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What is up with Michigan's unusual GOP primary and caucuses?

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Voting closes in Michigan's presidential primary tomorrow. Republicans are choosing between former President Trump and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. But tomorrow's winner only determines a fraction of the state's Republican Party delegates because, on Saturday, there will also be a Republican state caucus. And to explain why, we're joined now by Michigan Public Radio Network's Rick Pluta. Hey, Rick.

RICK PLUTA, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: Hey. OK. So why are Michigan Republicans voting in a primary tomorrow and also in a caucus on Saturday?

PLUTA: Well, because Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer and the Michigan legislature's Democratic majorities wanted to move the state's presidential primary closer to the front of the calendar - an early win for Biden, more influence for the state. That put the Michigan GOP in a corner because the early primary violates the RNC calendar. That would cost them Michigan delegates at the national convention. Democrats treated that as not our problem. So state Republicans developed a workaround that satisfies national party rules by creating this primary-caucus hybrid.

CHANG: Oh, a primary-caucus hybrid. OK. So then how does the distribution of delegates work?

PLUTA: Well, so the Michigan Republicans have 55 national convention delegates. Sixteen will be chosen tomorrow in the primary, which is an open primary. That means any Michigan voter can participate. Enter Kristina Karamo, a party chair who said that would let people in who are RINOs, Republicans in name only, and they'll have a big voice in choosing the nominee. In a power play, she said, well, let's have these closed party caucuses that will shut out anyone but declared party members who go through the hassle of traveling to caucuses and hanging out till they're done. So the other 39 delegates will be chosen at these party caucuses this coming Saturday.

CHANG: OK. And tell us more about what to expect out of those Saturday caucuses.

PLUTA: Well, there'll be drama. The Michigan Republican Party heads into the primary and caucuses during this bitter leadership fight. There will be two caucus sites, actually, on Saturday because there are two competing factions saying they're the real Republicans - one caucus in Detroit, the other on the other side of the state in Grand Rapids. Donald Trump says the Grand Rapids convention organized - is organized by the legitimate Republican Party. That is being led by former Congressman Pete Hoekstra. He was named by a faction of the Michigan GOP to replace Kristina Karamo. But Karamo says that even Trump has been duped by RINOs. She insists that she represents the real Trump Republicans. Here she is on her weekly podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KRISTINA KARAMO: The reason why we're experiencing all these problems in our party - because of lack of virtue in our country.

PLUTA: But many longtime Republicans say Karamo's been a fundraising disaster. The party's bank account is pretty much empty. She tried to sell the state party headquarters, found she couldn't and tried running things out of her condo.

CHANG: Wow, so much drama and infighting. How will all of this be settled, do you think?

PLUTA: So there's a court case regarding who controls the state party's bank accounts and other assets. This is a controversy Republicans don't need in a critical swing state - went for Trump in 2016, Joe Biden in 2020. Almost certainly, in the end, the Trump-Hoekstra faction will win since Trump pretty much runs the show. But this is really almost a look ahead to what the future fight for power will look like in the Michigan Republican Party.

CHANG: That is Rick Pluta of Michigan Public Radio Network. Thank you so much, Rick.

PLUTA: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Rick Pluta
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987. His journalism background includes stints with UPI, The Elizabeth (NJ) Daily Journal, The (Pontiac, MI) Oakland Press, and WJR. He is also a lifelong public radio listener.