Trump expected to return to Michigan, 'interested' in gov's race, DePerno says

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Former President Donald Trump is expected to make his return to Michigan in the coming weeks as he promotes his preferred candidate to be the state's next attorney general, Republican Matthew DePerno.

During a fundraiser for DePerno on Tuesday night at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort, the ex-president told the crowd he's "going to go" to Michigan. And in a Thursday interview, DePerno said the logistics of the event have been discussed and his campaign is working on the details with Trump's team.

A visit to Michigan would be Trump's first since the night before the 2020 presidential election when he closed his unsuccessful campaign in Grand Rapids and joked he wouldn't come back to the state if he lost.

The expected event in Michigan would have political repercussions in the weeks before the state Republican Party's April 23 convention, where delegates will endorse candidates for attorney general, the top law enforcement job, and secretary of state, the top elections job.

Republican attorney general candidate Matthew DePerno shakes hands with former President Donald Trump during a fundraiser in Florida on Tuesday, March 8, 2022.

DePerno said most Republicans he talks to believe Trump is still the leader of the Republican Party and want to see him run for president again. DePerno said the plan is for Trump's visit to occur before the April 23 convention.

"It will give the president the opportunity to speak to some of the delegates directly at a rally and tell them directly that he believes ... I am the person who has the best chance to beat Dana Nessel in November," DePerno said.

The Kalamazoo lawyer who rose to prominence challenging election results in northern Michigan's Antrim County is one of three Republicans pursuing their party's nomination for attorney general.

The winner of the convention race will take on Nessel, the Democratic incumbent, in the fall.

Former state House Speaker Tom Leonard of DeWitt, who's also running for the GOP nomination, lost to Nessel by less than 3 percentage points in 2018. Trump last month issued a letter to Michigan GOP delegates, criticizing Leonard.

Leonard has been endorsed by Right to Life of Michigan, the Police Officers Association of Michigan and a majority of the Republican members of the state Legislature. Many of  his supporters have argued that he has a better chance of winning the general election than DePerno does.

But Trump's political strength within the GOP and his ability to activate his supporters through public statements loom over the coming convention vote.

Trump's plan to visit Michigan to support DePerno is a "huge deal," said Adrian Hemond, CEO of the Lansing-based consulting firm Grassroots Midwest.

"He is the most popular figure in the country with the Republican base, full stop," Hemond said. "Nobody else even comes close."

Trump lost Michigan's 2020 presidential election to Democrat Joe Biden by 154,000 votes or 3 percentage points.

While the percentage of state voters with favorable views of Trump has dropped, a vast majority of self-described "strong" Republicans still support him, according to a January Detroit News-WDIV poll.

At least six Michigan GOP candidates traveled to Mar-a-Lago for Tuesday's fundraiser for DePerno, hosted by Trump.

Asked how much money was raised at the event, DePerno said he didn't have a final number yet. But, he said, the event exceeded "all expectations." More than 100 people were there, including more than 70 from Michigan, DePerno said.

DePerno's campaign won't have to disclose the donors who participated and how much money they gave until August under Michigan's campaign finance laws.

Among the attendees Tuesday were Michigan Republican Party Co-Chairwoman Meshawn Maddock and three candidates running for governor: businessman Perry Johnson, real estate broker and activist Ryan Kelley, and Pastor Ralph Rebandt.

Trump has not endorsed in the governor's race. But DePerno said the former president is "very interested" in it.

"We talk about the different candidates, what we like about them, what we don’t like about them," DePerno said.

Asked if Trump will eventually endorse in the primary, DePerno responded, "I think at some point, he will. Not right now. But at some point, yeah."

Eleven Republicans are seeking the GOP nomination for governor. The winner of the August primary will challenge Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in November.