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How Trump’s footprint is all over Michigan’s race for governor

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How Trump’s footprint is all over Michigan’s race for governor

Jul 30, 2022 | 4:48 am ET
By Anna Gustafson Susan J. Demas
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How Trump’s footprint is all over Michigan’s race for governor
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Flag at at a Trump Rally outside the Michigan State Capitol Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020 | Anna Liz Nichols

Days before Michigan’s Republican gubernatorial primary on Tuesday, former President Donald Trump made an announcement some of his supporters had begged him not to do: He just might endorse right-wing media personality Tudor Dixon for governor. 

“Giving Tudor Dixon a good, hard look,” Trump wrote Friday morning on Truth Social, the social media company he founded after being kicked off Twitter in the wake of attempting to overturn the 2020 election he lost to President Joe Biden.

“Brought her to everyone’s attention at our big Michigan Rally,” Trump wrote, referring to the April 2 rally he held in Macomb County. “All of her supporters are working hard for Endorsement/Victory. Stay tuned!”

Later that evening, Trump made it official with a typically flamboyant statement, much to the chagrin of the other GOP candidates and many of his most ardent supporters.

“When I met Tudor Dixon, she was not well known, but I could tell she had something very special — it was a quality that few others have. She delivered a powerful speech on how she would lead Michigan, fight for Election Integrity, turn around the Economy, and protect the future of Michigan for every child. Then, after recognizing her during my Rally speech in April, her campaign took off like a rocket ship. The great people of Michigan got it — just like I did,” Trump wrote just after 8 p.m.

How Trump’s footprint is all over Michigan’s race for governor
Tudor Dixon participates in a GOP gubernatorial debate as part of the Mackinac Island Policy Conference, June 2, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins

Trump’s announcement comes at the tail end of a race dominated by conspiracy theories about the 2020 election — namely that Trump won, which he did not — and one in which all of the candidates have clamored to appear cozy with the former president and the policies he, and now largely Republicans nationwide, have embraced.

Dixon, far-right activist Ryan Kelley, businessman Kevin Rinke, the Rev. Ralph Rebandt and chiropractor Garrett Soldano will face off in Tuesday’s GOP gubernatorial primary on Tuesday following a race that has been largely molded by Trump and Trumpian, national right-wing talking points, from a barrage of disinformation about the 2020 election to transphobic attacks.

The winner will face Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in the November general election.

Rebandt told the Advance Friday before Trump made his endorsement that it would be a mistake for him to pick Dixon. 

“If he endorsed her, it would turn off people who are grassroots towards him,” Rebandt said.

The Michigan Republican Party appears to be somewhat in flux right now — with many devotees to the ex-president, but there are signs of waning support. (For example, in a hypothetical 2024 primary between Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, 45% of Michigan GOP voters polled by the Detroit News said they would vote for Trump and 42% backed DeSantis. However, polls more than two years before an election are hardly predictive of results.)

How Trump’s footprint is all over Michigan’s race for governor
The Rev. Ralph Rebandt participates in a GOP gubernatorial debate on WKAR’s Off the Record, July 15, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins

Trump’s Dixon endorsement means that the former president who many Republicans fete as a renegade — someone who fights political insiders, despite him and his administration being mired in corruption and failing to achieve Trump’s campaign promise to “drain the swamp” — is backing a candidate routinely slammed by the other GOP gubernatorial contenders as being “establishment” because she has landed the endorsement and financial backing of the billionaire DeVos family. 

The political powerbrokers in West Michigan — including Trump’s former secretary of education, Betsy DeVos — have funneled about $1 million into Dixon’s campaign, according to campaign filings with the state. This isn’t unusual. For decades, the DeVoses have been big spenders on GOP candidates in Michigan and nationwide, as well as on right-wing causes like school vouchers. They donated at least $82 million between 1999 and 2016, according to the nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

Dixon also has racked up endorsements from leaders like former Gov. John Engler, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake), as well as powerful right-wing interest groups like the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and Right to Life of Michigan. And she is set to be a guest on “Fox News Sunday” just before the Tuesday primary.

There were prior rumblings that the ex-president could endorse Dixon, who Trump praised during a February fundraiser for her at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. She’s not the only GOP gubernatorial hopeful to make a pilgrimage to Trump’s compound; Kelley and Rebandt attended a fundraising event for likely GOP Attorney General nominee Matthew DePerno in March. Meanwhile, Rinke, who has poured millions into his own campaign, is fond of making comparisons to himself and Trump as outsiders and successful businessmen.

But Dixon was the only gubernatorial candidate Trump mentioned by name during his April rally in Michigan (a fact he deemed significant enough to stress in his official endorsement, which he said caused her campaign to take off “like a rocket ship.”) 

With Dixon clearly catching the former president’s attention, that led to Soldano begging Trump not to intervene in the governor’s race. He issued a Facebook live video on July 20 arguing that the “DeVos empire” has “basically abandoned you, sir.”

