The mutiny took hold on Mackinac Island.
The Michigan Republican Party’s revered two-day policy and politics gathering, the Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference, was an utter mess.
Attendance had plummeted. Top-tier presidential candidates skipped the September event, and some speakers didn’t show. Guests were baffled by a scoring system that rated their ideology on a scale, from a true conservative to a so-called RINO, or Republican in name only.
And the state party, already deeply in debt, had taken out a $110,000 loan to pay the keynote speaker, Jim Caviezel, an actor who has built an ardent following among the far right after starring in a hit movie this summer about child sex trafficking. The loan came from a trust tied to the wife of the party’s executive director, according to party records.
For some Michigan Republicans, it was the final straw for a chaotic state party leadership that has been plagued by mounting financial problems, lackluster fund-raising, secretive meetings and persistent infighting. Blame has centered on the fiery chairwoman, Kristina Karamo, who skyrocketed to the top of the state party through a combative brand of election denialism but has failed to make good on her promises for new fund-raising sources and armies of activists.
This month, the internal dissension has erupted into an attempt to oust Ms. Karamo, which, if successful, would be the first removal of a leader of the Michigan Republican Party in decades. Nearly 40 members of the Michigan Republican Party’s state committee called for a meeting in late December to explore forcing out Ms. Karamo. Just before Christmas, Malinda Pego, Ms. Karamo’s running mate for state party chair and the co-chair of the committee, signed onto that effort, in an ominous sign for the embattled chairwoman. And on Thursday, eight of the 13 Republican congressional district party chairs asked Ms. Karamo to resign in a joint letter, pleading with her to “put an end to the chaos” by stepping down.
But that meeting has now been delayed, with no definite date on the calendar. Ms. Karamo has vowed to fight back, railing against the effort as illegitimate.
The pitched battle for control of the state party in a pre-eminent presidential battleground is the most extreme example of conflicts brewing in state Republican parties across the country. Once dominated largely by moneyed establishment donors and their allies, many state parties have been taken over by grass-roots Republican activists energized by former President Donald J. Trump and his broadsides against the legitimacy of elections.
These activists, now holding positions of state and local power, have elevated others who share their views, prioritizing election denialism over experience and credentials.
The result has been fund-raising problems and division. The Republican Party of Arizona spent much of this year in debt.
The Republican Party of Georgia has had similar difficulties, mostly caused by legal fees related to efforts to subvert the 2020 election. The state’s governor, Brian Kemp, a rare G.O.P. leader to buck Mr. Trump, had been forced to form his own political apparatus outside the state party for his re-election campaign in 2022. The leaders of the party in both states have aligned themselves with the election-denial movement.
Veterans of Republican politics say that state parties play vital roles in winning elections, acting as a clearinghouse for distributing large donations from national groups unfamiliar with local terrain and offering discounts on expensive campaign costs like mail. They help identify potential candidates and winnable races. They are a font of the kinds of activists and volunteers critical to powering statewide campaigns. And they raise money.
All of that is at risk in places like Michigan.
“It takes people doing the shoe-leather kind of things in campaigns on top of the money, and that’s where I think that Michigan is going to be hampered,” said Jeff Timmer, a former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party. “You can’t replace everything with money. Some things still take people on top of it, and they can’t buy mercenaries to do that.”
That could have a significant impact in Michigan, where recent polling has shown Mr. Trump with only a slim lead over President Biden and where, in 2022, a Democratic wave swept over the state.
But before the state Republican Party can help try to flip the state red, it must clear out its debt, which stood around $620,000 as of early December, according to bank records released in a report by state Republicans targeting Ms. Karamo. The party will have to raise money on its own simply to pay down its ledger.
The precarious finances have left national Republicans uneasy about giving money to the state party for election-related activity, worrying that it would simply be put toward the debt, according to two people familiar with the Republican National Committee’s deliberations.
Republican state legislators are growing frustrated.
“The Michigan Republican Party is on the verge of imploding; I have more money in my campaign account than the state party has in its,” State Representative Mark Tisdel said at a town-hall meeting in December. “Sooner or later, the creditors are going to come calling.”
Ms. Karamo did not respond to requests for comment, but she released a letter two days before Christmas proclaiming that “we will not be deterred” and denouncing the “infighting.”
