Swing state Republican parties are engulfed in turmoil ahead of 2024

Republican parties in three battleground states are navigating turbulence that has many in the GOP concerned that the discord and dysfunction will jeopardize their candidates up and down the ballot in critical races this fall.

In Michigan, Nevada and Florida — three states that will feature competitive presidential and Senate contests — state parties have been gripped with leadership strife in recent weeks. In Florida, the GOP chairman was ousted after facing a rape accusation. In Nevada, the top two state party officials have been indicted for their alleged role as “fake electors” for former President Donald Trump after he lost the 2020 election there.

Nowhere has the chaos been more pronounced than Michigan, though, where rivalrous factions can’t agree on who’s in charge.

A large group of Michigan state GOP committee members voted last week to remove Kristina Karamo as chairwoman, asserting that she was leading the party toward bankruptcy and failing to live up to promises of transparency and reform. The party’s No. 2 official then declared herself acting chair. Karamo rejected the vote, arguing that the process was illegitimate and a violation of state party bylaws. Karamo has called her own meeting for Saturday. 

“I’m the chair of the Michigan Republican Party, and that will not change,” Karamo said this week in an interview with NBC News. “Now, per the bylaws, there is a process to remove people, and if that process is lawfully filed, then, yes, I will accept the results. But none of this has occurred.”

Mike Detmer, who lost a state Senate primary in 2022 after earning Trump’s endorsement, had a harsh assessment of the ongoing drama with Michigan’s state party.

“It’s a total clown show,” Detmer said, adding that he left the GOP within the last few days to join the Constitution Party, though he plans to still vote for Republicans in upcoming elections.

Detmer thinks that while Karamo has “made some goof-ups, perhaps,” the battle raging at the state party would have taken place under any chair. Tensions between grassroots MAGA enthusiasts and longtime state GOP stalwarts have boiled over after widespread losses in the 2022 midterms, where the statewide Republican slate, which included Karamo, was wiped out.

The grassroots activists “wanted nothing to do with the old guard, if you will,” Detmer said. “And the old guard wanted nothing to do with them. So now you have this terrible infighting. It’s going to be a mess. Any candidate who gets through the primary really is going to be on their own, they’re not going to get a lot of the help and support that they may have wanted from the Michigan GOP because it’s in total disarray.”

‘We’re not planning on them being competent’

Well-organized state parties rowing in the same direction can be invaluable to campaigns, taking the lead in raising money that helps promote candidates while otherwise serving as a centralized apparatus for voter turnout efforts.

Yet the instability in Michigan and other swing states hasn’t unsettled every operative involved in efforts to flip or maintain Senate seats, win contested House races or boost the party’s eventual presidential nominee. 

Some Republicans say these issues are either quickly being resolved, on a path toward resolution or, in a worse-case scenario, nothing that a major influx of cash can’t fix. In the case of Florida, the turmoil appears wrapped up with the selection of a new chair, while the battle in Michigan is sure to soon be resolved at the leadership level, these Republicans say.

“In Nevada they may have some personal legal trouble but in terms of operating the state party, not sure [it’s] any more turmoil than usual for state parties,” said one Republican who has worked in Nevada, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. The Republican added, “I’ve seen firsthand that they never raise money and we just cleaned up well there last cycle. Plus [Nevada Gov. Joe] Lombardo’s folks are building a machine to replicate the [former Democratic Sen. Harry] Reid operation.”

As one Republican aide working on Senate races said, should issues with state parties persist until the fall, there are workarounds for national committee money to flow into those states. In the recent past, this has included having national money run through a county-level GOP.

“It will be useful to have a coherent Michigan GOP for organizing, but it’s not the end-all, be-all,” this person, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said. “There are ways around it. And all these groups are going to be extremely well-funded operations across the map.”

But Gustavo Portela, a Republican strategist who works on races in Michigan and is a former state party official, said deep troubles that render a state party unreliable “can be detrimental to the overall goal” — electing Republicans.

“It just means that there’s going to be one group that was so substantially important absent from the table at the end of the day,” said Portela, a Karamo critic. “And that is going to force campaigns to spend more money, to raise more money, force the national party to then not be able to rely on a critical resource that was there previously.”

Others involved in races on the ground in Michigan also find the uncertainty wildly unsettling.

“We’re basically just acting as if there’s no state party,” said a veteran Republican operative who works on races in Michigan. “We’re not planning on them being competent this year.”

