Chaos, Unity, But Still Trouble, at the Michigan GOP Convention

At the 2022 Michigan Republican Convention, I was sitting in the guest section to observe the Macomb County delegate controversy. Those of us who rushed in to get seats quickly had our view obstructed by people who arrived later and stood in front of us, so the staff moved them to the back and asked us to push our chairs up. 

The chairs were all tied together, so the most effective strategy would have been to coordinate all of us to pull them forward at the same time. Instead, everyone pulled in the same direction but at different times and with different amounts of force, the product of a mob of people, whose fates were joined together, all trying to do the same task in different ways. This, I thought, was a perfect metaphor for the state of the Michigan GOP.

The convention, which was supposed to begin at 10 a.m. on Saturday and end by 12:30 p.m., went on for four hours longer than it was supposed to because of the aforementioned controversy over who were the legitimate delegates from the Macomb Country Republican Party.

At the center of the controversy were Mark Forton and Eric Castiglia. Back in April, Forton, who is dedicated to the continued influence of former President Donald Trump in the GOP, was ousted as the county party’s chairman. He and his supporters held an event to appoint delegates earlier in August as a response to the county convention headed by Castiglia, the Macomb group’s new chairman, who is more of an establishment type.

Michigan GOP chair Ron Weiser recognized Castiglia’s delegates and credentialed them for Saturday’s convention, leaving Forton’s group feeling cheated. Forton brought his supporters as guests to the convention, where they heckled Weiser and convinced recognized delegates outside of Macomb to raise a “point of order” to decide which slate was legitimate.

Delegates raised and debated the objection at about 10:45, leading Weiser to call for a floor vote to resolve the controversy 15 minutes later. Voting would take nearly two hours, ending just before 1 p.m. with the convention deciding to replace Castiglia’s delegates with Forton’s. Weiser then called for a 30-minute recess to credential Forton’s people, which ended up taking almost an hour and a half. By 2:30, with Forton’s delegates situated, the convention proceeded to its official business. 

Attorney General nominee Matt DePerno took the stage to endorse Shane Hernandez, whom gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon picked for the lieutenant governor nomination.

Forton’s delegates taking the place of Castiglia’s could have had serious implications for this slot on the ballot. Though Dixon chose Hernandez to be her running mate after she won the nomination for governor, Ralph Rebandt, who finished in last place in that race, planned to challenge Hernandez. Rebandt supported the Forton faction in Macomb, he told me, and the feeling among the previously jilted delegates was apparently mutual.

Weiser began the vote for lieutenant governor, which was to occur via secret paper ballot. That method added even more time to the already prolonged convention, leaving attendees awaiting the results with bated breath.

After two hours, the vote finally ended with Shane Hernandez winning over 77% percent of the delegates, defeating Rebandt in a landslide. After that whole rigamarole with Macomb, the Republican Party ballot had not changed.

With the convention officially concluding just before 5 p.m., the conflict resolution that took place over the extra four hours appeared to be an exercise in futility. But that mood was entirely different when the attendees began the “Red Wave Party” on the Capitol lawn an hour later.

Despite the previous ill will, there was a feeling of unity, and, with the GOP nominees set, excitement. The same Weiser who received boos in the morning walked entered the stage with cheers in the evening. “Our intraparty problems are now on hold,” he declared.

Throughout the night, candidates for various Michigan offices addressed and energized the crowd. The climax of the rally consisted of speeches from Dixon and Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin, a special guest. Though Dixon had previously come off to me as bland and uncharismatic, she had a new vigor to her campaigning.

The most inspiring, however, was Youngkin. He served as a beacon of hope, proving that blue-leaning states such as Virginia and Michigan could swing to the right if Republicans campaigned with the right strategy. His presence was a sign that the Michigan GOP knew what they had to do to beat Governor Gretchen Whitmer and her allies in lower offices.

Youngkin was able to unite the various factions in the Republican Party – the old-guard Reaganites, the MAGA types, and the new populists – toward the common goal of defeating Democratic encroachment. In doing so, he refused to discard Trump’s influence but did not embrace his flaws either.

There was also a recognition that, though polls look grim for Dixon now, Youngkin was able to succeed in Virginia amid similar predictions around this time last year. For the first time, this election cycle, there was hope that Michigan would be able to ride the red wave.

But there’s still the abortion of it all. Attend an event of almost any interest group or non-profit and there is almost sure to be jubilation over the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, which erased the stain of Roe v. Wade from American jurisprudence.

At the convention, however, joy from the triumphant victory over Roe was nowhere to be found. By my count, no speaker even said the word “abortion,” and “pro-life” was uttered only twice. Republicans know that abortion is a losing issue for them, especially in bluish swing states like Michigan.

The Michigan GOP obviously wants to focus on “kitchen table issues,” as Youngkin put it, such as the economy, public safety, and education. Gaining Republican wins in these realms of our political debate is important, no doubt, but Michigan Democrats have succeeded thus far at making the 2022 midterms a referendum on abortion, making the Republican strategy untenable.

With a radical abortion referendum on the ballot and Whitmer’s allies advertising even to children Dixon’s view that there should be “no exceptions” in the cases of rape and incest, the issue looms heavily over the coming fight against the incumbent governor.

Republicans nationwide are learning that they need to be prudent on the issue. While they should acknowledge that the ultimate goal is total protection for unborn babies, they need to make progress where they can, which may include settling for a 15- or 6-week prohibition while they do more persuasive work. However, given that most Michiganders are aware of her “no exceptions” comments, this strategy is no longer viable for Dixon. Walking her views back would make her look cowardly or untrustworthy. 

Her only choice is to face the abortion issue head-on, which she is capable of doing in a compelling way. When I interviewed her for National Review over the summer, she told me a heart-wrenching story about her experience with a miscarriage, illustrating the humanity of the unborn. This case will be far more appealing to voters than claiming that, in cases of rape, “out of that tragedy, there was healing through that baby.”

Dixon and other Republicans showed hope at the convention that they have a blueprint to defeat Whitmer and her allies. If they can tighten up their rhetoric on abortion and stay true to the Youngkin model, they will be able not only to ride the 2022 red wave but also to build upon the historic victory for the pro-life movement that the Supreme Court handed down in June.

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About Charles Hilu

Charles Hilu was editor in chief of the Michigan Review. He is currently the Intercollegiate Studies Institute fellow at the Washington Free Beacon.