“These deceptive and underhanded endeavors endanger the Michigan G.O.P.’s drive toward victory in 2024,” she wrote. “They also disrupt the determination of the Republican men and women who are working tirelessly to win the spiritual war being fought on a cultural battlefield.”
Daniel Hartman, a lawyer for the Michigan Republican Party, described the effort to remove Ms. Karamo as “about approximately 15 agitators,” adding that “another 15 people out of 120 are committee members who have been opposing the administration from Day 1.”
The party’s rules, he added, do not allow for the removal of any officer unless 50 percent of the state party’s delegates sign a petition requesting a vote and 75 percent of the state committee votes to remove the officer.
The Republican National Committee declined to answer questions about the Michigan G.O.P.
With major donors fleeing, Ms. Karamo pitched a new direction for the state party: trying to persuade nearly 500,000 small-business owners in Michigan, who she claimed were right-leaning, to contribute $10 to $50 every month. After a “60-day infrastructure ramp-up time,” she projected that the party would raise as much as $60 million annually.
It did not.
By July, the party had less than $150,000 in the bank. Under siege, the state party leadership began to hold meetings in private. A meeting that month devolved into a fistfight that broke a county chairman’s dentures and left him with stress fractures in his spine, The Detroit News reported.
Ms. Karamo soon began expelling dissident party officials. Vice chairs began complaining in the news media that they felt sidelined. Two members of the budget committee resigned out of fear of liability, according to the report compiled by anti-Karamo Republicans. And she dissolved the party’s conflict-resolution committee.
The tumultuous Mackinac gathering left Michigan Republicans even more alienated.
“They scored us as being solid Republican — a one, two, three or a four — and a number four being a RINO,” said Pete Hoekstra, a former ambassador to the Netherlands during the Trump administration and a former Republican congressman from Michigan. “We’re supposed to be building a party, not dividing a party into our own categories.”
By November, Ms. Karamo was trying to sell the party’s former headquarters, a building blocks from the State Capitol in Lansing that had been paid for by two wealthy donors. Ms. Karamo and the state party do not own the building; it is owned by a trust controlled by former state party chairs.
Ms. Karamo had vacated the headquarters months earlier, arguing that its maintenance fees were an unnecessary cost. When she left, Ms. Karamo allowed the electricity to be shut off, which released the building’s electronic locks and left it open to the public, according to the report from Republicans opposed to the chairwoman.
The report’s main author, Warren Carpenter, is a local Republican leader and a former Karamo ally. With the help of a former state attorney general, he compiled the 140-page document, titled “The Failed Leadership of the Karamo Administration.”. The New York Times obtained a copy of the report.
The report details favors by Ms. Karamo to political allies, such as paying nearly $90,000 to a business run by the man who nominated her as chairwoman; sloppy bookkeeping; and the party’s mounting debt.
Soon, prominent county chairs were urging Ms. Karamo’s removal.
Mark Forton, the chair of the Macomb County Republican Party, who had been a key force in Ms. Karamo’s rise, called in late November for “a complete change in leadership” in a letter to the state committee that was obtained by The Times.
In early December, Vance Patrick, the chair of the Oakland County Republican Party, the largest county party organization in the state, encouraged her removal, citing “a new controversy every week, distracting from the important business of organizing the party to win elections.”
Mr. Carpenter said in an interview that he had enough votes to oust Ms. Karamo, but that he and like-minded Republicans were proceeding cautiously out of a belief that she might sue.
At the same time, anti-Karamo Republicans are looking for a new leader. One person floated is Mr. Hoekstra, who said that he was not considering such a move “until there’s an opening,” but that he had indicated a “clear willingness over the last few months to help the party out.”
“To win in Michigan, you need Republicans, you need independents, and you have to draw Democrats,” he said, pointing to Mr. Trump’s coalition in 2016, when he won the state by about 10,000 votes. “We need everybody to feel welcome into the party.”
Many of Ms. Karamo’s former allies, meanwhile, feel disillusioned.
“Ladies and gentlemen, there is no way that we can observe the happenings of the last nine months and defend this administration by using comments like ‘inexperience,’ or ‘incompetence,’” Mr. Forton wrote in his November letter. “Simply put, we have been had.”
Kitty Bennett contributed research.