Once moderate, Michigan GOP embraces right wing

LANSING (AP) — Josh Venable, a longtime Michigan GOP operative and chief of staff to former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, can trace the arc of the state’s Republican Party clearly.

“This was the state where to be Republican was defined by Gerald Ford and George Romney,” Venable said, referring to the moderate former president and former governor.

Now, he said, it’s defined by Mike Shirkey, the state Senate majority leader who was overheard calling the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot a “hoax”; Meshawn Maddock, the new co-chair of the state party who backed former President Donald Trump’s false claims of voter fraud; and the Proud Boys.

While the state has swung back to Democrats since Trump’s narrow 2016 win, choosing President Joe Biden by more than 150,000 votes, Michigan’s Republican Party has taken a hard right turn.

Its own Capitol in Lansing was the rallying point in April for armed Michigan Liberty Militia protesting pandemic restrictions, including some members who were later charged with plotting to kidnap Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

The rightward lurch has altered the GOP’s image to one unrecognizable to its pragmatic 20th century standard-bearers, and the direction of the state party here could be an exemplar of other Midwestern battleground states.

The move to more hard-line, extreme views in Michigan came into clearer view Wednesday when it became known that Trump devotees, no longer content with the GOP as their political home, had filed a petition with the state elections board to form a new Patriot Party.

Decades in the making, and punctuated loudly by Trump’s 2016 win, Michigan’s drift from the GOP’s center has prompted departures from traditional conservatives and retribution against moderates.

It’s ominous for a party that suffered defeat statewide in 2018 and 2020 and where some Republicans worry it has cost the party credibility in a place long viewed as a bulwark of Midwestern common sense.

The shift is rooted in a combination of economic dislocation caused by staggering job losses in the manufacturing sector and a cultural shift further to the right on issues like guns and abortion.

The state’s economy was suffering even before the Great Recession, which only fomented working class discontent.

From 2000 to 2010, Michigan had shed more than a million jobs, more than any state, most of them in manufacturing. Many were in the automotive industry in larger metro areas. But single-factory small towns to the north also were flattened, as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the globalization it represented sparked losses that ballooned with the 2008 economic crash.

“All these things were a catalyst,” said Ken Sikkema, a former Michigan GOP Senate leader whose Grand Rapids district lost 5,000 jobs with three plant closures just before the 2008 crash.

“This building resentment that people just didn’t agree economically or culturally with the direction percolated and exploded,” Sikkema said.

Traditional conservatives like Paul Mitchell and others were casualties. Mitchell, who retired from the U.S. House after two terms representing working-class eastern Michigan, later quit the GOP and assigned responsibility for the Jan. 6 riot to Trump, for whom he voted twice.

Michigan’s two Republican congressional moderates, Fred Upton and Peter Meijer,

See GOP page 3A

have been censured by county party committees for voting to impeach Trump.

On Tuesday, the GOP committee in Cass County, Upton’s home, sided with Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia over Upton, who voted with Democrats this month to strip Greene of her committee assignments for suggesting, among other debunked theories, that mass school shootings were false flags.

“In their resolution, they stated that ‘her comments have not been out of line with anyone else’s comments,'” Upton, a 34-year incumbent, posted on Twitter on Wednesday about the Cass County GOP. “Really?”

Meijer, elected last year, said the party will continue to lose supporters if they celebrate and encourage its hard-right elements.


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