Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn Joe Biden’s 2020 victory didn’t succeed in part because they were met with resistance from election officials in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and other states. For Trump and his allies, the lesson was clear: seeding offices that oversee elections with loyalists could deliver him the White House in 2024. In most states, the secretary of state is the top election official—capturing these posts became a top priority.
The scheme got off to a good start. This summer, Republicans nominated election deniers for secretary of state in critical states like Arizona, Nevada, Minnesota, and Michigan. As a result, once sleepy down-ballot races are now frontlines in the battle for “democracy itself,” as President Biden warned recently. Where Big Liars have gone, unprecedented fundraising bonanzas have followed.
Michigan’s secretary of state race is a vivid example of this transformation. Republican candidate Kristina Karamo has brought the full bricolage of Trumpian politics to this race: lurid provocations against vulnerable groups, shameless distortions of reality, and contempt for democracy.
Karamo is a 36-year-old community college lecturer from Oak Park, a Detroit suburb. Her political career kicked off in December 2020 when she testified before the state senate that she’d spotted a fraudulent ballot while volunteering as a poll challenger a month earlier. That stunt landed her an invite on Fox News. “The Democratic Party have become high-efficiency destructors of America,” she told a nodding Lou Dobbs. “And the Republican Party, thanks to the RINOs, have become low-efficiency opposition.” Such a display of fealty caught Trump’s—famously one of the network’s most avid viewers—attention, and he championed her for Michigan’s secretary of state. The endorsement would prove enough to propel the first-time candidate for public office past a field of more traditional candidates at the GOP convention in April.
Since her nomination, excavations of her past statements by CNN and Media Matters have revealed pronouncements ranging from the alarming to the seemingly deranged. On her now-defunct podcast, Karamo derided what she called the “political LGBT movement,” claimed Antifa was behind January 6, and so on. She augmented these with lesser-known theories: yoga practitioners are partaking in a “Satanic ritual.” Pop stars like Cardi B, Billie Eilish, and Ariana Grande are tools of the devil. “Demonic possession” is real, she said, and can be passed through “intimate relationships.” Abortion is akin to child sacrifice.
Karamo is challenging the incumbent Democrat Jocelyn Benson, who has held the office since 2018. “The striking thing is the difference in the temperament and the belief systems of these two candidates,” said Joe DiSano, a Democratic consultant in Michigan. Benson, 44, is one of the country’s top experts on election administration. A veteran of the Southern Poverty Law Center and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, she wrote a book-length study on the secretary of state office eight years before she was elected to the position herself. The attraction of the office was simple. “Protecting the right to vote,” she told me, “is the crux of ensuring equal rights across the board for every other issue.”
Benson played a key role in helping Michigan withstand Trump’s interference in the 2020 election. “She’s refused to let people who want to challenge the results get out ahead of the process,” said Michael Traugott, a political science professor at the University of Michigan. Michigan made no-excuse absentee voting legal in 2018, and Benson spent months before the 2020 election warning that the state could be among the last to declare its election results because of the influx of absentee ballots. Her office, she announced, would counter disinformation claims if a candidate tried to declare victory before all absentee ballots had been counted. As she predicted, Trump tried exactly that, suing to stop Michigan officials from continuing to tabulate ballots in the days following the election. His supporters descended on an absentee ballot-tallying center in Detroit, chanting, “Stop the count!” Those flailing efforts fell flat: the count continued, Biden’s lead grew, and Trump, ever the statesman, called for Benson’s arrest and execution. When armed protesters showed up outside Benson’s house, she was undaunted, continuing to work closely with the state attorney general to combat a deluge of baseless lawsuits against the results. Those months burnished her reputation as a prepared, unflappable public servant, and this May, she was given the JFK Library Profile in Courage award alongside Volodymyr Zelensky and Liz Cheney.
Benson’s brand of no-nonsense professionalism plays well in a secretary of state race, said David Dulio, a political science professor at Oakland University in Michigan—especially with less partisan voters. “Most of those voters look at the secretary of state as an office that’s based around competency, on very practical issues,” he told me—things like location services. “You know, how long is the wait time for me to get my driver’s license renewed?”
“That’s an office where no news is good news,” Dulio added.
