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Could the G.O.P. Beat Whitmer in Michigan? Party Chaos Has Hurt Its Possibilities.


PONTIAC, Mich. — “Dear Mr. President,” the letter began.

Donald J. Trump’s estranged former education secretary, Betsy DeVos — last seen attempting to remove him from office using the twenty fifth Amendment after the Capitol riot — took pen in hand the opposite day to plead with him to look past Michigan’s no-holds-barred Republican infighting and side along with her powerful political family’s selection for governor.

“I hear that some have implied that my family and I are working against you in Michigan,” Ms. DeVos wrote in looping cursive on personal stationery. “That’s fake news. Those telling you which might be doing so for their very own personal gain.”

She added that her preferred candidate, Tudor Dixon, a former conservative media personality, was “the just one who can stand toe to toe with ‘that woman from Michigan’” — Mr. Trump’s sobriquet for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat whom Republicans desperately wish to topple.

“Your support of Tudor could make the winning difference!” Ms. DeVos closed her Wednesday letter. “Very sincerely, Betsy.”

The letter worked, to an extent: Late Friday, Mr. Trump issued an Eleventh-hour endorsement of Ms. Dixon ahead of Tuesday’s primary. But it surely also highlighted what has been the fiercest, bitterest and potentially most consequential Republican infighting within the country.

For much of the spring and summer, Ms. DeVos and her billionaire relatives — essentially the most influential Republican family in Michigan — have been at war with Mr. Trump’s followers within the state, selecting different sides in consequential primaries for the state Legislature and endorsements on the state party’s convention.

The previous president’s late nod within the governor’s race only compounded the confusion and heightened the suspense about what his followers would do on Primary Day. Just the day before the endorsement, eight of his chosen down-ballot candidates sent him an open letter urging him to not do political business with the DeVos family.

The open hostilities have emboldened an ascendant grass roots wing of Michigan Republicans who’re dedicated to Mr. Trump and his agenda. And his endorsement will test the degree to which the previous president has the wherewithal to guide them.

All told, Republicans are at risk of bungling what earlier this 12 months seemed to be a promising opportunity to oust Ms. Whitmer. The party’s strongest two candidates were jettisoned from the ballot due to a signature-forgery blunder. The resulting field, other than the untested Ms. Dixon, includes one candidate facing misdemeanor charges related to the Capitol riot and one other dogged by years-old lawsuits over allegations that he made racist and sexually explicit comments to employees.

Key Themes From the 2022 Midterm Elections So Far

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The state of the midterms. We at the moment are over halfway through this 12 months’s midterm primary season, and a few key ideas and questions have begun to emerge. Here’s a take a look at what we’ve learned up to now:

At the identical time, Michigan Republicans have elevated two Trump-endorsed election deniers to run for attorney general and secretary of state — key posts overseeing the election machinery in an important 2024 presidential battleground state.

And the weak candidates and intraparty chaos have presented Democrats — who’re aided by a recent state legislative map drawn for the primary time by an independent commission — with an actual opportunity to win control of the State Senate for the primary time in 40 years.

That Ms. DeVos felt compelled to appeal to Mr. Trump as if Jan. 6 had never happened was a measure of how bad things had gotten.

A serious funder of Mr. Trump’s two presidential campaigns, the family was solid out by the Republican base after Ms. DeVos committed the apostasy of in search of to remove Mr. Trump from office over the Capitol riot, arguing that he was now not fit to serve. Ms. DeVos has said her entreaty was rejected by Vice President Mike Pence, and he or she resigned the day after the assault.

In Michigan, Mr. Trump and the DeVos family have backed opposing candidates in seven Republican primaries for state legislative seats. (Mr. Trump has endorsed 11 such candidates in all, greater than in another state.)

Endorsing Ms. Dixon on Friday night, he took credit for her campaign’s success — which he attributed to his shout-out to her during an April rally in Michigan, a moment she memorialized in her campaign’s TV ads. “Her campaign took off like a rocket ship,” he said.

Jase Bolger, a former speaker of the Michigan House who’s allied with the DeVos family, said the state’s Trump loyalists had tried to “drive a wedge between Republicans,” adding, “They must watch out because otherwise they may very well be helping Democrats.”

The down-ballot G.O.P. primaries in Michigan are emblematic of skirmishes across the country, where Trump-inspired insurgents are vying to wrest control from Republican power brokers who’ve long controlled purse strings and nominations.

Candidates endorsed by Mr. Trump won primaries for governor in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Maryland, while the G.O.P. establishment prevailed in Georgia and Nebraska. Similar Republican showdowns will unfold in primaries for governor on Tuesday in Arizona and on Aug. 9 in Wisconsin.

“Within the state of Michigan, especially within the Republican Party, it’s fractured,” said Garrett Soldano, a chiropractor and leading Republican candidate for governor who entered politics by organizing opposition to Ms. Whitmer’s pandemic mitigation efforts in 2020. “We now have the old guard, the establishment, the DeVos empire which might be putting their thumb on the size. And we have now ‘we the people,’ these grass roots folks which might be standing up.”