How Trump’s footprint is all over Michigan’s race for governor
Garrett Soldano participates in a GOP gubernatorial debate on WKAR’s Off the Record, July 15, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins

Other Michigan candidates endorsed by Trump tried, as well, sending him a letter asking him “not to work with Betsy DeVos.” And key Trump ally Meshawn Maddock, who was one of the fake GOP electors in 2020 and is now co-chair of the Michigan GOP — which DeVos used to chair — tweeted Thursday, “Anyone who claims that DeVos isn’t working against Trump in Michigan isn’t paying attention.”

On Friday, Kelley released a campaign video formatted as a message to Trump, complete with him walking with his family in the woods, in an effort to elicit the ex-president’s support.

Soldano also gave it one last shot on Friday — to no avail.

“Mr. President, you have a choice to be with the grassroots who back you 100%, or with the establishment who supports you only when it benefits them,” the Soldano campaign wrote on Facebook. “Let us fight this battle. We’re gonna be behind the nominee, but don’t side with the Devos family!”

One of the main issues Trump backers have blasted DeVos over is resigning from his administration after his supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in an effort to overturn the 2020 election. She also told Michigan Republicans at their biennial confab on Mackinac Island last year that the GOP movement is not dependent on “any one person” in a thinly veiled jab at her former boss.

Dixon, who did not respond to a request for comment for this story, tweeted Friday night that she was “honored” to have received Trump’s blessing and already looked ahead to the Nov. 8 general election, adding, “We will unite Michigan and defeat Gretchen Whitmer.” (Her pinned tweet from April 3 also is an homage to Trump, a video of his last Michigan rally with the comment, “Thank you for the nice comments, President Trump! We’re working very hard to win back Michigan!”)

Trump giving his blessing to Dixon is likely to be a blow to the other candidates in the primary, political experts told the Advance. That includes Kelley — a die-hard Trump supporter who was arrested by the FBI in June for participating in the Jan. 6 insurrection — something some pundits opined could bolster his chances in the primary. 

How Trump’s footprint is all over Michigan’s race for governor
Republican gubernatorial candidate Ryan Kelley attends a Republican gubernatorial in Howell on May 13, 2022. (Andrew Roth | Michigan Advance)

But beyond the last-minute Dixon endorsement, Trump’s footprint is all over the Republican race for governor in terms of what the candidates have focused on. That includes pushing disinformation about the 2020 election — every candidate but Rinke has said the 2020 election was stolen, but Rinke has said there was “fraud” and released a TV ad with widely debunked claims. 

Candidates also have made bigoted remarks about the LGBTQ+ community. Trump and his administration were notoriously anti-LGBTQ+. Just a few weeks after Trump’s inauguration, for example, the administration rescinded the Obama administration’s guidance to schools on transgrender students that required schools to protect transgender students from harassment, accommodate students’ preferred pronouns, and give transgender students access to the locker rooms and bathrooms of their choice. 

And, as has been the case nationwide, the campaign has been overwhelmingly dominated by conservative national talking points.

“You see much more nationalized primaries where Republican primaries are about the affiliation with Trump,” said Matt Grossmann, a political science professor at Michigan State University.

Trumpian language also has also bled into GOP politics, including the Michigan gubernatorial race, experts said. 

“The rhetoric of politics seems to have declined in quality” both with Trump and in his wake, said Jonathan Hanson, a political scientist and lecturer at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy. 

“It’s always been a little shallow — there have been a lot of platitudes and not a lot of specifics – but we’ve gotten to a point where Trump took that rhetoric and corrupted it with these transparently ridiculous things he would say,” Hanson continued. 

Trump’s rhetoric got to a point where his followers would chant alongside him to jail his 2016 Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. “Lock her up!” became a ubiquitous phrase at Trump rallies. After he slammed Whitmer at an October 2020 Michigan rally just days after federal and state officials announced arrests in a far-right assassination plot against her, his supporters broke into a “lock her up” chant against the governor.

How Trump’s footprint is all over Michigan’s race for governor
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gives an update on COVID-19, March 18, 2020 | Susan J. Demas

“That kind of rhetoric would have been beyond the pale in prior elections,” Hanson said, adding that he’s seen that kind of extreme language “mirrored in the governor’s race.”

“What you’re seeing is there’s a growing willingness to say things that would’ve been seen as outrageous not too long ago,” Hanson said — such as claiming the current president of the United States stole an election.

Similarly, DePerno, who also sports Trump’s endorsement, has said he would prosecute his opponent, Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel, for referring the fraudulent Michigan Trump electors to the Department of Justice for investigation, among other issues upon which he’s declined to elaborate. 

While this kind of Trumpian language and extremism may play to candidates’ advantage in the primary, these increasingly right-wing stances on issues like abortion and being anti-LGBTQ+ could seriously hurt them in November’s general election against Whitmer, political experts said.

J. Miles Coleman, an associate editor at Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan political analysis newsletter run by the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said the candidates’ focus on so-called “cultural war” issues “could end up playing in the Democrats’ favor, especially if Republicans overplay their hand.”

