Donald Trump has endorsed rightwing Republican candidates who support his baseless claims of a stolen election for key posts in Michigan, raising the prospect of a Trumpist takeover of how the key battleground state might run its elections.
Trump and his allies are backing numerous candidates in the coming midterm elections across the US, including in other vital states like Arizona and Georgia.
But his intervention in Michigan raises particular eyebrows due to its role in helping Trump to win in 2016, before flipping back to the Democrats in 2020 and helping oust him from office.
The former US president and his close ally Mike Lindell, the My Pillow CEO, are giving strong backing to a Michigan lawyer and key promoter of debunked election fraud charges who is seeking the Republican nod to be the state’s next attorney general.
Trump plans to hold a fundraiser for lawyer Matthew DePerno on 8 March at his Florida Mar-a-Lago club, where Lindell told the Guardian he will speak to boost DePerno’s chances to be the Republican to take on Michigan’s Democratic attorney general, Dana Nessel.
Kristina Karamo, a community college professor who also peddled conspiracy theories about election fraud, and who never held elected office, has received Trump’s backing to be the Republican secretary of state candidate to challenge incumbent Democrat Jocelyn Benson in the fall elections.
The secretary of state plays a crucial role in overseeing elections, and Trump loyalists are investing heavily to capture several of these posts this year.
And early this month, Trump spoke at a fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago for the gubernatorial campaign of conservative commentator and business woman Tudor Dixon who has backed a vaguely defined “forensic audit” of the state’s election results which Joe Biden won by 154,000 votes .
Although Trump called Dixon “very special”, he is not yet made an official endorsement and she is one of 12 Republican candidates seeking to be the next governor.
Trump’s varying embraces of DePerno, Karamo and Dixon is emblematic of how he is helping candidates who repeat his false charges that he lost due to widespread fraud, and who could potentially help Trump sway results in key states should he run again in 2024.
According to a report from the election watchdog group States United Action, at least 11 candidates who have denied the 2020 results are valid are running for attorney-general posts in 10 states, and at least 21 election deniers are trying to win secretary of state races in 18 states, as of the end of January.
“Statewide leaders from both parties who are protected by the will of the voters in 2020 are being challenged by election deniers,” said Joanna Lydgate, chief executive of States United Action. “Those candidates are campaigning on lies and conspiracy theories in determining whether the will of the voters is upheld – a dangerous contradiction.”
Both DePerno and Karamo have already garnered checks for $ 5,000 from a Trump Super Pac, according to public records. A Michigan Republican convention in April will decide which candidates get on the fall ballot to take on Democratic opponents, and an August Republian primary will choose the party’s gubernatorial candidate to oppose incumbent Gretchen Whitmer.
The Trump Super Pac overall backed a total of 14 Michigan candidates who challenged the 2020 results and roped in $ 65,000 from the Pac – more than any other state except Texas – according to campaign data.
DePerno’s candidacy has been especially controversial given his legal efforts promoting false fraud charges in a lawsuit against 23,000-person Antrim county. The DePerno lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of a local realtor, sought to obtain a forensic audit, but was rejected last May when a judge noted that an audit had been done and dismissed the suit which alleged election machines were purposely designed to produce fraud .
Antrim county, a Republican stronghold, was won by Trump after a preliminary tally that Biden won the county was quickly found wrong due to a clerical error, and corrected.
Some of DePerno’s fundraising to help fund audits in Michigan and Arizona, and apparently pay for personal legal expenses, have prompted scrutiny for their size and unknown donors.
One “Election Fraud Defense Fund” that DePerno used reportedly raked in $ 384,000 as of last July, and had an overall goal of $ 1m, some of which was expected to pay for a Michigan audit.
Lindell told the Guardian he has not donated funds to DePerno’s legal efforts or campaign and that he met DePerno when the lawyer was featured in Lindell’s film Absolute Proof, which early last year drew criticism for promoting dubious theories about the 2020 election results.
After the movie came out, DePerno and his family received “threats”, according to Lindell, which prompted him to give the lawyer “about $ 20,000 for security”.
Lindell has endorsed other candidates for attorney-general and governor posts in states such as Arizona, Georgia and Texas who echo Trump’s false claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 election.
When Trump endorsed DePerno last fall, he dubbed him a “super lawyer”, falsely claiming that he “exposed so much fraud in Antrim county, and many more places, in the 2020 elections”.
The Trump bash next month at Mar-a-Lago to help DePerno could raise tens of thousands of dollars for his campaign coffers, according to reported ticket prices. For $ 25,000, a donor can get a photo standing next to Trump and DePerno, while for $ 10,000 an attendee can have a photo taken next to Lindell and DePerno.
Those funds could prove useful: a Detroit News poll last month showed DePerno running behind Tom Leonard, who Nessel defeated in 2018, and who is hoping to challenge her again. According to the poll, Nessel led Leonard and DePerno.
Although Trump’s backing for DePerno seems to have drawn the most scrutiny, Karamo and Dixon have also generated controversies.
Karamo has said that Trump was the real winner of Michigan in 2020, and used her podcast on 7 January to push conspiratorial and false charges that far-left anarchists led the assault on the Capitol.
Last October, Karamo was one of several secretary of state candidates from various states who have embraced Trump’s election lies to speak at a Las Vegas meeting that featured people with QAnon conspiracy links.
Although Trump has not formally endorsed Dixon, who has worked in sales and customer service at a steel company her father launched, Dixon has made no secret of her backing for Trump and hopes that he will bless her campaign.
“I think that we would be kidding ourselves if we didn’t say that his endorsement will absolutely frame every race in America,” she said last August.
Other Republican gubernatorial aspirants are also angling for Trump’s backing, including ex-Detroit police chief James Craig, who met with Trump last fall.
With Trump-backed candidates competing in Michigan and many other states, Lydgate of States United Action warned that it’s not a given any more that candidates for high office believe in “free and fair elections… the American people need to pay close attention to those races ”.
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