Several little-known Michigan conservatives vied Tuesday for the Republican nomination to face Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, as infighting over the 2020 election has split the party and threatens to hobble the GOP’s efforts in the battleground state.
Many of the five hopefuls have personal baggage that could pose challenges in a general election, including a candidate who was charged for his role in the Capitol insurrection. None of the five has held public office, and their inability so far to raise money to compete with Whitmer’s multimillion-dollar campaign account has dashed some Republicans’ once-high hopes of unseating the first-term incumbent.
“To be really blunt in a historical context, this is not the Republican A game,” said longtime Michigan pollster Richard Czuba.
Former President Donald Trump on Friday endorsed Tudor Dixon, which could help her break out of a four-candidate pack that has been close to tied in polling during the final weeks, after other top candidates didn’t make the ballot because they didn’t file enough valid nominating signatures.
Dixon is a former steel industry executive who also hosted a conservative program on a streaming channel and once acted in low-budget zombie movies in what her campaign described as an “admittedly lame” hobby. She also has backing from the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, several anti-abortion groups, and the prominent Michigan Republican family of Betsy DeVos, who was education secretary in Trump’s Cabinet but was critical of him and resigned after the Jan. 6, 2021, riot.
Trump’s endorsement drew new criticism from other candidates, who have blasted Dixon as the “establishment” pick. They include real estate broker Ryan Kelley, who pleaded not guilty to misdemeanors in the Capitol riot; chiropractor Garrett Soldano; and former auto dealership owner Kevin Rinke. Pastor Ralph Rebandt also is running.
In a Facebook video, Soldano called Dixon a “vulnerable RINO,” an acronym for Republican in name only. He predicted he will win with the help of a “grassroots army” that came together when Soldano organized protests against Whitmer’s COVID-19 restrictions.
“We will not vanish without a fight. This is our party. This is our state. This is our country,” Soldano said.
Voter Mark Orsinger of Grand Rapids said he decided to cast his ballot for Dixon after Trump’s endorsement.
“I didn’t know Tudor until Trump mentioned her,” Orsinger said. “She seems like an OK person. I only know her from 20 seconds of a commercial.”
Contentious primaries are not new, but the hostility seems heightened in some places this year as Republicans split over whether to relitigate the 2020 election or look ahead, including to the 2024 presidential race. The divide has been particularly public and pronounced in Michigan, where Trump has pushed the lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him and has endorsed many candidates who back him — including for secretary of state and attorney general — with an eye on a possible 2024 bid.
Michigan is also among states where subpoenas have been issued to “fake electors” who submitted paperwork saying Trump, not Joe Biden, won the state’s election.
Trump lost Michigan by about 154,000 votes in 2020, and multiple audits and courts — as well as an investigation by the Republican-led state Senate — have upheld that.
Yet all of the GOP governor candidates say there was fraud in 2020, and all but Rinke have said they believe the election was stolen from Trump. In a recent debate, Soldano said Trump is “still my president.”
Dixon raised her hand during a debate when candidates were asked who among them believes the election was stolen. She has been less explicit in recent weeks, criticizing Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and saying on Fox News Sunday, “We have to make sure our elections are secure and what happened in 2020 doesn’t happen again.”
Restrictions Whitmer put in place to fight COVID-19 were a factor for all of the candidates in deciding to join the race. Kelley organized rallies against the governor, including one where armed paramilitary groups entered the Michigan Statehouse.
On other issues, the candidates hold many similar positions that could be a tough sell for independent voters who decide elections in Michigan.
All of the candidates oppose abortion, with Dixon, Kelley, Rinke and Soldano allowing exceptions only to save the mother’s life. Rinke also says abortion should be allowed in cases of rape or incest.
On education, the candidates agree they would end “critical race theory” from being taught in Michigan public schools. Dixon wants all districts to post teaching materials and curriculum online for parents to review and says families should be able to use per-student state funds on private schools, home schooling or other education settings of their choice. Kelley said that on his first day as governor he would eliminate any diversity, equity and inclusion positions in Michigan schools.
Rinke wants to eliminate Michigan’s personal income tax, though he hasn’t outlined how he would account for the $11 billion in lost revenue for the state.
Trump’s late-stage endorsement of Dixon could give him a win to tout, though he also has experienced some high-profile defeats.
Grand Rapids resident Robert Marty said Trump’s endorsement made no difference in his decision, and that if Dixon wins the nomination, he’s not sure if he will vote for her in November. Marty, 52, voted for Soldano.
“I saw a lot of him when the protests in Lansing happened and he’s been really vocal,” Marty said. “I feel like of all the candidates, I know him the best.”
Associated Press writers Joey Cappelletti in Grand Rapids and Mike Householder in Delhi Township contributed to this report.