However the Republican strife has national Democrats newly optimistic about taking control of the State Senate for the primary time in generations.

“There’s no higher state legislative opportunity in America than the Michigan Senate,” said Daniel L. Squadron, a former Recent York state senator who leads the States Project, a Democratic group focused on winning state legislative chambers. “What we’re seeing within the primaries is just how deeply Trumpism and the Big Lie has infected the Republican Party.”

For a long time, the DeVos family has been synonymous with Republican politics in Michigan. Ms. DeVos has twice been the chairwoman of the state Republican Party, and her husband, Dick DeVos, was the party’s nominee for governor in 2006.

The family, which founded and still runs the Amway multilevel marketing company, has given not less than $23 million to Republican candidates, political motion committees and conservative causes within the state since 2015, in accordance with an evaluation by Progress Michigan, a liberal organization.

In almost any recent election, a Michigan Republican would use an endorsement from the DeVoses as a badge of honor and a catapult to fund-raising success. But Ms. Dixon’s rivals have attacked her for associating with the family, and he or she has found herself explaining that she doesn’t agree with Ms. DeVos about Mr. Trump’s actions on Jan. 6, 2021.

“I’ve come out publicly and said that in that case, we don’t agree,” Ms. Dixon said in an interview, adding of the family: “They’re supporting what I would like to do for the state. It’s not that I’m supporting what they’ve done prior to now.”

Her rivals haven’t found that explanation sufficient.

Recent debates have devolved right into a DeVos family pile-on. This past week, Mr. Soldano turned to Ms. Dixon and said the DeVoses “desired to implement the twenty fifth Amendment against President Trump — they abandoned President Trump.”

On Wednesday in Pontiac, Ms. Dixon got here under fire from Kevin Rinke, a self-funding candidate and former automobile dealer who’s running television ads saying that Ms. Dixon “has taken tens of millions from the identical billionaires who tried to remove Trump from office.”

“The reality hurts,” Mr. Rinke said. “Fess up.”

Gustavo Portela, a spokesman for the Michigan Republican Party, said in an interview that the party was not anxious concerning the fractious nature of the primaries and that “at the tip of the day, folks are going to get together, and so they’re going to do every part possible to elect a Republican this fall.”

The 4 leading Republican candidates for governor, including Ms. Dixon, have all fostered doubts concerning the 2020 election final result and say they’re staunch allies of Mr. Trump. During a May debate, three said he was the true winner in Michigan (he lost by 154,000 votes), while Mr. Rinke said that fraud had occurred but that he wasn’t sure if it was enough to tip the election. (There isn’t a evidence of widespread fraud.)

One candidate, Ryan Kelley, an actual estate agent, has sought to parlay notoriety from being charged with 4 misdemeanors for his actions on the Capitol on Jan. 6 into momentum for his campaign. Voters, he argued in an interview, are “sick of this revolt charade.”

An excellent PAC funded by the DeVos family and backing Ms. Dixon has also bashed Mr. Rinke, calling him “simply unelectable” in a TV ad. It recalls two lawsuits from the early Nineties during which he was accused of gender and age discrimination and of using sexually explicit and racist language toward his employees.

Mr. Rinke settled the cases and, in an interview, said the accusations were “absolutely false.”

The G.O.P. primary was never presupposed to be this contentious.

Heading into this 12 months, Republicans had made Ms. Whitmer’s office a chief goal.

Party insiders looked to 2 top recruits — James Craig, a former Detroit police chief, and Perry Johnson, a wealthy businessman — to contend for the nomination. But each didn’t qualify for the ballot after contractors for his or her campaigns submitted petitions with forged signatures.

The DeVos wing of the party took major losses in April when, on the Michigan G.O.P.’s endorsement convention, delegates elevated two Trump-backed candidates, Matthew DePerno and Kristina Karamo, for attorney general and secretary of state. Each have said the 2020 election was stolen, and neither has received support from the DeVoses.

Ms. Whitmer appears to be more resilient than expected months ago. Her approval rating was 55 percent in a July survey conducted for The Detroit News. Amongst independent voters, 61 percent approved of Ms. Whitmer, compared with just 33 percent for President Biden, the poll found.

An identical uncertainty has settled over the State Senate. Though Republicans currently hold a 22-to-16 advantage within the chamber, recent maps have upended the party’s grip; Ms. Whitmer would have carried 23 of 38 districts in 2018.

In a single district just south of Detroit, a Republican candidate named James Chapman attended election-denial protests on the State Capitol in 2020, including one where he held a brunette doll hanging by a noose.

After months of intense political conflict, some candidates showed no signs of détente, even after Mr. Trump backed Ms. Dixon.

“From what I learn about President Trump, he likes winners,” Mr. Soldano said in an announcement late Friday in response to the previous president’s endorsement. “I stay up for his support on Aug. 3.”

Michael C. Bender contributed reporting.

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