Karamo is betting the opposite is true. Her pugnacious charisma has quickly established her as a darling of Trump’s base, and a fixture on the MAGA talk circuit, with appearances at a QAnon conference and an event hosted by Church Militant, an organization the Southern Poverty Law Center classifies as a hate group. Her platform is almost entirely devoted to the baseless notion that Michigan elections are readily susceptible to fraud; she proposes voter roll purges, bans on mail-in voting, “unfettered poll watch reforms,” and other measures that would inevitably suppress thousands of voters. Her candidacy is symbolic of how the Michigan Republican Party has evolved—once the home of the party’s more moderate, business-friendly wing, the Mitten has ditched its Gerald Fords and Rick Snyders, elevating election denialism above its longtime anti-union, school privatization agenda. Karamo, of course, believes this hard-right pivot can attract undecided voters; combating the looming threat of voter fraud, she recently told Steve Bannon, “really is a bipartisan issue.”
Except it isn’t.
“These Trump supporters and people who would support Karamo on that basis, they may be breathing fire and brimstone when they vote,” said Bill Ballenger, a Michigan politics pundit, and former Republican state senator. “But guess what? Their vote doesn’t count any more than somebody who’s kind of blasé, apathetic, and just cruises into the polls.” Less than two months before Election Day, Karamo is 11 points behind in the polls. Moderate voters may be turned off by her extreme views and combative style—a problem not helped by the recent revelation that Karamo’s ex-husband accused her of threatening to kill their children. (Karamo denied the allegations. Her campaign did not respond to requests for an interview.)
Benson has two other significant advantages: incumbency and the financial backing of a major political party. The Michigan Republican donor machine, despite being led by the Trump-affiliated DeVos family, has done little to support Karamo or the party’s Trump-backed nominee for attorney general, Matt DePerno. “When you’re running unconventional campaigns, it’s hard to raise conventional money,” said Jason Roe, the former chair of the Michigan Republican Party. DiSano, the Democratic consultant, put it even more simply. “She can’t raise money because she’s insane, and no one wants to give her money,” he said. Benson currently has 11 times more cash on hand than Karamo and more than double the name recognition.
Still, a Karamo victory is not out of the question. Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer, at the top of the ticket, could stumble; the economy could tank; Covid could spike. In the event of a come-from-behind victory, how much damage could Karamo do in office?
The good news is that responsibility for administering elections and certifying votes is shared across a patchwork of elected offices, canvassing boards, and clerkships at the state and local levels; secretaries of state are only one actor in Michigan’s system. “These checks and balances really help ensure that democracy can prevail over any bad apples,” Benson said. Experts say a governor or a board of canvassers would have an easier time blocking the certification of a vote than a secretary of state. “The secretary of state’s role is more limited in this crucial vote-counting context,” said Edward Foley, an expert in election law at Ohio State University. The sweeping changes to election law that Karamo and other Trumpian secretary of state nominees across the country have run on, like eliminating absentee voting, would require cooperation from the governor and the state legislature.
But there’s still plenty Karamo could do. The secretary’s office helps ensure county clerks have voting equipment, adequate staff, guidelines for assessing ballots, and other resources needed for running their polling places. If a secretary withheld this kind of support, Benson said, “you have a potential for disaster come election day, where clerks are essentially on their own.” Lines would lengthen; tabulating the results would grind to a halt. Earlier this year, Benson rejected a series of Republican-suggested changes to the guidelines provided to clerks that would have raised the standards for matching signatures on absentee ballots; Karamo could instead approve and expand restrictive changes in the guidelines. From this bully pulpit, Karamo could encourage vigilantism and endlessly audit results, dragging the vote through the judicial muck for months or years. Such steps would degrade the public’s faith in the “authenticity of the system and the trustworthiness of the system,” as Traugott put it.
Karamo’s seeming determination to encumber the elections system until it collapses under its own weight is coordinated. She’s part of the America First Secretary of State Coalition, an association of Trump-backed candidates running for the office.
But Benson isn’t working alone, either. She’s now meeting regularly with election officials in other states, something she wishes she’d done before the 2020 election. “There’s a clear pattern to the challenges facing democracy and those waging them,” she said. In 2020, election officials across the country faced the same disruption tactics: floods of information requests, identical lawsuits, and threats of violence. The more they collaborate, “the better prepared we are,” she said. “No one should be fighting these battles alone.”