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Michigan GOP 'crossing the Rubicon' after U.S. Capitol chaos


Riley Beggin Melissa Nann Burke Christine Ferretti   | The Detroit News

The assault on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump marked the climax of months of partisan tensions prompted, in part, by the president's unproven insistence on widespread voter fraud, culminating in a historic second impeachment vote against him. 

The storming of the building last week was denounced by all Democrats and most Republicans, but it represented — for some conservatives — the pinnacle of years of growing tensions on the political right that, if not addressed, could result in turmoil in the Michigan and national Republican parties.

Republicans find themselves at a crossroads, party insiders and analysts tell The Detroit News: Find a way for Trump loyalists and traditional conservatives to coexist peacefully or splinter into new political parties that compete for the affections of conservatives and independents. 

"This is without a doubt, in my experience of three decades of Republican politics, the greatest moment of choosing that we’ve ever had," said Greg McNeilly, chief operating officer of the Windquest Group and former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party under then-Chairwoman Betsy DeVos.

"The party has had challenges ... but this one could not be a brighter line. It’s the literal crossing of the Rubicon. People need to stand on one side or the other. And where the majority of party chooses to stand will dictate whether or not it should survive or be relished to the trash heap of history.” 

McNeilly's concern is echoed by many in the party who view the hundreds who stormed the Capitol as victims of party leaders unwilling to stand for the truth, and the 147 House Republicans who voted to overturn the results shortly afterward as dangerously weak or delusional.

While all members of Michigan's congressional delegation have condemned last week's violence, the state's Republican members were split on the aftermath, including whether the president is to blame for the rioters and whether to invalidate Electoral College votes on the basis of unfounded allegations of fraud.  

Three members — Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Watersmeet; Rep. Lisa McClain, R-Bruce Township, and Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton — voted to challenge or invalidate Electoral College votes for Democratic President-elect Joe Biden, while others openly condemned them. 

On Wednesday, House members voted on whether to impeach the president for a second time — this time for inciting violence last week — further highlighting the divide. Republican U.S. Reps. Fred Upton of St. Joseph and Peter Meijer of Grand Rapids Township sided with Democrats on trying to remove Trump from office.

'A moment of reckoning'

Meijer wrote in a weekend commentary that the people who encouraged the fraud rumors that eventually led to a mob overtaking the Capitol are "in too deep." 

"This should be a moment of reckoning for the country as a whole, and the conservative movement in particular," he wrote. "If the Republican Party ever hopes to regain the public’s trust and lead the country forward after this heinous assault, it must first be honest with itself."

Democrats, too, see a fateful moment for their opponents. Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes said "they're going to have to figure out how they deal with those folks and what their response to that behavior is."

Trump's speech encouraging the storming of the Capitol "should be the moment that folks rise up and say: Not in our party. No more," Barnes said. 

"I'm hoping that the Republicans will see the light on that and step forward and sort of bring themselves back towards normalcy.”

The GOP dilemma

Trump brought new voters into the party that may not have supported Republicans before, in part because he painted himself as an outsider who challenged conventional politicians of both parties. The frustrations that the American people have harbored over an "unjust" political system have been building for decades, said David Dudenhoefer, chair for the 13th Congressional District Republican Committee. 

"What we watched (Wednesday) was not a speech. It wasn't about election results," said Dudenhoefer, whose district covers parts of Wayne County. 

"Those were two elements that might have lit the keg, but I think what you saw was deep anger, resentment and frustration at a government that millions of Americans feel no longer serves them."

The resentment boils as traditional Republicans have watched the party they joined slip out of their control. Two former Michigan Republicans — ex-U.S. Reps. Justin Amash and Paul Mitchell — defected from the party in the past year and a half over disagreements with the president and GOP officials. 

Mitchell, who was part of House GOP leadership, left the party last month, expressing “disgust” that senior leaders failed to tell the president in strong terms that he had lost the election. Instead, they parroted his “stop the steal” rhetoric.

“There’s some of my former colleagues that I will never be able to look straight in the eye,” he said. “They should know better.”

McClain, the freshman congresswoman from Macomb County who voted against certifying certain states' results, told The News it's time for both political parties to "focus on the issues" such as the economy, immigration and health care.

"I don't think disagreement is a bad thing. I value your opinion, and I think part of the issue is that people's voices need to be heard without belittling them and throwing mud at them," she said.

Still, McClain said she's concerned that "we can do better as Americans in giving people (an electoral) process in which they can trust." But said she can tell her constituents: "We followed due process. We tried everything. We lost — in my mind, it's done and over with."

Battles over leadership

National Republicans reelected Michigan's Ronna Romney McDaniel to lead the Republican National Committee over the weekend. State Republicans are poised to elect Ron Weiser, former U.S. ambassador to Slovakia who is now a University of Michigan regent, along with co-chair Meshawn Maddock, one of the leaders of the Michigan Conservative Coalition and a Trump loyalist.

