Neutral party? Michigan GOP chair advising Trump on endorsement as daughter works for candidate
Republican Party veterans question neutrality of Meshawn Maddock, who's played an unusually activist role in statewide primaries this year
After former President Donald Trump publicly praised only one Michigan gubernatorial candidate at a rally in Washington Township, Mich. on Saturday, the cochair of the Michigan Republican Party sent out an odd tweet seemingly dismissing the shout-out.
"I talked to President Trump backstage at [the] rally and again today," tweeted Meshawn Maddock. "He was thrilled with the turnout — THANK YOU MICHIGAN! He hasn't yet taken sides in Gov Primary ... stay tuned!"
Trump had praised GOP gubernatorial hopeful Tudor Dixon as someone "who's very popular, who's a fantastic, brilliant candidate."
The remark wasn't an endorsement, but it caused a stir, as all Republicans vying for the governor's mansion have been seeking the support of Trump, who's been playing the role of kingmaker in Michigan's midterm election races.
The 45th president has endorsed GOP candidates in Michigan for Congress, state legislature, attorney general, and secretary of state, but he has yet to do so in the crowded gubernatorial primary.
Maddock's attempt to downplay Trump's praise of Dixon — both publicly and behind the scenes — has raised eyebrows not only because of the importance of a Trump endorsement but also because her daughter currently works for another Republican candidate in the race, businessman Perry Johnson.
Johnson, who joined the governor's race in January, and former Detroit Police Chief James Craig, another gubernatorial hopeful, were both at the rally.
According to some Republicans, Maddock's daughter's place of work presents a potential conflict of interest for a GOP official in a top position that normally remains neutral in primaries.
One reason for their concern is that this year Maddock has used her influence in the Michigan GOP to publicly endorse candidates and reportedly pressure at least one lawmaker to do the same, leading Republican officials to complain that she's acting improperly.
Maddock's daughter has been a staff member for Johnson's campaign at the same time that Maddock has been advising Trump on who to endorse in the governor's race. According to sources familiar with the situation, she has been encouraging Trump to back Johnson.
When asked whether she's been pushing the 45th president to endorse Johnson, Maddock denied doing so.
"That's not true," she told Just the News. "The president asks me about candidates and how they are doing, and I give him facts. The fact is Perry Johnson has surprised more than a few people, including myself, on his rapid rise in polling. Of course, I confirmed that with the president."
When asked about her daughter working for the Johnson campaign, Maddock said, "Of course they hired her. She's incredibly talented."
Maddock dismissed any notion that her daughter's employment with one campaign could present a problem with maintaining neutrality as the state's GOP cochair.
"It's her life," Maddock said of her daughter. "She's an adult. I'm working so hard to defeat [incumbent Democratic Gov.] Gretchen Whitmer and will work my tail off for whoever wins the primary."
A veteran Republican National Committee (RNC) official told Just the News there could be a conflict since Maddock's daughter is a staffer and not just a volunteer, meaning there's a potential financial and professional interest for a family member if Johnson wins.
For example, if Johnson becomes governor, he could hire Maddock's daughter in his administration — a common practice among elected officials, who often staff their offices with people who worked on their campaigns.
When asked whether she was surprised Trump praised Dixon and whether she thought he was leaning toward endorsing Johnson, Maddock said only that the former president was "clearly impressed" with how quickly Johnson had risen in the polls.
According to recent polling, Johnson is a distant second behind Craig in the packed primary but far ahead of Dixon, who's at 3%.
Trump didn't realize other candidates were at the rally besides Dixon, who was moved to the front row where she was visible to Trump, and didn't mean to slight anyone, according to a person familiar with the situation.
The source added that Trump said, "You'll know when I'm ready to endorse."
It's curious that Trump hasn't yet endorsed a gubernatorial candidate while announcing endorsements for the other statewide races, according to the RNC member.
"He's normally very decisive," the member said of Trump.
While Maddock doesn't want to appear to be favoring any one candidate in the governor's race, she has openly backed candidates in other Michigan races.
Maddock has endorsed Kristina Karamo for secretary of state and Matthew DePerno for attorney general. Both candidates are supported by Trump.
While there's no formal rule stipulating senior Michigan GOP officials can't endorse in a Republican primary, it's highly unusual and widely frowned upon. The endorsements go against protocol, as party leaders generally stay neutral until after primaries so they don’t appear biased.
"She is a party leader," a Republican Insider told Deadline Detroit. "Party leaders do not get involved in convention contests or primaries."
Former Michigan Gov. John Engler's chief of staff, Dan Pero, added on Facebook: "Party leaders shouldn't put their thumbs on the scales."
Stu Sandler, a longtime GOP consultant from Michigan, also took to social media when Maddock endorsed DePerno.
"I'm old enough to remember when party leadership didn't endorse in open race," he tweeted.
Michigan GOP Communications Director Gustavo Portela said Maddock's endorsement "is in a personal capacity."
Beyond violating norms, Maddocks's endorsement of DePerno has caused controversy for other reasons.
On Wednesday, the Detroit News reported that Michigan GOP chair Ron Weiser privately encouraged Tom Leonard, another attorney general candidate, to drop his bid and run for Congress instead.
The report also said that Maddock contacted a member of Congress from Michigan to get the member to endorse DePerno. Maddock told the outlet she did so at Trump's request.
Maddock then posted on Twitter that the member of Congress was Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.), who Trump endorsed. Huizenga had already backed Leonard, who enjoys the support of most Michigan lawmakers at both the state and federal level. He said no to Maddock, standing by his original choice.
However, the story doesn't end there. According to a source with knowledge of the situation, Maddock told Huizenga she was disappointed with his decision and he would be getting a call from Trump. The source said Maddock seemed to be implying Trump might rethink his endorsement of Huizenga if he didn't switch his endorsement in the attorney general race.
It appeared to be an empty threat, as Trump never called Huizenga, who still has the former president's endorsement.
"This isn't proper and doesn't sit well with me," said the RNC member, who added Maddock's actions appear to represent a conflict of interest because she's the one really running the Michigan GOP.
Weiser, the RNC member explained, was a major GOP donor and fundraiser and as a result was named U.S. ambassador to Slovakia during the George W. Bush administration. He also served as the RNC's national financial chair.
"You don't expect a bundler who became ambassador and chair of the RNC Finance Committee to become state chair," the member said. "It's a downgrade, a step down. He can't be running [the state party.] He's just a figurehead."
"The cochair is doing the real work," the RNC member continued, referring to Maddock. "She's representing the Michigan GOP. She's the de facto chair running the party, its operations. She's the one."