Michigan Republicans have been suffering through a topsy-turvy primary to challenge Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Now, the party’s old establishment is trying to settle it.
Many of the state’s Republican power players are coalescing around conservative media personality Tudor Dixon ahead of the Aug. 2 primary. Dixon has scored endorsements from the state Chamber of Commerce, the anti-abortion group Michigan Right to Life and the state branch of Americans for Prosperity. Perhaps most critically, the DeVos family — which has long been influential in Michigan’s conservative movement and includes former Trump-era Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos — got behind Dixon.
The hope is that Dixon can turn her attention to beating Whitmer soon — and put an end to the many distractions that have plagued the GOP’s nominating contest.
First, two of the top contenders were booted from the primary after their campaigns were caught up in a fraud scandal over their petition signatures to get on the ballot, with the one-time frontrunner vowing to carry on with an ill-fated write-in campaign. Then, the first poll of the diminished field found a little-known real estate broker leading the pack — only for him to be arrested by the FBI on charges of participating in the breach of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
“You can write a small book about all the weird twists and turns that the campaign took,” said Fred Wszolek, who runs a pro-Dixon super PAC called Michigan Strong. “But she just really worked hard, and caught a couple lucky breaks and made the most of it.”
A pair of polls released last week has had Dixon leading the field, but far from a runaway favorite. She was at 28 percent in a MIRS survey, and 19 percent in a Detroit News/WDIV poll. Dixon is trying to hold off a charge from Kevin Rinke, a first-time candidate and businessman who has poured millions of his own money into his campaign. Rinke was second in both of those recent polls, at 20 percent and 15 percent, respectively.
And both polls still showed a large chunk of voters undecided: 26 percent in the former, and a 38 percent plurality in the latter.
Meanwhile, both Ryan Kelley — the candidate who was arrested by the FBI, and who insists he will be vindicated — and anti-lockdown chiropractor Garrett Soldano are still in the race. Neither have shown much institutional support and there are big questions about their fundraising ability — a boost Kelley said he got shortly after his arrest notwithstanding. Still, both polled in double digits in the two recent public polls, within striking distance in a divided field.
The Dixon campaign is projecting confidence a week out. “Our internals show a strong and growing lead going into Election Day, and continuing to convert a higher proportion of those voters who have been educated on Tudor,” said James Blair, the lead strategist for the campaign. “Our trajectory is up, I feel good saying that.”
In fundraising reports due on Friday, Rinke poured millions more into his campaign, while Dixon outraised the remainder of the GOP field — even as Whitmer lapped them all. Still, despite Whitmer’s financial and polling advantages, strategists in both parties expect the general election could be highly competitive, given the political environment and Michigan’s swing-state status.
“We are the only campaign with the resources and most importantly, the right candidate, to take on Gretchen Whitmer this fall,” said Katie Martin, a senior adviser to Rink. “We are seeing clearly that if you hear what Kevin Rinke’s plans are for Michigan, you are on board, and we have had the resources to deliver that message.”
Rinke’s campaign has well outspent Dixon’s on the airwaves since the start of this month, with the Dixon operation largely deferring to an outside super PAC, Michigan Families United, to do advertising. Rinke’s campaign has spent $1.5 million on TV and radio advertising since the start of July and through the primary, according to data from the ad tracking firm AdImpact. Dixon’s has spent just $101,000, with the super PAC picking up the slack with $1.1 million worth of spending.
Rinke’s most-played ad is a spot that compares him positively to the former president: “An outsider and businessman like President Trump.” But his latest flight of ads tries to flip Dixon’s growing list of endorsements on its head, arguing that “the establishment” is behind her candidacy — and provocatively targeting DeVos as an anti-Donald Trump Republican.
DeVos resigned the day after the Jan. 6 insurrecution after she came to believe invoking the 25th Amendment was not possible, POLITICO reported last year.
“Tudor Dixon’s campaign is bankrolled by never-Trumpers, liberal billionaires and anti-MAGA turncoat Betsy DeVos,” the ad’s narrator intones, attacking the former education secretary.
Dixon was also the main target during a Wednesday night debate. Rinke, Kelley and Soldano all went after her and “the establishment” on stage.
“I think it’s interesting these three guys seem to be upset about the establishment,” she said during the debate, leaning into the attacks. “Maybe they should define ‘establishment’ and how they would actually work with this mysterious ‘establishment’ that seems to be elected officials that they are so against.”
One big unknown still looms over the governor’s race: Whether Trump will get involved — and, if he does, who he will back. The former president endorsed early in Michigan’s two other major statewide contests, backing election conspiracy theorists Kristina Karamo and Matt DePerno for secretary of state and attorney general, respectively. Trump has also endorsed in a slew of legislative races in the state.
“If he endorses, he probably is the kingmaker, because this thing is so fluid and because none of the candidates have really carved out any real identity or support,” said Jason Cabel Roe, a veteran Republican strategist and former executive director of the state party who was nudged out in 2021 after criticizing Trump. “In the absence of the endorsement, I give Tudor a slight edge.”
Perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, Soldano last week urged Trump to “stay out of this race,” saying the grassroots would be unhappy if he backed the “DeVos empire” and their candidate in Dixon. Soldano had previously publicly sought Trump’s endorsement.
Candidates have also been jockeying for Trump’s support behind the scenes, with Dixon telling reporters after Wednesday’s debate that the former president is “very interested” in the state and that she has spoken with him recently.
Roe — who is not working on the governor’s race — said that he was worried about most of the gubernatorial field’s ability to compete with Whitmer, which coupled with other weak statewide candidates could have a spillover effect to state legislative races as well.
The 2022 elections are the first election held under map lines drawn by an independent commission, replacing last decade’s lines that were drawn by a Republican legislature and were skewed toward their party. Both Democrats’ and Republicans’ national legislative committees have named Michigan as top battlegrounds in 2022.
“The only way to salvage Republican opportunities to take advantage of the red wave is Dixon,” Roe said.
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