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'The fight we’re dealing with': Inside the Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference

 Michigan GOP Chair Kristina Karamo speaks at the 2023 Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference.
Colin Jackson
Michigan Public Radio Network
Michigan GOP Chair Kristina Karamo speaks at the 2023 Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference. (Photo: Colin Jackson/MPRN)

A thick cloud of Lake Huron mist isolated the island from the mainland Friday afternoon. But the sun was shining over the Grand Hotel.

That’s where Michigan Republican Party Chair Kristina Karamo set the tone for the weekend in her opening remarks.

She named an enemy: science institutions and globalism.

She named a value: fundamentalist Christian beliefs

She had a message: Republicans can win if they unite.

“The fight we’re dealing with, I believe and as you hear speakers talk over the weekend and, as I said, this is a thinking man’s conference, so we really want to push the envelope on a lot of different topics, I personally believe the people we’re dealing with are global technocrats,” Karamo told conference goers.

Many speakers criticized the Chinese government, referenced a battle of good versus evil, and hit red meat issues like election integrity and COVID-19 response.

The names of Jesus and Ronald Reagan were repeatedly invoked. Many speeches carried strong Christian overtones.

Meanwhile party spokesperson and event emcee Jonathon Dunne passed the time between speakers with several Reagan jokes. Actor and Saturday night headliner Jim Caviezel also gave his best stab at a Reagan impression.

“Evil is powerless if the good are unafraid,” Caviezel closed his speech in Reagan's voice.


The GOP leadership conference usually is a space where attendees mingle with candidates, big name donors and other Republicans from across the state.

But this year, the theatre room at the Grand Hotel was rarely full. Only around 550 people voted in the conference’s presidential straw poll. Former President Donald Trump won with over 70 percent of the vote, even though he wasn’t there.

Only the second-place candidate, Vivek Ramaswamy, attended. He said he felt Michigan was crucial to his campaign, calling attendees “sincere” while also nodding to an undercurrent of tension.

“When you’re that sincere and you have a group of people who are that sincere and dedicated, naturally, there’s going to be some diversity of approaches on how to get there, but I think open debate in our party is actually, in the long run, a good thing,” Ramaswamy said.

But not everyone felt the conference had maintained its relevance.

Don Sugg, a Saginaw County-based attendee, said he wasn’t sure why he came — adding it would likely be his last conference.

“I think that this convention is a mere shadow of its former self, speakers that no one’s ever heard of, speaking, all saying the same thing basically," Sugg said. "It’s a bore.”


Policy discussions often took a backseat to the rhetoric of an existential fight against evil forces. There’s still a major divide between newcomers now in charge of Michigan’s Republican Party and those who want to move past issues like challenging election results.

At one point, former Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake asked the crowd how many had been in politics for less than five years? Most hands immediately shot up.

She continued her questioning, asking how many had been canceled or lost friends?

“How many of you are being indicted? How many of you are being accused and sued for defamation? Got a few. For talking about the elections? If your hand did not go up in any of that, then I do think you need to work a little harder,” Lake said.

Lake’s questions got to the heart of the weekend: political newcomers were running the show.

Rumors circulated about an attempt to remove controversial party chair Kristina Karamo. But she says she’s not going anywhere.

“We’ve witnessed, in Michigan, three cycles of absolute defeat. We’ve witnessed constitutionalists of moral relativism. And those who wish to maintain the status quo of managed inefficiency are angry that I’m chair. Pound sand,” Karamo said during a Saturday speech.

She later clarified to reporters she saw a difference between those with genuine concerns about the party versus people she saw as attempting to subvert her work as chair.


The weekend ended with a nearly four-hour state committee meeting on Sunday. Reporters weren’t allowed in.

Before the meeting, Karamo mentioned they were going to finalize the party’s plan to award delegates to the Republican National Convention next year. Karamo said it’ll follow a hybrid primary-caucus model.

A portion of the party’s delegates would be awarded to the winner of the state’s primary election while the rest would be awarded based on the results of 13 congressional district caucuses to take place in one central location.

It was a win for Karamo in a weekend that had modeled her vision despite the doubts, chatter, and bickering that accompanied the rookie-led event.

Attendees who did catch up with reporters on their way out of the meeting shared mixed but generally optimistic feelings about how the meeting went.

On the Michigan GOP’s website leading up to the conference, a quote from Austrian composer Gustav Mahler headed the page.

"Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.”

This may not have been the traditional Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference of years past, but one thing was apparent: The self-described grassroots members who sought control in February of the Michigan GOP still have it.

Copyright 2023 Michigan Radio. To see more, visit Michigan Radio.