A man in a blue suit and red tie holds a microphone in one had and a card that says "Stop Biden Now" in the other against a red curtain on stage.
Republicans speak at the Michigan Republican conference on Mackinac Island Saturday. Courtesy of Shannon Stocking.

Michigan residents, elected officials and political activists gathered at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island for the Michigan Republican Party’s annual leadership conference Friday afternoon. The conference, which continued through Sunday morning, featured prominent Republican leaders in Michigan, as well as state and national candidates for office including presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy. 

Kristina Karamo, chair of the Michigan Republican Party, opened the conference with remarks about Michigan’s role as a battleground state.

The theme of this year’s conference was the Party of the Constitution. In her speech, Karamo said this theme should not only extend through the weekend, but continue to be a priority for the party in the 2024 election cycle.  

“After a month or so of deciding that this will be this year’s conference theme, we thought, ‘Well, why not let it be the theme of our party for the 2024 cycle?’ ” Karamo said. “Because that’s what this fight is all about, is returning our government to a constitutional government.” 

Karamo said while Republicans failed to achieve a “red wave” in the 2022 midterms, the 2024 election cycle presents an opportunity to effect widespread political change. 

“I’ve talked to so many people across the state who are not Republicans or active politically, but many people know there is something deeply wrong — something deeply, deeply wrong — in the country,” Karamo said. “And we have an opportunity here as Republicans across Michigan to make a change.” 

Attendees later heard from Karla Wagner, an advocate for the Axe MI Tax ballot proposal that seeks to eliminate state and federal property tax in Michigan. Ballot proposals for constitutional amendments in Michigan must receive a number of signatures equal to 10% of the votes cast in the previous gubernatorial election. For the 2024 general election, ballot proposals must collect 446,198 valid signatures. 

“We are constantly paying for something that we’ve already bought and paid for, and we have to keep paying taxes for an ever-increasing government that’s getting bigger and bigger and using our money more and more foolishly every day,” Wagner said. “So I know there’s a lot of people that go ‘Oh, you can’t get rid of property taxes,’ but we can, and it should be done.”

Michael Hoover, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in 2024, recounted his experiences traveling around Michigan for his campaign. Hoover said he heard from voters across the political spectrum who are frustrated with the state of the country’s economic and public safety infrastructure. 

“People of Michigan have more in common than the current politics reflects,” Hoover said. “While partisan battles rage online across broadcast mediums, it is critical to understand that Republicans, Independents and, yes, Democrats of every demographic and background fundamentally agree on having the same basic things.”

Hoover’s campaign highlights four political issues that he plans to address if elected: banning hormonal and surgical gender-affirming procedures of minors, incentivizing two-parent homes, restricting competitive sports by sex assigned at birth and increasing the funding and support of law enforcement. 

J.D. Wilson, another Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, told attendees that if elected, he would work to resolve divides within the party. 

“The Republican Party right now, folks, is very, very fractured,” Wilson said. “That’s something that needs to be rectified. And I have youths as part of our team, and they’re going to help me to help us get to a place where we can become one team again.” 

Wilson, who did not have a speech prepared for Friday’s event, said his position as someone new to politics would benefit the state. 

“I’m here because I feel like we need one of you representing us, not politicians who have special interests,” Wilson said.

Both Hoover and Wilson are vying for one of Michigan’s U.S. Senate seats in the upcoming 2024 election. Incumbent U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich, is not seeking re-election and will conclude her fourth term in the Senate in 2024. So far, six Republicans and six Democrats have entered the primary race for the seat. The primary election will take place on Aug. 6, 2024. 

The conference continued Saturday morning with remarks from state Rep. Neil Friske, R-Charlevoix, who criticized Michigan Republicans who have worked with Democrats on legislation and budgeting. Friske said he believes anyone who does not identify as a “constitutional conservative” should not represent the Republican Party, and said the party must organize to elect conservative leaders. 

“We can be unstoppable in the next election cycle,” Friske said. “But we will only take back the Michigan House and reelect Donald Trump as president and elect a Republican U.S. senator if we leave this island united.”

Friske also criticized the recently passed record-high state budget, calling on the audience to hold their elected officials accountable for “overspending.” 

“It is insulting to the hardworking taxpayers of this state to listen to elected officials be proud of this record waste of taxpayer dollars,” Friske said. “Why were no Republicans talking about cutting the budget and returning the surplus to the people? You should all ask your state representative or senator that question.” 

The $82 billion state budget was passed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in July and aims to lower taxes, strengthen Michigan’s infrastructure and improve public education. 

In between speakers, Jonathon Dunne, emcee of the event, instructed attendees to fill out a straw poll to rank their preference for the Republican presidential candidates. The results of the poll were announced Saturday afternoon, with Trump receiving 72% of the 557 votes cast, and Ramaswamy coming in second with 12% of the votes. 

“Go collect your ballot and vote who you’d like to see as the next president of the United States,” Dunne said. “And in case you think that that was a Freudian slip, it will be the next president of the United States.”

State Rep. Steve Carra, R-Three Rivers, echoed Friske’s emphasis on uniting the Republican Party. Carra said he believes Republican leadership needs to take a more active role in changing policy, rather than try to appeal to voters and elected Democrats.  

“For the years that I’ve been involved and looking back through the history that I’ve seen, the Republican Party prior to this term has been controlled by the status quo and the elected officials have also been controlled by the status quo,” Carra said. “Leaders in the Republican Party need to ​​inspire people to vote Republican, not just be passive and timid and try not to ever offend anybody. That’s not going to win.”

Carra said he believes Democrats have strayed from the principles outlined at the country’s founding and called on Republicans to unite around their shared values.

“We believe that the Founding Fathers did a good job, and their plan and their vision for society to preserve our God-given rights is what we believe in as conservatives,” Carra said. “There are so many well-intentioned people who are activists within the Republican Party right now, but there’s too much infighting.”  

Daily News Editor Samantha Rich and Co-Editor in Chief Shannon Stocking can be reached at sammrich@umich.edu and sstockin@umich.edu