The FBI arrested Michigan gubernatorial candidate Ryan Kelley on Thursday and charged him with four misdemeanors for his role in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. In the past, Kelley, a Republican, had acknowledged attending the protests, but the arrest came after video footage and photographic evidence emerged showing the 40-year-old real estate agent breaching the Capitol and repeatedly waving the crowd into the building.
It’s looking like the arrest is actually an asset for Kelley.
The arrest is unprecedented: Kelley is reportedly the first person running for elected office in a major state or federal race to be charged in connection with the Jan. 6 riots.
And it has raised the question of what effect it could have on his standing in a high-profile Republican primary already awash with shocking developments, including half of the candidates getting kicked off the primary ballot because of forged signatures on their candidacy ballots.
It’s widely known that Trump and his wing of the party are enthusiastic about politicians who embrace the lie that the 2020 election was rigged against him. But still, getting arrested for involvement in the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol takes things a step further: Kelley’s apparent involvement in the events of that day wasn’t mere affiliation with a baseless conspiracy theory, but, according to court records, unlawful participation in a violent bid to derail a democratic transfer of power to another president. It’s conceivable that news of the arrest could have been somewhat controversial in the primary.
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But right now, it’s looking like the arrest is actually an asset for Kelley. According to local media reports, the arrest has inspired influential Republicans in the state to rally behind him. “High-profile Michigan Republicans, including state GOP Chairman Ron Weiser, criticized law enforcement's handling of Kelley's case, and dozens of his supporters gathered outside a federal court building in Grand Rapids for his initial court appearance,” The Detroit News reported on Thursday. That crowd also included a Republican candidate for Michigan attorney general — you know, the state’s top law enforcement official.
Local strategists and activists are predicting that the arrest will yield a net benefit for Kelley's candidacy.
Moreover, local strategists and activists are predicting that the arrest will yield a net benefit for Kelley's candidacy. Matt Marko, president of the North Oakland Republican Club, told The Detroit News, “Among many Republicans, they feel this whole thing is a witch hunt, and it might bring him a certain sense of sympathy for having to go through an ordeal like that." A Republican Michigan state representative agreed with that sentiment. Those kinds of predictions matter because they can be self-fulfilling as they get filtered through partisan media, and party elites help voters determine what is and isn’t acceptable behavior when a politician breaches norms.
If Kelley sees a surge in the polls in the wake of the arrest, it’ll confirm that Trump’s 2020 disinformation campaign is continuing to break new ground in normalizing authoritarianism. But in reality, if Kelley’s candidacy does anything but plummet — which seems increasingly unlikely — it’s a terrible sign for the health of American democracy.