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Michigan Republicans prepare for biennial leadership conference

Megan Schellong

Michigan Republicans are set to host their once-every-two-years Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference this weekend.

The speaker list includes presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, former Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake and conservative activist and filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza.

The state party event usually garners a list of high-profile attendees, like presidential candidates and large donors. But the traditional big names appear to be sitting this year out. Both House Minority Leader Matt Hall (R-Richland Twp) and Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt (R-Porter Twp) are not planning on attending.

The speakers lined up for the conference seem to keep a theme with the party’s grassroots, anti-establishment message of late.

Representative Steve Carra (R-Three Lakes) is among the state lawmakers who do plan on going. He said it’s a chance to chart a more conservative course.

“Do we need to all unite behind special interest-influenced status quo politics? Or should we be uniting as a Republican Party behind principles,” Carra said at a press conference earlier this week.

Still, with Ramaswamy as the only presidential candidate to appear, the speaker list seems a bit thin.

Conservative political consultant Dennis Lennox said that’s a far cry from years past, when he remembers Mitt Romney bringing dozens of people with his campaign to the island.

“That’s 100 to 200 hotel rooms, that’s 100 to 200 ferry tickets, that’s 100 to 200 dinners every night. And then you multiply that by three, four, five, six presidential candidates all sending equivalent numbers? That’s a lot of money being spent in northern Michigan in the offseason,” Lennox said.

As for this year’s leadership conference not drawing big crowds, Lennox blames party leadership.

Plans to move up Michigan’s presidential primary election next year could cost the GOP delegate representation at the Republican National Convention. Party leadership said it’s been working on a hybrid primary and caucus-type model to get around that, but it’s faced criticism for appearing to favor candidates popular with party insiders like former President Donald Trump.

Beyond that, Lennox said the party’s monetary woes, embrace of election-related conspiracy theories and other controversial stances are scaring away donors and serious contenders.

“Republicans who want to win in Michigan are working through other entities, they’re working through some of the county parties in Michigan that still remain normal and functioning political entities, and they’re working through super PACs and 501(c)(4)s,” Lennox said.

Some of those are organized by the same large-scale donors, like the DeVos family or former Governor Rick Snyder, who have been in the crosshairs of party members who hope to push the party further to the right.

Lennox said that rhetoric, plus turmoil within the party structure, hurts the Mackinac conference.

“What’s happening on the island this weekend is nothing more than a bunch of snake oil salesman grifting off of people who don’t know better,” Lennox said.

For believers of the party’s new direction, however, there’s optimism this weekend will be productive.

“When precinct delegates, and people on executive communities, and former legislators, and sitting legislators and donors to the Republican Party get together in the same room and can have these conversations, I think it helps give us an opportunity to sharpen our tools to be better equipped to make the best decision moving forward,” Carra said.

The conference starts Friday in the Grand Pavilion at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island.

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