Republican Lawmaker’s Video Rant Shows Pain in GOP’s Right Flank
(Bloomberg) -- Mike Shirkey, majority leader of the Michigan state senate, ignited the internet when he told fellow Republicans that the U.S. Capitol insurrection was a left-wing hoax and that he’d considered challenging Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer to a fistfight on the statehouse lawn.
But even those outlandish pronouncements weren’t enough to make him a true conservative in the eyes of the Hillsdale County Republican Party, which recorded his comments during a meeting at a diner on Feb. 3. The next day, the group voted to censure Shirkey, who dismissed the action as meaningless.
It was another skirmish in the brewing war for the soul of the GOP, as Washington focuses on the impeachment trial of the man who’s the source of that division: former President Donald Trump.
Similar battles are raging across the U.S. among Republicans, especially for GOP members of Congress who supported Trump’s second impeachment. Congressmen in Louisiana and Ohio have been rebuked for voting to impeach him. Arizona Republicans censured Cindy McCain, wife of the late Senator John McCain, for endorsing Joe Biden even though she doesn’t hold office. Wyoming Republicans censured Liz Cheney, the No. 3 person in Republican House leadership, after her vote to impeach.
Michigan is a particularly hot spot for conservative politics and a microcosm of the fractured GOP. It’s a state that frequently votes blue in presidential elections but has many staunchly red districts in its rural areas.
Its corporate leaders in the Detroit area want pro-business policies, but weren’t always comfortable with Trump. General Motors Co. CEO Mary Barra fought with Trump over job cuts and now is publicly siding with Biden on climate-change measures in the car industry. Ford Motor Co. Chairman Bill Ford opposed the former president on the Muslim ban in 2017.
In rural areas, the party has moved further to the right. Government regulations are seen as meddlesome and Trump is still very popular. This wing of the state GOP wants the party to take a tougher stand to preserve gun rights, fight harder against Whitmer’s orders to regulate businesses during the pandemic, and rein in taxes. Trump took a hard line on those issues and won support from the Republican Party’s more right-wing base.
“Shirkey votes 95% conservative,” Jon Smith, secretary of the Hillsdale County Republicans who recorded the video in the diner, said in an interview. “On the really important stuff, he doesn’t stay right. When it comes to civil rights issues, he goes to the left.”
Smith said he considers himself a pure conservative and definitely to the right of Shirkey. He and other Republicans think they should be allowed to carry assault rifles at the state Capitol because the Second Amendment doesn’t specify where weapons can be displayed.
Shirkey supported the state Capitol’s rule against the open-carry of guns, which all but bans assault rifles in state government buildings. People can still carry concealed weapons there.
While that enraged grassroots activists like Smith, it sailed by Republicans who were unnerved by the armed protests in Lansing and the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol. It was also a compromise that Republicans, who are led by Shirkey, made with Democrats to avoid a more aggressive ban on concealed weapons.
The rift between moderate Republicans and hard liners will leave the party with a difficult job of finding unity going forward, said Bill Ballenger, a longtime Michigan political observer and former Republican state legislator.
“They’ve got to draw back in the traditional Republicans and for that matter, Republican-leaning independents who were turned off by Trump and are turned off by Trump supporters and by the riot in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6,” Ballenger said.
Shirkey is now in a spot where his legislative actions aren’t enough for the far right, yet he has outraged centrist Republicans with his comment that the Capitol attack “wasn’t Trump supporters; it was a hoax from day one.”
Josh Venable, a Lansing resident and former chief of staff to Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos who later opposed his re-election, has called on Shirkey to resign over his comments.
Venable says Michigan Republicans would do well to follow the example of Representative Peter Meijer, the freshman lawmaker from Grand Rapids who voted to impeach Trump last month. Meijer escaped censure in a close vote by Republicans in his home district earlier this week.
“The way he has approached this should be a model for other Republicans,” Venable said by phone. “It’s interesting it’s coming from a freshman who has never held public office before. I think it’s a good case study in the path forward.”
There’s a seed of rapprochement between the Trumpers and moderates. Ron Weiser, a real estate developer and regent of the University of Michigan who has twice served as chair of the state party, won the position again. The former George W. Bush administration ambassador chose local Trump activist Meshawn Maddock as his co-chair to lead the party.
“The skirmishes of yesterday are over,” he said in a tweet after he and Maddock were elected.
Smith said the GOP has too many neo-conservatives, who are tied to big business interests, and too many RINOs, or Republicans in Name Only. He said he wants to see more constitutionalists, who approach issues with a tight interpretation of the nation’s founding document.
“We’re not going to go along just to get along” with Democrats, Smith said.
Between now and the 2022 elections, the party will have to find a way to move forward without Trump while still keeping his supporters on board.
“They’ve got to try and keep as much of the Trump base as they can, but they’ve got to build out from there,” Ballenger said. “There’s still overwhelming support for Trump within the Republican party, to the point that it’s not just a faction--it’s a majority.”
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