Kevin Rinke and the Rev. Ralph Rebandt particpate in a GOP gubernatorial debate in Warren, June 30, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins
With just over a month until the Aug. 2 GOP primary, all five of the remaining Republican gubernatorial candidates faced off in Warren on Thursday evening for their most contentious debate yet.
Topics ranged from God to drag queens in the hourlong, sold-out event that offered a cash bar for attendees. The panel was moderated by FOX-2’s Charlie Langton, M.L. Elrick of the Detroit Free Press and Patty McMurray of the far-right website 100PercentFedUp.com. The debate was sponsored by the right-wing Brighter Michigan PAC.
Far-right activist Ryan Kelley; chiropractor Garrett Soldano; right-wing media personality Tudor Dixon; businessman Kevin Rinke; and the Rev. Ralph Rebandt all participated. The winner of the primary will face Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Nov. 8.
Five more 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 — were kicked off the ballot last month for not submitting enough valid signatures due to widespread signature fraud.
Both Markey and Brown were present in the audience Thursday.
It was the first debate following the FBI arrest of Kelley, who is facing charges related to his participation in the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Kelley made mention of the arrest several times and said it is evidence that the “radical left” is trying to “silence him.”
Unlike other candidates who mingled with media and attendees after the debate, Kelley left quickly and did not offer a chance to speak with reporters.
It was the first debate following the FBI arrest of (Ryan) Kelley, who is facing charges related to his participation in the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Kelley made mention of the arrest several times and said it is evidence that the 'radical left' is trying to 'silence him.'
The debate did not have much on economic issues, like gas prices or inflation, but candidates instead focused on women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, COVID-19 and the 2020 election.
The forum came on the heels of the right-wing U.S. Supreme Court toppling Roe v. Wade legalizing abortion, which has caused many abortion rights advocates to also worry whether constitutional rights to same-sex marriage, contraceptives and more could be next on the chopping block. Justice Clarence Thomas indicated in his opinion in the abortion case that he is ready to reverse those decisions.
Abortion is still legal in Michigan for now, thanks to an injunction ordered by a judge. That temporary court-ordered halt is the only thing preventing a 1931 law — one of the country’s most restrictive abortion laws in the country — from snapping back into effect now that Roe is overturned.
All candidates on stage signaled their anti-abortion stances and cheering the end of Roe, with Rebandt stating that he “draw[s] the line where God does” in terms of abortion. In reference to similar rulings like same-sex marriage, Kelley said that the court “needs to start rolling back a lot of those things.”
Candidates then repeatedly pushed claims about the 2020 presidential election lost by former President Donald Trump that have been debunked many times over. False allegations included those about “ballot harvesting,” Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson acting improperly and more were pushed by the five Republicans.
First Soldano and Rinke, and then Kelley and Rebandt, argued over who has done the most to combat election “fraud” — which has not been proven in more than 250 state and local audits.
“Did you stop any of the fraud?” Kelley challenged Rebandt at one point.
Soldano also accused the other candidates of giving “lip service” by talking big without taking action.
On Attorney General Dana Nessel’s joke about having “a drag queen for every school” — which was in response to Republicans’ anti-LGBTQ+ agenda — Dixon promised she would bar drag queens from schools and ban students from learning about things like critical race theory.
Dixon and several GOP lawmakers held a press conference earlier Thursday at the Capitol vowing legislation action against drag queens. There is no evidence of drag queens being at Michigan schools.
“We are going to take every word they say seriously,” Dixon said on Nessel’s comment.
COVID-19 also was a frequent topic of discussion during the debate, with every candidate roundly criticizing Whitmer for her handling of the pandemic and occasionally spreading misinformation about the virus that has killed more than 1 million Americans and 36,000 Michiganders. Cases have begun to rise in Michigan for the first time in five weeks.
Slamming Whitmer, Rebandt said he would surround himself with “doctors who are not politicized,” while Rinke claimed, without evidence, that Whitmer has prioritized politics over medical expertise. The candidates criticized her roundly for COVID-19 health orders that have not been in effect for more than a year.
Kelley, at one point, ripped the other candidates for attending the last debate, held on Mackinac Island as part of the Detroit Chamber of Commerce’s annual policy conference.
The conference has a requirement for all attendees to be vaccinated against COVID-19. As none of the candidates are vaccinated, the chamber made an exception while opting to hold the debate outside under a tent.
Kelley had boycotted the debate on the basis of its vaccination requirement (though he and the other candidates were granted exceptions). On Thursday, he said the conference “segregated” the unvaccinated candidates by holding the debate outside.
After the debate, Macomb County Chair Eric Castiglia and presumptive Attorney General nominee Matthew DePerno both spoke to reporters.
“Let’s face it: Gretchen Whitmer is a pro” on the debate stage, Castiglia told reporters afterward. “So when they go against her, this is nothing [compared] to what they’re going to go against.”
Castiglia said that he will not endorse any one candidate prior to the primary, as he believes voters should decide.
Presumptive GOP Secretary of State nominee Kristina Karamo and a number of party officials like Michigan GOP Co-Chair Meshawn Maddock were also present.
DePerno again declined to pick a favorite candidate, but said he thinks Michiganders want to focus on “bread-and-butter issues” that affect their daily lives.
He also repeated his promise to prosecute Nessel, but could not answer directly when asked what alleged crimes for which he would prosecute her. DePerno, who has gone after some reporters on social media, said he will count on the press corps to uncover alleged wrongdoings that he would then investigate.
Both DePerno and Karamo have been endorsed by Trump, who has yet to make his pick in the state’s gubernatorial primary.
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