Michigan’s 2022 gubernatorial race could shape the future of the GOP


GVL / Elizabeth Schanz

Elizabeth Schanz, Staff Writer

“I walked through the doors downstairs and there’s a big sign that says, ‘Alert! Masks required’…You know I’m not going to be wearing a mask right and I see a few other people walking without masks on so it’s like, okay that’s good and here’s a room full of normal people,” Michigan gubernatorial candidate Ryan D. Kelley said.

These comments are met with laughter from a group of maskless students at Grand Valley State University’s College Republicans Club meeting on Oct. 27, 2021. Kelley stands in front of the group dressed in a pressed suit and wearing an American flag lapel pin. He completes the outfit with embroidered cuffs with the initials R.D.K. Behind Kelley, a picture of him and former President Donald Trump is projected onto a screen in Kirkhof Center on GVSU’s campus, providing a backdrop as he speaks to the club.

Kelley is both a controversial political figure in Allendale Township in West Michigan and a contender for the 2022 Michigan gubernatorial election. Before politics, Kelley worked primarily as a real estate agent and recently began his political career as Allendale Township Planning Commissioner.

Kelley prides himself on being a “grassroots Republican candidate” and has defined himself as the “protester” amongst the 13 Republican candidates. His actions in politics include attending the “Stop the Steal” protest at the nation’s capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021, armed protests and organized rallies across the state against COVID-19 lockdowns, mask mandates and vaccine mandates.

In the gubernatorial race itself, Kelley has actively opposed Michigan’s Governor Gretchen Whitmer, has repeatedly called her “tyrannical” and called for her removal from office. Kelley even places himself outside of the Republican Party establishment referring to himself as a “lion” who will push out “RINOs” also known as “Republicans In Name Only,” commonly politicians who are deemed “not conservative enough.”

Kelley’s run for Michigan’s governor raises the question of what the future of the GOP could look like not only in Michigan, but across the country.

“If Ryan Kelley ends up getting in, that would be a huge message to the ‘establishment’ and that this ‘MAGA’ movement hasn’t gone anywhere,” said Josh DeVries, president of the Grand Valley State University College Republicans Club.

With many candidates within the GOP for the gubernatorial race, individuals within the party have multiple personalities to choose from. Kelley’s prior actions, often seen as controversial, may play a role in how GOP members perceive his campaign.

“When Ryan tells me he was in Washington D.C. on Jan. 6, that makes me want to support him even more,” said Karla Wagner, a West Michigan small business owner and volunteer for Kelley’s campaign. “He did what I would’ve done if I would have had the opportunity.”

Many of Kelley’s supporters stand by a full forensic audit of the 2020 presidential election which Kelly’s campaign strongly advocates for and promises to follow through with if elected into office. Kelley openly speaks of his involvement at the Jan. 6 events saying that he and “99.9 %” of people were there in protest of a “falsified and stolen election” from Trump and it was “not an insurrection.” He added that he was peaceful in his actions and didn’t enter the Capitol building. However, more than 600 people who attended the capitol on Jan. 6 face charges primarily related to disorderly conduct.

Additionally, in June 2020 Kelley organized an armed counter protest against Black Lives Matter protestors at the Civil War statue in Allendale, Michigan. This protest gained a lot of traction across the state where people were outraged not only from his defense of the statue, but also the attendance of militia member William Null, an individual who is accused of taking part in the plot to kidnap Governor Whitmer in 2020.

Kelley arranged the protest and invited individuals like the militia to “keep the peace” among the two groups who would be in attendance. In text messages obtained through from a public records request, Kelley sent a message to Allendale Township supervisor Adam Elenbaas that read, “Want to let you know we are standing up against these racist bullies. Been in touch with Ottawa County sheriff… The good guys need to know who we are and what we’re up to.”

Kelley’s strong right-wing views are seen prominently in his policies. These policies include:

  • Constitutional carry legislation. This would allow individuals to carry firearms without a license or permit.
  • Anti-vaccine and anti-mask mandates.
  • Strongly pro-life.
  • Changes to education: get rid of common core, ban on Critical Race Theory (CRT) and potentially get rid of the department of education entirely.

