When the newcomers started flooding into local Republican Party meetings across Michigan in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election, it didn’t seem like a bad thing to Richard Houskamp. The 67-year-old entrepreneur had spent his entire adult life volunteering for the party and was glad to see people getting enthusiastically involved for the first time.
But the new arrivals – all of them fervent loyalists of ousted president Donald Trump – quickly took control of the state GOP. They ejected or sidelined long-time organizers. And they refocused the party’s raison d’être on pushing the lie that the 2020 election had been the subject of mass fraud.
“Have you ever read Treasure Island? It was like that. When they came aboard, they seemed great. But then they started a mutiny,” Mr. Houskamp recounted one fall afternoon at the offices of the software company he runs, overlooking a pond on the outskirts of Grand Rapids, the state’s second-largest city. “They are a band of pirates.”
The plot twists within the Michigan GOP certainly rival those of a 19th-century novel. The party chair is a conspiracy theorist who believes yoga is a satanic ritual. Meetings have sometimes devolved into fist fights amid a power struggle between multiple factions of Trump supporters. An exodus of donors has left the coffers bare.
All of it is unfolding in a key swing state less than a year before a hotly contested presidential election. “These folks are not Republicans. They are an angry mob and they have commandeered the party,” Mr. Houskamp said. “We lost the election. We lost it fair and square.”
Around the U.S., the most loyal members of the MAGA movement have taken over Republican organizations by showing up en masse to grassroots meetings. They have branded those insufficiently loyal to the former president as “RINOs” – Republican in Name Only. Much of this movement has been driven by Steve Bannon, the Trump adviser and podcast host, who refers to it as the “precinct strategy.”
In Michigan, MAGA activists cemented their control earlier this year by installing Kristina Karamo as the state party’s chair. After rising to fame as a 2020 poll watcher who claimed that ballot boxes had been illegally stuffed for the Democrats, Ms. Karamo ran for Michigan secretary of state last year and lost by double digits.
On her Christian-themed podcast, she has condemned yoga as a ritual designed to “summon a demon,” accused Beyoncé of promoting “paganism” and mused about demonic possession. She has also spoken at a QAnon conference.
Ms. Karamo’s turbulent tenure has been marked by non-stop infighting, pitting multiple groups of Trump supporters against each other and the few remaining anti-MAGA organizers. After she purged critics from party posts last month, dozens of members of the party’s central committee began organizing a drive to oust her from office.
At times, the drama has devolved into physical violence. In April, a loyalist of Ms. Karamo’s got into a fight on a bar patio with a backer of Matt DePerno, a fellow election denier who ran against Ms. Karamo for chair and faces criminal charges for tampering with a voting machine. Video of the altercation shows the two party organizers slapping each other in the face.
In July, one party activist was arrested for kicking another in the crotch and body-slamming him into a chair during a round of fisticuffs outside a state executive committee meeting.
Jason Cabel Roe was one of the early casualties of the MAGA takeover. Hired in early 2021 as the Michigan GOP’s executive director, the veteran political strategist angered Mr. Trump’s supporters by telling a reporter that the 2020 election “wasn’t stolen.” That summer, following protests against him outside party headquarters, Mr. Roe says the party’s leadership asked him to accept a demotion to placate the activists.
“I grabbed a banker’s box, threw my things in it and walked out,” he recounted over breakfast at a diner in the Detroit suburbs.
To Mr. Roe, the soap opera is an enormous opportunity cost. Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s labour agenda, which has made it easier to form unions and has hiked pay for government contractors, should theoretically be helping Republicans win over corporate donors. Instead, the chaos has driven them away.
“Business is now running into our arms. Meanwhile, we’re behaving like insane people and giving them every reason to leave,” he said. The lack of contributions has left the party in a financial abyss: From a bank account balance of almost US$2-million at the start of the year, the party was down to just US$35,000 by August.
Even the party’s headquarters is in dispute. Ms. Karamo decided that the Michigan GOP’s base of operations, a Lansing building owned by a group of donors, was too expensive, so she moved her operations into a rented office. The office was closed when The Globe and Mail visited one weekday this fall, and Ms. Karamo did not respond to a request for comment.
Some party organizers simply seem resigned to working with the election deniers.
Scott Greenlee, a Lansing political consultant, ran unsuccessfully against Ms. Karamo and Mr. DePerno for party chair as the de facto candidate of the party establishment. But he is careful not to answer directly when asked if President Joe Biden’s election victory was fraudulent.
“There has been fraud in every election we’ve ever had,” he said. “We don’t need to relitigate something that happened 3½ years ago.”
Whomever the party nominates next year – whether Mr. Trump or someone else – he says all Republicans will have to get behind that candidate. “We’ve got to do a better job of not fighting each other.”
Others say they are not particularly concerned about the former president’s ability to win.
“The question is: Are people willing to put up with mean tweets but be able to afford groceries?” said Andrew Beeler, a 31-year-old Republican state legislator who described Mr. Trump as “easily the best president of my lifetime.”
Last year, he signed a letter urging Michigan’s Attorney-General to investigate whether Democrats had stuffed ballot boxes. “We ought to take election integrity very seriously,” he said.
Mr. Houskamp, meanwhile, says he tried to work with MAGA organizers for a time, but many were more interested in litigating internecine disputes than doing the heavy lifting in general elections. When he asked for help canvassing voters during the 2022 midterms, they told him, “We don’t do that. We just go to meetings.”
This lack of hustle, however, didn’t apply when it came time to wrest control of the party apparatus in Grand Rapids, a Dutch-influenced city of early-20th-century office buildings and clapboard houses along the Grand River, with a metropolitan population of just over a million.
For months, Mr. Houskamp recounted, MAGA organizers held recruitment events to find like-minded precinct delegates. Then, the night before a key local party meeting, they met privately at a church to co-ordinate strategy. The next day, those running for party leadership positions wore armbands to identify themselves and let the faithful know whom to vote for. The gambit worked.
Now, Mr. Houskamp is putting his faith in efforts by some Republicans to organize outside the party apparatus. Former GOP governor Rick Snyder, who voted for Mr. Biden in 2020, has set up a campaign fund with Matt Hall, the Republican leader in the lower chamber of the state legislature. The idea is to pull together money to support specific candidates without involving Ms. Karamo.
“There’s a shadow party right now,” said Mr. Houskamp, whose office is full of Republican memorabilia, from a photo with Condoleezza Rice to a talking George W. Bush action figure. “The real Republicans will come out of this fine.”