GOP gov. candidates infuse debate with conspiracies about Whitmer, voting and COVID

Hopefuls agree on banning abortion, rejecting gun reforms

By: - June 3, 2022 6:54 am

Tudor Dixon, the Rev. Ralph Rebandt, Kevin Rinke and Garrett Soldano participate in a GOP gubernatorial debate as part of the Mackinac Island Policy Conference, June 2, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins

Four of the five remaining GOP candidates for governor squared off for a debate Thursday on Mackinac Island, with the discussion running the gamut from banning abortion to mass shootings, and from election fraud claims to slashing state spending.

Since the GOP gubernatorial candidates are unvaccinated against COVID-19, the event was held in an outdoor tent on the front lawn of the Grand Hotel as part of the Mackinac Island Policy Conference. Far-right activist Ryan Kelley boycotted the event in protest of the conference’s vaccine requirement, even though it had been waived for gubernatorial candidates and debate attendees.

Businessman Kevin Rinke, right-wing media personality Tudor Dixon, chiropractor Garrett Soldano and the Rev. Ralph Rebandt participated in the debate. The winner of the GOP primary will face Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Nov. 8.

Five candidates — financial adviser Michael Markey, former Detroit Police Chief James Craig, businesswoman Donna Brandenburg, self-described “quality guru” Perry Johnson and Michigan State Police Capt. Michael Brown — have been kicked off the ballot as of now for not submitting enough valid signatures.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gives the keynote address at the 2022 Mackinac Policy Conference on June 2, 2022 | Allison R. Donahue

Following recent mass shootings like those in New York and Texas last month, the candidates were asked about guns in schools. They emphasized militarizing schools and tackling mental health issues as topline solutions to prevent further deaths instead of taking action on guns.

Polling has consistently shown support for gun control, such as a new Politico/Morning Consult survey showing 88% support universal background checks, 67% support an assault weapons ban and 84% support “red flag” laws.

“Our schools right now are a soft target. We have to make sure we harden our schools,” Dixon said, suggesting that some of the unused COVID-19 funds should be put toward that end.

Rinke suggested that former military members should train hall monitors, while Soldano said teachers should be armed and schools should only have one point of entry.

“We don’t have a gun problem; we have a mental health crisis,” Soldano said.

Rebandt took a different route and said that the issue of mass shootings stems from the fact that “we’ve taken God out of the classroom.”

Candidates also backed the Secure MI Vote initiative, which Republicans rolled out after Whitmer vetoed a slew of voter suppression bills put forward by the GOP-led Legislature. As many did at a debate in Livingston County last month, several hopefuls continued to espouse conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election that former President Donald Trump lost.

COVID-19 conspiracies also abounded, with most of those casting a negative light on Whitmer, similar to comments made at the Livingston County forum.

Soldano noted that in addition to supporting medical and religious waivers for COVID-19, he would add a “philosophical waiver” as an option to refuse the vaccine.

Dixon pledged to make sure all of the bills pass if she becomes governor.

Abortion was another area with little disagreement among the GOP candidates, who all oppose a ban and described themselves Thursday as “unapologetically pro-life.”

Earlier on Thursday, Whitmer was enthusiastically cheered by business leaders, lobbyists and lawmakers when she vowed in her keynote address to continue her fight for reproductive rights.

But Dixon contended that Democrats like Whitmer are “working to get the most radical abortion laws on the books that they can possibly get on the books in the state of Michigan.

“We cannot let that happen,” said Dixon, who just won the endorsement of Right to Life of Michigan.

Michigan has one of the country’s most restrictive abortion laws in the country that could snap into effect if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, although a judge recently issued an injunction. 

A Detroit News/WDIV-TV poll from earlier this year found that 67% of Michigan voters believe Roe v. Wade should be upheld.

Soldano at one point suggested that state universities should privately raise their own funds rather than receiving state funding, even though the Legislature is constitutionally obligated to fund them.

“A lot of the funding that we’re giving them should be raised privately,” he said. 

Rebandt proposed eliminating the state’s more than $10 billion General Fund budget, which funds the Michigan State Police, state parks, local governments, prisons, state universities, community colleges and more.

Michigan currently has a more than $5 billion surplus.

Dixon appeared to insinuate that Whitmer is “buying votes” by spending some of that money close to the November election, even though federal funding was passed in 2020 and 2021. Additionally, governors are not able to appropriate funding; only the Legislature can and the governor has the power to sign or veto legislation.

“It’s crucial that this is not spent by this current administration. … It is too tempting to buy votes right now. We need to make sure that money is on hold” until the next administration, Dixon said.

After the debate, Dixon insisted to reporters that she never accused Whitmer of buying votes and is merely urging caution.

Presumptive GOP Attorney General nominee Matthew DePerno watched from the back of the crowd, occasionally taking notes. He later told reporters that he had identified a “clear frontrunner” in the race but declined to say who it was.

Michigan Republican Party Co-Chair Meshawn Maddock, presumptive GOP Secretary of State nominee Kristina Karamo and Michigan Republican Party Chair Ron Weiser were also at the debate

Both DePerno and Karamo have been endorsed by Trump, who has yet to make his pick in the Michigan gubernatorial primary.


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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins is a former Michigan Advance reporter. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service.