A handwritten letter from Betsy DeVos, last seen trying to remove Donald Trump from office, elicited an 11th-hour endorsement. But is that enough to make peace among Michigan’s warring Republicans?
PONTIAC, Mich. — “Dear Mr. President,” the letter began.
Donald J. Trump’s estranged former education secretary, Betsy DeVos — last seen trying to remove him from office using the 25th Amendment after the Capitol riot — took pen in hand the other day to plead with him to look past Michigan’s no-holds-barred Republican infighting and side with her powerful political family’s choice 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 is fake news. Those telling you that are doing so for their own personal gain.”
She added that her preferred candidate, Tudor Dixon, a former conservative media personality, was “the only 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 want to topple.
“Your support of Tudor can 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 11th-hour endorsement of Ms. Dixon ahead of Tuesday’s primary. But it also highlighted what has been the fiercest, bitterest and potentially most consequential Republican infighting in the country.
For much of the spring and summer, Ms. DeVos and her billionaire relatives — the most influential Republican family in Michigan — have been at war with Mr. Trump’s followers in the state, choosing different sides in consequential primaries for the state Legislature and endorsements at the state party’s convention.
The former president’s late nod in 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 not to do political business with the DeVos family.
The open hostilities have emboldened an ascendant grass roots wing of Michigan Republicans who are devoted to Mr. Trump and his agenda. And his endorsement will test the degree to which the former president has the wherewithal to lead them.
All told, Republicans are in danger of bungling what earlier this year appeared to be a promising opportunity to oust Ms. Whitmer. The party’s strongest two candidates were jettisoned from the ballot because of a signature-forgery blunder. The resulting field, aside from the untested Ms. Dixon, includes one candidate facing misdemeanor charges related to the Capitol riot and another 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
At the same 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 a vital 2024 presidential battleground state.
And the weak candidates and intraparty chaos have presented Democrats — who are aided by a new state legislative map drawn for the first time by an independent commission — with a real opportunity to win control of the State Senate for the first 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 major funder of Mr. Trump’s two presidential campaigns, the family was cast out by the Republican base after Ms. DeVos committed the apostasy of seeking to remove Mr. Trump from office over the Capitol riot, arguing that he was no longer fit to serve. Ms. DeVos has said her entreaty was rejected by Vice President Mike Pence, and 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, more than in any other 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.
A Republican proxy battle
Jase Bolger, a former speaker of the Michigan House who is allied with the DeVos family, said the state’s Trump loyalists had tried to “drive a wedge between Republicans,” adding, “They have to be careful because otherwise they could 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 have 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.
“In the state of Michigan, especially in 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 have the old guard, the establishment, the DeVos empire that are putting their thumb on the scale. And we have ‘we the people,’ these grass roots folks that are standing up.”
But the Republican strife has national Democrats newly optimistic about taking control of the State Senate for the first time in generations.
“There’s no better state legislative opportunity in America than the Michigan Senate,” said Daniel L. Squadron, a former New York state senator who leads the States Project, a Democratic group focused on winning state legislative chambers. “What we’re seeing in the primaries is just how deeply Trumpism and the Big Lie has infected the Republican Party.”
‘They abandoned President Trump’
For decades, 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 at least $23 million to Republican candidates, political action committees and conservative causes in the state since 2015, according to an analysis 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 she has found herself explaining that she does not 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 want to do for the state. It’s not that I’m supporting what they’ve done in the past.”
Her rivals have not found that explanation sufficient.
Recent debates have devolved into a DeVos family pile-on. This past week, Mr. Soldano turned to Ms. Dixon and said the DeVoses “wanted to implement the 25th Amendment against President Trump — they abandoned President Trump.”
On Wednesday in Pontiac, Ms. Dixon came under fire from Kevin Rinke, a self-funding candidate and former car dealer who is running television ads saying that Ms. Dixon “has taken millions from the same billionaires who tried to remove Trump from office.”
“The truth hurts,” Mr. Rinke said. “Fess up.”
Gustavo Portela, a spokesman for the Michigan Republican Party, said in an interview that the party was not worried about the fractious nature of the primaries and that “at the end of the day, folks are going to get together, and they’re going to do everything possible to elect a Republican this fall.”
The four leading Republican candidates for governor, including Ms. Dixon, have all fostered doubts about the 2020 election outcome and say they are staunch allies of Mr. Trump. During a May debate, three said he was the real 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 is no evidence of widespread fraud.)
One candidate, Ryan Kelley, a real estate agent, has sought to parlay notoriety from being charged with four misdemeanors for his actions at the Capitol on Jan. 6 into momentum for his campaign. Voters, he argued in an interview, are “sick of this insurrection charade.”
A super 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 1990s in 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.”
Setbacks and surprises
The G.O.P. primary was never supposed to be this contentious.
Heading into this year, Republicans had made Ms. Whitmer’s office a prime target.
Party insiders looked to two top recruits — James Craig, a former Detroit police chief, and Perry Johnson, a wealthy businessman — to contend for the nomination. But both failed to qualify for the ballot after contractors for their campaigns submitted petitions with forged signatures.
The DeVos wing of the party took major losses in April when, at 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. Both 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. Among independent voters, 61 percent approved of Ms. Whitmer, compared with just 33 percent for President Biden, the poll found.
A similar uncertainty has settled over the State Senate. Though Republicans currently hold a 22-to-16 advantage in the chamber, new maps have upended the party’s grip; Ms. Whitmer would have carried 23 of 38 districts in 2018.
In one district just south of Detroit, a Republican candidate named James Chapman attended election-denial protests at 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 know about President Trump, he likes winners,” Mr. Soldano said in a statement late Friday in response to the former president’s endorsement. “I look forward to his support on Aug. 3.”
Michael C. Bender contributed reporting.