DePerno wins GOP attorney general race after runoff; Karamo wins SOS endorsement

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Grand Rapids — Donald Trump's preferred candidates, Matt DePerno for attorney general and Kristina Karamo for secretary of state, won the endorsement Saturday of Michigan Republican Party delegates, solidifying the former president's hold over a changing GOP.

DePerno, a lawyer from Kalamazoo, got the party's endorsement after a runoff election while Karamo, an educator from Oak Park, got the nod for secretary of state in the first round of voting.

DePerno won 54% of the delegates in the second vote after falling short of the required 50% in the first round. He was locked in a tight and contentious race with former House Speaker Tom Leonard of DeWitt, who got 46% in the second vote.

Matthew DePerno who is running for the Republican Attorney General nomination applauds as he takes the stage during the Michigan Republican convention at Devos Place in Grand Rapids, Mich.

"We've got a great slate of candidates," Michigan Republican Party Chairman Ron Weiser said while standing on stage with Karamo and DePerno.

Both Karamo and DePerno rose to political prominence levying unproven claims of fraud in the November 2020 presidential election, which Trump lost to Democrat Joe Biden. Some Republicans who backed other unsuccessful candidates on Saturday have argued they aren't mainstream enough to win in November.

Asked about those Republicans' comments, Weiser said, "I think they're poor losers. We're going to unite together. And we'll be able to win this election this fall."

Former U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra led Saturday's convention. Afterward, he said the GOP had a "strong ticket."

"We’ve got to remember what the goal was," added Hoekstra, who was ambassador to The Netherlands under Trump. . "It wasn’t to win today."

DePerno and Karamo didn't take questions from the media at a press conference after the convention. Asked if his message of "election integrity" can win in a general election, DePerno said, as he toward the exit of DeVos Place, he believes it can.

"Because it's an important issue," DePerno said. "Many people care about it."

Leonard issued a Saturday evening statement that didn't mention DePerno amid questions of whether the party will unite for the general election campaigns against Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.

"In the months ahead, I'll continue working with fellow Republicans to elect conservative candidates up and down the ticket," Leonard said. "I especially look forward to spending more time with my wife and our two wonderful children."

State Rep. Ryan Berman, R-Commerce Township, got third place in the first round of voting for attorney general and fell off the ballot for the run-off. He threw his backing behind Leonard and was working delegates on the convention floor with the former House speaker ahead of the second vote.

"Tom has a record of service to our Constitution and he will take a winning, conservative message to Michigan voters," Berman said in a statement sent to delegates. "Tom is our best chance to fire (Democratic Attorney General) Dana Nessel, and conservatives should unite behind him."

Michigan Republican Party delegates delivered a victory Saturday for former President Donald Trump's preferred secretary of state candidate, Kristina Karamo.

Walking around the convention floor after the first vote, Berman was telling delegates that he didn't believe DePerno can win the November election against Nessel, who defeated Leonard by less than 3 percentage points in 2018. Berman said he asked to address the full convention, but Michigan GOP leadership turned him down.

Karamo got 67% of the vote in her three-way contest for secretary of state on the first ballot. State Rep. Beau LaFave of Iron Mountain received 19%, and Chesterfield Township Clerk Cindy Berry got 13%.

MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, left, shares the stage with candidate for attorney general Matthew DePerno, center, and Hank Fuhs, right at the Michigan GOP State Convention on April 23, 2022 in Grand Rapids.

After winning, party leaders allowed Karamo to speak from the stage and urged delegates to back DePerno for attorney general.

"In order to continue my fight, I need your help right now. I need you in the runoff to support Matt DePerno for attorney general," Karamo told the crowd.

Weiser privately encouraged Leonard to drop his bid for attorney general and run for Congress instead, after Trump endorsed DePerno, as The Detroit News first reported two weeks ago. In mid-March, Michigan GOP co-chair Meshawn Maddock endorsed DePerno for attorney general.

Former Michigan House Speaker Tom Leonard, right, gives a thumbs-up sign to the state Republican Party convention on Saturday, April 23, 2022. Leonard was in a runoff for the attorney general nomination with Kalamazoo attorney Matthew DePerno.

When the second round of voting began, there was temporary confusion and the voting was stopped. The order of the races displayed on the convention jumbo screens didn’t match the order of the races on the voting machines, party officials said.

MORE: How ballot concern delayed second vote at Michigan GOP convention

Many Republicans on the convention floor noted that this mix-up happened at a time when the party is making election integrity a top issue.The attorney general's race is considered a key contest in helping set the future of the party and reveal the reach of Trump's influence.

Trump attempted to bolster DePerno's campaign by visiting Macomb County for a rally on April 2 and holding a telephone town hall event during the past week. DePerno rose to prominence by spearheading litigation to challenge election results in northern Michigan's Antrim County.

Robert Wiley of Petoskey, an alternate delegate at the convention, supported DePerno and Karamo.

Wiley contended Saturday before the voting that the media hadn't given concerns about the 2020 election proper coverage. Trump lost the election to Democrat Joe Biden by 154,000 votes or 3 percentage points. Wiley labeled Trump the leader of the Republican Party.

"If they don’t win, I probably won’t say a word all the way home," Wiley said. "I’ll be very disappointed, very sad."

During a telephone town hall on Wednesday, the former president described the GOP attorney general contest as "one of the most important" races in the country.

Former New York city mayor and Donald Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, right, signs autographs at a booth endorsing Lena Epstein, left, holding her daughter, Emma Medwed, at the Michigan GOP State Convention on April 23, 2022 in Grand Rapids.

"This choice is not just about 2022," Trump said. "This is about ensuring the state of Michigan cannot be stolen from Republicans in 2024 or ever again.

"Matt will stop it. Tom will not. He has not got the capability to stop it. And he had his chance, and he refused to do it. And people were shocked."

U.S. Rep. Lisa McClain, R-Bruce Township, spoke in support of DePerno on Saturday and said Trump had called her about him. Trump asked her for a "favor," she said, not identifying what the specific favor was.

U.S. Rep. Lisa McClain, R-Bruce Township, spoke in favor of Kalamazoo attorney Matthew DePerno in the attorney general's race at the Michigan GOP convention in Grand Rapids on Saturday, April 23, 2022.

"We need Matt DePerno because we need somebody, who like you, is a fighter, who will fight for election integrity, who will fight for our children, who will fight for this state, and who will not back down," McClain said Trump told her.

The winner of the Republican nomination, which will be officially made in August, will face Nessel in November.

U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Watersmeet, spoke in support of Leonard at Saturday's convention.

“We will only win if we put our best candidates forward. When it comes to the next attorney general, I have no doubt in my mind that Tom Leonard is that candidate,” Bergman said. 

A win for DePerno will be viewed as a victory for Trump. A win for Leonard could have been a signal his influence has at least somewhat diminished within the Michigan GOP.

Michigan GOP co-chairs Meshawn Maddock, left, and Ron Weiser, right, listen to convention speakers as GOP candidates and delegates attend the Michigan GOP State Convention on April 23, 2022 in Grand Rapids, MI. 

LaFave welcomed delegates as they entered DeVos Place on Saturday morning. He has argued that Karamo won't be able to win over swing voters in the general election and won't be able to defeat Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.

"We can either have somebody who can win against Dana Nessel and Jocelyn Benson or not," LaFave said.

Like DePerno, Karamo also gained the spotlight by making unproven claims of fraud concerning the 2020 election. Trump's loss in Michigan has been upheld by more than 200 audits, a series of court rulings and an investigation by the GOP-controlled state Senate Oversight Committee.

cmauger@detroitnews.com