These values are supported by many Republicans to some extent, Kelley’s supporters back them strongly. Wagner stated that he sets himself apart from those in his party because he “has a plan” compared to other GOP candidates and sees his actions in support of that.

Kelley announced his run for governor on Jan. 28, 2021. Since then he has hit the campaign trail through these protests, traditional rallies and has taken to popular social media platforms as a campaign method.

Kelley continues to position himself as a non-traditional candidate through social media, similar to Trump’s utilization of Twitter in his campaign. This is seen in videos posted on Facebook, Twitter and TikTok that highlight both his policies and attacks on opponents.

Kelley often emphasizes that he believes the Michigan government under Gov. Whitmer is tyrannical, primarily with COVID-19 regulations, shut downs and vaccine mandates. He often attacks President Joe Biden, Gov. Whitmer and the Democratic Party on social media. In many posts, Kelley equates the party with communism. He has a post standing in front of the Michigan Governor’s vacation home where he talks about how he will redecorate “when” he is elected.

Kelley not only attacks Democrats, but attempts to separate himself from the other candidates within the GOP by commonly criticizing and calling for the removal of “RINOs” (Republicans In Name Only). These are Republicans, often moderates, who he feels don’t accurately represent or practice GOP values. Kelley separates and places himself in opposition to this description where he commonly describes himself as a “lion.” One of Kelley’s Facebook posts states, “RINOs are definitely more dangerous than Democrats.”

However, as of Jan. 6, 2022 Kelley had his Twitter account suspended by Twitter, an instance that he took pride in saying, “IT’S A BADGE OF HONOR- Speak truth get booted” on his TikTok account.

At the GVSU Republicans Club meeting, Kelley targeted one of the front running contenders for the GOP in the gubernatorial race, former Detroit Police Chief James Craig. Kelley said that Craig enforced Whitmer’s lockdowns and mask mandates, as well as “let all the fraud happen at the TCF center on Nov. 3 2020.” Both of these statements had been censored and taken down for fact checking by Facebook in the past.

Micheal Derpilibosian is a junior at GVSU who will be supporting Craig in the upcoming gubernatorial election. Kelley’s criticism of Craig disappointed him.

“One of the things that turned me down on Kelley was when Kelley was trash talking on Craig, because I think the Republican party has a problem uniting with one another compared to the Democrats,” Derpilibosian said. “As a party, that’s our main priority.”

With many Republican candidates vying for the highest office in Michigan as well as the state’s history of being a swing state, the gubernatorial race and its outcome could potentially mirror shifting political opinions. The question is not just what candidate or party will gain power, but what ideology will take shape.

Katie Gorman, a junior at GVSU, will not be supporting any of the Republican candidates in the upcoming gubernatorial election, but states it’s too early to fully put support behind any candidate. Currently, she said she would be “content” with Governor Whitmer and notes some of her successes such as eliminating the “Pink Tax” or tax on menstrual products within the state.

“The left is going to have to rely on showing actual progress, in my mind,” Gorman said. “They can’t keep making empty promises about doing something about things like climate change and then blame it on not having the majority or the power to implement as much as they could despite actually having the power to make change right now.”

In the view of the entire race, Kelley sees himself as Michigan’s next governor — which is the name of his TikTok handle as well — and is confident in his campaign both within his own party and against Whitmer. Kelley stated that he sees support across the state from various age groups and sees himself as the 50th governor of the state.

DeVries is currently undecided on who he will be backing in the coming gubernatorial election. He said that Craig sponsored the GVSU College Republicans club’s trip to the Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference where they were able to see Craig speak. DeVries stated that he sees Craig as a more moderate candidate while Kelley is more conservative.

“I think we need a mix of both,” DeVries said. “I think for many years the Republican party has kind of given in. They say, ‘We’ll draw a line here’ but then they back up from that and are moving further toward to the center. You know we want compromise but we also have to hold true to our ideals too. Having them both there is good for representation of where our party is moving.”