectable candidate in a district where no top R candidates ran.
The legislative caucuses seemed to do reasonably well with the hand they were dealt. The redistricting commission gerrymandered the maps to help the democrats, but even with the disaster at the top of the ticket, dems only won one seat more than 50% in both chambers. When there is a close loss, it is easy to speculate that another candidate would have done better. However, none of the candidates in competitive seats were obvious disasters.
Speaking of the redistricting commission, the GOP failed to stop it from passing in 2018, and seemed to not even try. Its effort to influence the commission was unfocused, mostly just telling activists to give whatever opinion they wanted. Meanwhile, the dems gave their activists clear talking points that were repeated again and again. Fixing the commission should be a top goal of the GOP in the future.
That brings us to the Michigan GOP itself. The chair is currently Ron Weiser, a businessman who has led the party in the 2010, 2018, and 2022 cycles. Weiser has had some success at fundraising (particularly when he writes the checks himself) but by now it seems clear that he isn't a good leader. Back in 2010, the August convention overseen by Weiser was a fiasco, as the party botching the credentialing process led to an hour-long line half way around the Breslin Center. The vice-chair of the Michigan GOP is Meshawn Maddock, the wife of MAGA state rep Matt Maddock. Her main contribution seems to be to occasionally make inflammatory comments.
While the election results in 2010 were excellent, the same can't be said for 2018 or 2022. It can be difficult to evaluate the performance of a state party, since there are many factors other than its actions that contribute to victory or defeat. One area where the state party absolutely be involved is vetting candidates. In a 2022 special election, the GOP nominated Robert Regan, who had expressed many controversial opinions, including that the war in Ukraine wasn't real. This came out shortly after the primary, presumably due to democrat opposition research. Regan lost an otherwise safe seat, and made it harder for Republicans to win the redrawn district in November. While the Michigan GOP should not attempt to pick a winner in every race, it should vet candidates and attempt to expose any crooks or cranks before they lose any more winnable seats.
The Michigan GOP has a choice. It could continue to embrace conspiracy nonsense and use MAGA messaging that only speaks to the activist base. Or it can face reality and appeal to winnable voters with a conservative platform that speaks to their concerns. A test of which direction the party will choose will come at the next Michigan GOP convention in February, which will elect the new party leadership. Matt DePerno is already running for Michigan GOP chair, and James Craig and Tudor Dixon are considering the race. Someone better is needed to turn the party around.