Maddock helped to organize transportation for Michiganians to last week's protest in Washington.

Weiser, 75, and Maddock, 53, are running unopposed after party Chairwoman Laura Cox, another Trump loyalist, bowed out of the race.  

The alliance — described by political pundit Bill Ballenger as “strange bedfellows” — is considered a way to stabilize the Michigan party by appealing to traditional Republicans who trust Weiser and newer GOP rank-and-file members who trust Maddock, bringing them under the same political tent.

But some Republicans have called on Weiser to drop Maddock, arguing her association with the protest and vocal support for election fraud allegations is too divisive. The pair have made clear their plan won't change. 

“I wouldn’t write a check to the state party if she was in the leadership if I had all the money in the world. That’s the not the right direction for the state party,” said former U.S. Rep. Dave Trott, a Birmingham Republican and millionaire who retired from Congress in 2018.

“If Meshawn is going to be the future of our party, then the Democrats are going to control everything in Michigan for a long time.”

In response to a request for comment, Maddock said via text: "I urge all Trump supporters who are upset with the election to stand against violence and not allow what happened last week in Washington, D.C., to ever happen again."

"The actions of those who stormed the Capitol were wrong and hurt the President and his legacy. Violence is never the answer," she continued. "My goal is to convince the millions of new voters who voted for President Trump to keep voting Republican so we can defeat the Democrats in 2022."

Is tea party a model?

The tea party movement showed how an upstart faction of the party could influence policies by folding into the party without blowing it up, said John Truscott, CEO of public relations firm Truscott Rossman and former press secretary to Republican Gov. John Engler.

"It resulted in many years of success," Truscott said. "That would be the model that the party has to follow. We can’t turn things over to what we’re seeing out there now. I think most normal people would agree that there’s an air of insanity out there.”

Mitchell said until there's a wholesale change in leadership and a reaffirmation of traditional Republican principles, "I'm done. I can't deal with it."

"I believe without the change I've talked about, we need a third party," he said. "Because what we have is terribly damaged. Terribly damaged.”

Where to go from here

There isn't a viable political party for former Republicans to exert their influence. Mitchell calls himself an independent. Amash joined the Libertarian Party but didn't run for reelection.

"I joked with someone the other day, but probably we need to have Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party coming back and have a third party come around, but that's not gonna happen anytime soon," Trott said.

Analysts disagreed on whether Trump and his allies would remain the GOP's thought leaders or whether traditional Republicans would again ascend to leadership.

McNeilly suggested those who “create fantasy worlds” start their own third party, but said there’s room in the party for Trump supporters who aren’t mired in QAnon "nonsense,” which he says may die off as Trump leaves office. QAnon is the far-right conspiracy theory based on the unfounded belief that Trump is fighting a secret war against the "deep state" and child traffickers. 

“The party is essentially a three-legged stool: Grassroots, elected officials, and major donors,” he said. “There’s a natural tension between them. There always has been. ... In order for a party to be successful and to thrive, you have to have all three legs on that stool, and they all three need to be solid.”

The Republican Party wants to grow, and that will inevitably mean welcoming Trump’s base, said Wayne Bradley, managing partner of American Urban Strategies and the former African American engagement director for the Michigan Republican Party.

But there’s plenty of other groups the party can and should be drawing in, he added, including young people and people of color.

“We’re going to have to look at those kinds of measures to really cement ourselves back in these communities and have that kind of reach,” Bradley said. “They have to be willing to take that step and invest in these kind of projects.”

But the root causes of last week’s upheaval won't go away on their own, said Vic Fitz, the prosecutor in Cass County and chairman of the Republican's 6th District committee.

He said both Democrats and Republicans need to recognize a large portion of the country doesn't believe the election was honest, and that's concerning. 

"Whether it's perceived or actual, that needs to be addressed," he said. 

Last week's attempted insurrection, however, doesn't put the party in the same place of crisis it faced after the Watergate scandal, said Ballenger, the pundit and former Republican state lawmaker. With two years to prepare for the next round of congressional races, "there's plenty of time for the political landscape to shift and change," he said. 

The outstanding question, however, will be what role Trump will play in party politics. 

Trump's base "may be willing to accept the absence of Trump, but they'll still be aggrieved and embittered" about what they perceive to be elites running the Democratic Party, Ballenger said. Meanwhile, disaffected moderate Republicans will be searching for a political home. 

If the party can win over both, "then they'd have the best of both worlds," Ballenger said. "That's what the Republican Party has got to try to do, and that's a very tough thing to do."

rbeggin@detroitnews.com

mburke@detroitnews.com