Michigan Republicans are anxious about 2024 as the party recovers from a disappointing midterm and struggles to find a way to reset in a key battleground state.
As Democrats look to expand on their 2022 victories with Rep. Elissa Slotkin (Mich.) announcing her campaign for the state’s open Senate seat in 2024, Republicans in the state find themselves playing defense up and down the ballot.
Republicans’ chief concerns lie with the new state party Chairwoman Kristina Karamo, a controversial election denier who refused to concede her race for Michigan secretary of state in 2022. Her GOP critics argue she will likely have an adverse effect on the party’s bid to make a comeback in the state next year.
“The crazies have taken over the asylum,” said Dennis Lennox, a Michigan Republican strategist. “… To her credit, she defeated the Trump-backed candidate, but this is somebody who in her head believes she is the legitimate secretary of state in Michigan.”
Karamo was elected as party chairwoman last month, defeating 10 other candidates including Trump-backed former attorney general candidate Matthew DePerno. Some Michigan Republicans say they are taking a “wait-and-see attitude” with how Karamo could impact the ballot next year.
“There’s a cautious optimism with regard to how she may run the party, what kind of infrastructure will she put together, how the donors will react,” said Saul Anuzis, a GOP strategist and former Michigan Republican Party chairman. “Most people are cautiously supportive and optimistic but at the same time concerned not knowing how it’s going to pan out.”
The state could present a major pickup opportunity for Republicans, with longtime Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) retiring. After Stabenow announced she would not seek reelection last month, the National Republican Senatorial Committee said it planned to “aggressively target” the seat next year.
The committee responded to Slotkin’s campaign launch earlier this week by calling her “a liberal politician with some serious ethical baggage.”
However, it’s unclear who on the GOP side will run for the seat. So far, names that have been floated include former Rep. Peter Meijer, who was defeated in a primary after voting to impeach former President Trump; Rep. Lisa McClain; Rep. Bill Huizenga; state Sen. Ruth Johnson; former Rep. Mike Rogers; and businessman Kevin Rinke, who lost his primary campaign for governor last year.
Michigan Republicans are also expressing concerns that Democratic headwinds coupled with the ultraconservative nature of the state party and grassroots are giving potential candidates pause.
“Elissa Slotkin seems to be effectively clearing the field and so here we have this great pickup opportunity in a very purple state and I think one of the concerns that’s keeping top-tier candidates out is the state of the party here in Michigan,” said Jason Cabel Roe, a GOP strategist and former executive director of Michigan’s Republican Party.
On top of that, Republicans have been facing electoral headwinds in the state’s Senate races for decades now. The last time a Republican won a Senate seat in Michigan was in 1994, when former Sen. Spencer Abraham took the seat. He was the first Republican in the state to win a Senate race since 1972.
The state’s down-ballot races are also expected to be impacted by what will certainly be increased turnout in a presidential year.
“In many ways, a Republican cannot win the U.S. Senate race in 2024 without Michigan being a competitive presidential battleground state,” Lennox said.
President Biden won Michigan in 2020 by just under 3 points.
Last year, Republicans saw losses up and down the ballot in Michigan, with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who was once viewed as one of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents, leading the charge from the top of the ticket.
The GOP’s gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon was viewed as a weak candidate, a story that played out for Republicans across the country. In Michigan, Democrats regained control of both state legislative chambers for the first time in 40 years, while Whitmer and the Democratic incumbents for lieutenant governor, state attorney general and secretary of state also won reelection.
“The top of the ticket led to a lot of issues down ballot,” said one Michigan GOP strategist.
However, the same strategist said there is reason for Michigan Republicans to be optimistic, particularly in House races, pointing to Rep. John James (R-Mich.) outperforming Dixon.
“Strong candidates down ballot did overperform at the top of the ticket,” the strategist said.
“Just because of the state party chair doesn’t mean we can’t win races,” the strategist added, noting that there is already optimism about the possibility of former Michigan state Sen. Tom Barrett (R), who lost to Slotkin by a little more than 5 points, running again in the district.
Ultimately, Republicans say candidate recruitment and a quality message can play a major role going forward, if the candidates are approved by the state’s GOP primary electorate.
“We feel good about flipping a lot of stuff in Michigan, it’s just a matter of getting out that message about electability, which will be tough, but I feel confident we can do it,” the strategist said. “At this point, I don’t think there’s anywhere to go but up.”