Bree Moeggenberg, a state committee member who opposes Karamo, agreed that the embattled chair’s inability to unify the party could be costly in November.

“This state could be make-it-or-break-it for the presidential election,” Moeggenberg said. “We need to be gaining voters — not pushing voters away, not telling them that they can go pound sand if they don’t agree with her. That is not acceptable as a leader.”

Turbulence in Florida and Nevada

Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee said Michigan, Florida and Nevada are a part of its 15-state buildout, meaning they will each see enhanced national staffing from the party that is focused on field operations, voter outreach, boosting mail-in voting and “election integrity” efforts.

In Florida, the state party was rocked by the scandal involving now former chairman Christian Ziegler, who is under investigation in Sarasota County for sexual battery, including rape, and allegations of illegally recording a sexual encounter without the woman’s permission. He has not been formally charged and maintains his innocence, but the Republican Party of Florida leadership voted to remove him from his post during an emergency meeting Monday in Tallahassee. 

Florida’s shift to the right in recent years, however, means Republicans in the state are likely to maintain control, at least in the near term. The GOP controls nearly every level of power in state government, and most notably last year flipped Democrats’ long-held voter registration advantage in the state. That followed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ landslide re-election in 2022.

In short, Florida Republicans aren’t sweating any electoral implications. The state, which is most likely to be contested during the presidential contest, features one of the only Senate races where Democrats can at least attempt to flip a GOP-held seat as Sen. Rick Scott seeks re-election.

David Johnson, a veteran Republican operative and former executive director of the Florida GOP, said he doesn’t think the recent turmoil involving Ziegler will hurt the party’s performance in the 2024 election cycle.

“It will all be corrected in time with the support of state and national entities,” Johnson said.

He said parties that undergo leadership turnover need to course correct before “fundraising and necessarily voter programs” are affected.

In Nevada, Republican primary campaigns have essentially conceded the state’s caucuses to Trump, with DeSantis allies claiming the officials who are now under indictment sought to rig the elections in his favor, with a now-former official with the pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down going as far as calling state Chairman Michael McDonald a “Trump puppet.”

McDonald, who, along with Republican National Committeeman Jim DeGraffenreid, pleaded not guilty to the felony charges, pushed back strongly on that accusation at the time. 

Next steps in Michigan

In Michigan, those behind the move to unseat Karamo assert that she and her allies are the ones circumventing the bylaws and that their vote last weekend was legitimate.

“This is a prime example of how, yet again, they create their own rules and procedures that are not within their bylaws,” Moeggenberg said. “And also keep in mind, these are the same faces of ‘election integrity.’ It’s completely hypocritical.”

Karamo lost a race for secretary of state in 2022, part of a Republican slate of candidates that contributed to the party’s worst election cycle in Michigan in 40 years. A former community college instructor, Karamo gained a following as a prominent election denier after President Joe Biden won the state in 2020. She won the chair’s race last year after railing against wealthy donors who for years had steered the state party with varying levels of electoral success.

But many activists quickly grew frustrated that Karamo’s vision of increasing grassroots fundraising showed no signs of materializing. They questioned her management and financial moves, from paying top-dollar for actor Jim Caviezel to headline a party function that used to draw top-tier presidential contenders to her handling of a party headquarters building.

Karamo called the push to remove her “performative nonsense.” She denied that the party was in danger of bankruptcy and accused her detractors of targeting her because she refuses to “bend her knee” to the political establishment.

“You know, unfortunately, within the Republican Party, there’s this quiet caste system,” Karamo said. “And if you don’t come from the right rank, how dare you step out of your box?”

Karamo said she had been in touch with RNC officials to keep them apprised of the situation. RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel is a past Michigan GOP chair.

The RNC, in a statement to NBC News, indicated that the national party would follow results from this weekend’s meeting. 

“State chairs and RNC members are chosen by the state Republican parties,” RNC spokesperson Anna Kelly said. “When the Michigan Republican Party sends us the information on their meeting over the weekend, we will review.”

Jason Roe, who served as executive director of the Michigan GOP until he was forced out for saying the 2020 election wasn’t stolen, but that Trump “blew it,” said that while there are workarounds for national Republicans to avoid dealing with “dysfunctional state parties,” it’s far from an ideal situation. And in Michigan, he says the fight may continue for a while longer.

“We are now basically 10 months to the election,” he said. “And every week and every month this chaos continues is a setback for the candidates’ campaigns.”