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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Alice Herman

The Michigan Republican party is already in chaos. What will the week bring?

A group of mostly young, mostly white and Arab protesters wearing winter gear hold white and red signs saying 'Ceasefire now!' and 'Abandon Biden.'
Protesters rally for a ceasefire in Warren, Michigan, on 1 February 2024. Photograph: Rebecca Cook/Reuters

Michigan is holding its presidential primaries on Tuesday, with campaigns by pro-Palestine activists to abandon Joe Biden and factional chaos in the state Republican party defining an otherwise sleepy election day.

There’s little drama in predicting the winners: Biden and Donald Trump are expected to romp in their respective races. But the dynamics of the contests hint at the deep divisions within the Democratic and Republican camps as the nationally unpopular candidates prepare to square off in a presidential general election rematch this fall.

Neither candidate is popular statewide. Only 17% of respondents in a January poll commissioned by the Detroit News said they believed Biden deserved a second term in office, while 33% said the same about Trump. When asked whether they would support Trump or Biden in the general, respondents favored Trump by 8 points.

Neither candidate faces much opposition in their respective primaries. Trump’s only serious foe is the former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, whom he just beat by a wide margin in her home-state primary on Saturday.

Biden’s greatest threat isn’t a candidate, but a movement: activists have launched a coordinated campaign to withhold votes from Biden to protest against his support for Israel’s war in Gaza. If they are successful, their efforts could embarrass him in the critical swing state – which has one of the largest Arab American communities in the country.

They are furious at Biden for his unwavering support for Israel’s military operations in Gaza, which has killed more than 29,000 people.

Eyeing this primary as an opportunity to pressure the president to revise his position on the war, a coalition of activists are calling on Democratic voters to select “uncommitted” on their ballot. The Listen to Michigan campaign, which activists launched in early February, has gained traction among some prominent political figures on the left, including the progressive former congressman Andy Levin and the US representative Rashida Tlaib, whose sister is spearheading the campaign.

“President Biden needs every vote he can get if he’s going to prevent Donald Trump and his white supremacist buddies from taking the White House again,” said Abbas Alawieh, a spokesperson for the Listen to Michigan campaign and the former chief of staff for the Missouri congresswoman Cori Bush. “Our votes on February 27 for ‘uncommitted’ hopefully will be a reminder of that.”

It’s not the first time Michigan Democrats have rallied around the “uncommitted” vote. In 2008, the Michigan Democratic party generated outrage by moving their primary to 15 January, shaking up the presidential primary order and prompting most candidates to drop out in protest. With Hillary Clinton as the only real contender on the ballot, a movement to vote “uncommitted” took hold. Nearly 40% of voters chose “uncommitted”, an embarrassment for Clinton and an early win for former president Barack Obama’s campaign.

In the 2012 Michigan Democratic primary, nearly 21,000 people voted “uncommitted” instead of for Obama – more than 10% of the total votes cast.

Alawieh argued that one metric for measuring the campaign’s success would be 10,000 people casting their votes as “uncommitted”, given that Trump won the state by roughly that margin in 2016.

“If we see that at least that many people vote for ‘uncommitted’, I think that sends a very, very strong message,” said Alawieh.


On the Republican side, a very different kind of split has driven the state party into feuding factions – making an already logistically complicated election even more confusing.

Trump is expected to beat Haley definitively in Tuesday’s primary. The primary margins and turnout will be telling, however – especially in traditionally Republican areas that have shifted away from the GOP during the Trump era, like parts of western Michigan and Detroit’s more upscale suburbs.

But the real chaos isn’t for the primary – it’s for the state convention that is scheduled a few days later. Or, to be more precise, the state party conventions: right now, two warring factions have scheduled their own meetings, and it’s not totally clear which meeting’s delegates will count towards the presidential nomination.

The Michigan Republican party is holding a separate caucus on 2 March to comply with Republican National Committee rules after Michigan’s Democrat-controlled state legislature moved the state’s primary date earlier than the RNC permitted. The winner of Tuesday’s primary will earn only 30% of the state’s delegates – party activists who vote at the Republican national convention to nominate the presidential candidate – while 70% will be chosen at a state party convention on Saturday.

Chaos within the state party has further complicated that plan.

In early January, a group of party activists held an election to oust the former Michigan GOP chairwoman, Kristina Karamo, accusing the fervent conspiracy theorist of mismanaging the state party’s finances. They later voted to replace her with Pete Hoekstra, a former congressman and Trump’s former US ambassador to the Netherlands. On 14 February, the Republican National Committee declared their support for Hoekstra, recognizing him as the official state party chair.

Karamo has continued to claim she is the rightful chair of the party despite what the RNC says, and is forging ahead with her own plans for a party convention on Saturday near Detroit even as Hoekstra plans one in Grand Rapids, a few hours away.

“The political oligarchy within the Republican party has done everything possible to destroy me,” Karamo said in a podcast released just days after the RNC officially recognized Hoekstra’s leadership on 14 February.

Given the national party’s support for Hoekstra, it’s unlikely Karamo’s convention will carry any official weight. But the courts may have something to say about that.

On the same day voters head to the polls on Tuesday, the dueling factions will see each other in Kent county district court. Karamo’s opponents are asking a judge to determine whether she was properly removed from office, in hopes that a legal finding will push her to step down, allow them to seize control of the party’s finances and confirm that Hoekstra’s convention is the official one.

All that drama is overshadowing the primary.

“A good strong showing for Trump with a high turnout in key areas will bolster the Republican party if they can pull it off,” said Ken Kollman, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan. “But they’re riven by pretty deep splits right now.”

• This article was amended on 26 February 2024. An earlier subheading misnamed Kristina Karamo as Karina Karamo.

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