Mar-a-Lago fundraiser with Trump attracts Michigan GOP candidates

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Three candidates to be Michigan's next governor, two U.S. House hopefuls and Republicans running for attorney general and secretary of state were among the attendees at an event in Florida on Tuesday, hosted by former President Donald Trump.

The fundraiser at Trump's Mar-a-Lago was for Kalamazoo lawyer Matthew DePerno's attorney general campaign, but the gathering drew key GOP figures from Michigan, demonstrating the ex-president's continued power within the state party.

"I have this great honor tonight of introducing to you the greatest president in modern history, the 45th president, and I hope the 47th," DePerno said ahead of Trump's speech, according to a video posted on Facebook.

Michigan candidates, including Matthew DePerno, Kristina Karamo and Perry Johnson, gather on stage at a fundraiser for DePerno with Donald Trump on Tuesday, March 8, 2022.

Trump labeled DePerno a "fighter" while maintaining unproven claims that there was widespread fraud in the 2020 presidential election. Trump lost Michigan to Democrat Joe Biden by 154,000 votes or 3 percentage points. The outcome has been upheld by a series of court decisions and an investigation by the GOP-controlled Michigan Senate Oversight Committee.

"I can't tell you how important this race is," Trump said of Michigan's attorney general's campaign.

DePerno is in a three-person contest for the Republican attorney general nomination with former state House Speaker Tom Leonard of DeWitt and state Rep. Ryan Berman of Commerce Township.

Republican delegates will endorse a nominee for attorney general during a convention on April 23.

Trump targeted Leonard on Tuesday night. Leonard lost to Democrat Dana Nessel in 2018 by less than 3 percentage points. This fall, Nessel is seeking reelection.

"This guy was a man who did everything he could to stand in the way of election integrity," Trump said of Leonard. "I mean everything. He could have voted. He could have helped."

Leonard stopped serving in the state House because of term limits at the end of 2018, two years before the 2020 presidential election.

At one point in the speech, Trump mentioned that Michigan Republican Party Co-Chairwoman Meshawn Maddock was in the crowd. He asked Maddock if there were other candidates in attendance.

Maddock highlighted Kristina Karamo, who's running for secretary of state, and state Rep. Steve Carra, R-Three Rivers, who's in a potential congressional primary race with GOP U.S. Reps. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, and Bill Huizenga, R-Holland.

"You have Steve Carra running against Fred Upton," Maddock said, not mentioning Huizenga.

Maddock also noted Republican Josh Bitterman of Bloomfield Hills — who is seeking to challenge U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Waterford Township, or U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township in the new 11th District — was in attendance.

Republican gubernatorial candidates Perry Johnson and Ralph Rebandt also joined the group on stage at one point. A third candidate for governor, Ryan Kelley, appeared to be initially blocked from going on the stage.

"I'm running for governor too. ... Can I come up?" Kelley asked before Trump said he could come on the stage.

A fourth gubernatorial candidate, Tudor Dixon, held a fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago on Feb. 3.

Johnson, a businessman from Bloomfield Hills, endorsed DePerno for attorney general on March 1, asking other gubernatorial candidates to join him.

Trump has credited DePerno's work "on the front lines" in litigation challenging how the 2020 election was administered. After the 2020 vote, DePerno led a legal effort targeting the handling of votes in Antrim County, where human errors led to incorrect initial results.

In February, DePerno's campaign disclosed a December expenditure of $17,213 to Mar-a-Lago for "catering" and "rental." The spending was for Tuesday's event.

For $25,000 in contributions, a person or a couple could get a photo with Trump and DePerno at the fundraiser and participate in a "private briefing," according to an invitation viewed by The Detroit News.

In Michigan, the maximum contribution an individual can give a statewide candidate is $7,150. However, DePerno's invitation suggests the $25,000 can also be raised by the donor from others.