“Whitmer’s win in 2018 was built on the backs of higher-income, more college-educated parts of the state,” Coleman said, adding that in the wake of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade and a Michigan ballot initiative that would enshrine the right to abortion in the state Constitution, “that group is charged up this year.”

“If we go into a recession, I can see it being a single-issue election, but I think those cultural issues matter,” Coleman said.

One thing I look at to size up how vulnerable governors could be is how strict their mask requirements were during lockdown. Whitmer got a lot of criticism; she should be a governor who is highly vulnerable, but instead we have her race leaning Democrat.

– J. Miles Coleman, an associate editor at Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan political analysis newsletter run by the University of Virginia Center for Politics

Candidates haven’t solely focused on national talking points. Their efforts to discuss local issues have largely centered around attacking Whitmer over her early pandemic policies aimed at curbing COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations. However, Michigan has had virtually no pandemic restrictions since July 2021.

But while other governors who enacted pandemic health measures — such as mask mandates and limits on gatherings — could be vulnerable in their elections, Coleman said that doesn’t appear to be the case for Whitmer. 

“One thing I look at to size up how vulnerable governors could be is how strict their mask requirements were during lockdown,” Coleman said. “Whitmer got a lot of criticism; she should be a governor who is highly vulnerable, but instead we have her race leaning Democrat.

“There’s not a single legislator running against her; I thought that was interesting that these higher-stature Republicans were taking a pass,” Coleman continued.

Grossmann also noted this lack of candidates with a legislative background. 

“We have no one with any experience,” Grossmann said, noting that could be another reason that candidates have focused largely on cultural issues — because they don’t have a background in government or economic policy to discuss. 

“No one is really asked about their record,” Grossmann continued. “Governing is still mostly about economic issues, but there’s no opportunity to examine anyone’s record because they don’t have any. We don’t know much about how these people would govern.”

How Trump’s footprint is all over Michigan’s race for governor
Kevin Rinke participates in a GOP gubernatorial debate as part of the Mackinac Island Policy Conference, June 2, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins

This lack of a record translates to a gubernatorial field with little name recognition, experts said. While candidates have landed major endorsements, particularly Dixon, that seemingly hasn’t boosted name recognition to the degree candidates would likely want, experts said.

“Dixon is sort of a tenuous frontrunner — sort of,” Coleman said. 

Hanson said right-wing candidates often use “cultural wedge” issues to distract lower- and middle-income voters from the candidates’ economic policies, like tax cuts for the wealthy.

“They’re finding these kinds of issues that are working for them, especially with their base right now in the primaries,” Hanson said of Michigan’s gubernatorial candidates. “It will be interesting to see if they shift gears a little bit, whoever wins, when they get towards the general election. I think broadly speaking the strategy of conservatives has been to use these cultural wedge issues as a way to reach out to constituents that don’t necessarily benefit from their economic policies.”

However, abortion doesn’t appear to be an issue cutting in Republicans’ favor in Michigan. A recent Data for Progress poll reported 80% of Michiganders said the government “should not have a say in personal matters like a person’s sexual preference or gender identity.” That’s consistent with earlier surveys, like an August 2020 poll done by North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling that found 77% of Michigan voters agree that any decision about pregnancy should be made by the pregnant person. 

This support contrasts with the gubernatorial candidates: Every single GOP gubernatorial candidate has said they supported the Supreme Court’s decision on Roe v. Wade and back banning abortion in Michigan, which currently remains legal in the state. Every candidate also slammed the left for what they call “woke” stances on gender-neutral language and issued a series of transphobic comments during their final debate on Wednesday. 

Traditional journalism doesn’t work very well with this phenomenon with what’s happening with our campaigning. … It’s not all about the horse race; it’s about our system. If we know these statements are lies (such as about the 2020 election), is it the responsibility of the reporter to call it a lie? I think so.

– Jonathan Hanson, a political scientist and lecturer at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy

The candidates’ transphobic attacks come at a time when the LGBTQ+ community, both nationally and in the state, is facing a coordinated legislative pushback on gay and transgender rights. GOP lawmakers in Michigan and across the country have introduced anti-trans bills, equated LGBTQ+ people with pedophiles and more while denying protections for transgender people — 82% of whom have considered killing themselves and 40% of whom have attempted suicide.

These stances, however, don’t always make their way into most coverage of the race, with some outlets tending to focus on more “horse race” aspects of the campaign — such as how candidates are attacking Whitmer or polling. This, experts said, is problematic, particularly when there are extremist candidates who have falsely claimed the 2020 election was stolen and support a wide variety of voter restrictions, including getting rid of ballot boxes.

“Traditional journalism doesn’t work very well with this phenomenon with what’s happening with our campaigning,” Hanson said. “… It’s not all about the horse race; it’s about our system. If we know these statements are lies [such as with the 2020 election], is it the responsibility of the reporter to call it a lie? I think so.”

On that note: The GOP candidates running for governor are lying about the 2020 election. Whether that will matter in this election is yet to be seen.