GOP gubernatorial candidates embrace election conspiracies, reject gun reform in debate

By: - July 7, 2022 8:32 am

Four of the candidates seeking the Republican nomination for Michigan governor took the stage Wednesday night in Grand Rapids in a debate aired statewide.

While right-wing commentator Tudor Dixon, far-right activist Ryan Kelley, businessman Kevin Rinke and chiropractor Garrett Soldano shared ideological ground on issues such as abortion, gun control and the validity of the 2020 election lost by former President Donald Trump, they battled over how to deal with inflation and reduce taxes.

Kevin Rinke at the WOOD-TV debate, July 6, 2022 | Screenshot

The GOP candidate who was not present at the 90-minute debate at Grand Valley State University was the Rev. Ralph Rebandt of Farmington Hills.

The debate, hosted by the Michigan Republican Party in partnership with WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids, was also carried by stations in Lansing, Detroit, Traverse City and Marquette.

Early on, they were asked to clarify their stance on abortion in light of the U.S. Supreme Court recently overturning of Roe v. Wade. While all four said they were in complete agreement with that decision, Kelley, Dixon and Soldano said they only favored an exemption for the life of the mother, while Rinke has said he would also include incest or rape.

Dixon touted her endorsement by Right to Life of Michigan, which prompted Kelley to interject at the end of the segment that the endorsement wasn’t necessarily a slam dunk with party faithful.

“Right to Life endorsed Tom Leonard and he lost to Matt DePerno big time,” said Kelly, referring to the former House speaker who lost to Matthew DePerno in the Michigan GOP’s endorsement for attorney general.

Ryan Kelley at the WOOD-TV debate, July 6, 2022 | Screenshot

Meanwhile, despite the most recent mass shooting at a July 4th parade in Highland Park, Ill., that killed seven people, all four candidates rejected additional gun control measures, including so-called “red flag” laws meant to keep guns out of the hands of people who are mentally ill or a danger to others. 

“What laws can we pass that criminals will follow?” asked Kelley, a West Michigan real estate broker. “None. They’re already breaking laws.” 

On June 9, Kelley was arraigned on charges in federal court related to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection to overturn the 2020 election, including knowingly entering or remaining in a restricted building or grounds on Jan. 6, disorderly and disruptive conduct in a restricted building or grounds, knowingly engaging in any act of physical violence against person or property in any restricted building or grounds, and willfully injuring or committing any depredation against any property of the United States.

Soldano, who is from Kalamazoo, rejected any attempt to rein in gun violence legislatively, saying the issue was politically motivated.

“Look, we all know the progressive left do everything they can, unfortunately every mass shooting, they’re always trying to go after the guns,” said Soldano. “We do not have a gun problem. …We have a mental health problem.”

However, the United States has the highest death toll from gun violence of all other high-income countrie, with more than 110 Americans dying from guns every day, including suicides and homicides, for an average of 40,620 per year. 

Dixon, who is also from West Michigan, said a “red flag” law in Illinois had failed to stop Monday’s shooting after police had visited the shooter’s home previously and confiscated knives. However, the alleged shooter’s father reportedly signed off on his gun application.

Rinke, who is from Oakland County, said the problem was with people, not guns, and falsely suggested that military-style weapons aren’t sold at gun stores. 

That’s despite the fact that AR-15 rifles, which many consider a military-type weapon, are commonly sold across the country. AR-15-style semi automatic rifles have also been used in numerous mass shootings, including at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, that killed 19 students and two teachers, as well as at Monday’s shooting in Highland Park.

Another point of harmony came in answer to a question from the audience asking each candidate to state whether they believed the 2020 presidential election in Michigan was stolen. 

Tudor Dixon at the WOOD-TV debate, July 6, 2022 | Screenshot

Despite hundreds of state and local audits to the contrary, along with a GOP-led Michigan Senate Government Oversight Committee report that said the election was fair, all four candidates used the question to perpetuate disproven conspiracy theories.

“The answer for me is that yes, the 2020 election in the state of Michigan was fraudulent and it was stolen from President Trump,” said Kelley, who is set to be arraigned Thursday morning on misdemeanor charges related to the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol to stop the electoral vote count for President Joe Biden’s victory.

“There’s no question that there was fraud,” said Rinke, who has run a TV ad with that baseless claim. “There’s no question that ‘2000 Mules’ shows us how it was done or could have been done.” 

Rinke was referencing pro-Trump filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza’s conspiracy-laden movie that makes repeatedly debunked claims about cell phone tracking data and phony ballots. All four candidates cited the movie in their belief, without evidence, that the election was fraudulent.

As expected, all four pledged they would cut taxes as well as reduce the state’s budget if elected, although they differed on just how that would be achieved. 

Kelley proposed to eliminate entirely the state’s corporate income tax, which would be paid for with across-the-board budget cuts.

“Our budget continues to grow every single year. I think we look at a zero basis budget, not what we spent last year, match that, and then continue to grow it. Find out what our specific departments and agencies need in order to operate and be prosperous. If you look at my hundred day plan, which is found on my website, you’ll see that a budget audit is part of that a hundred day plan. So we can understand where that wasteful spending is coming from and look at that zero-basis budget.”

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the GOP-led Legislature just agreed on a $76 billion budget after months of negotiations that did not contain big budget cuts. They have not agreed on a tax cut plan.

Garrett Soldano at the WOOD-TV debate, July 6, 2022 | Screenshot

While Rinke and Soldano said they would do away with the state’s personal income tax, Dixon proposed to do so gradually.

“It’s not possible to immediately get rid of that income tax, because you have to replace that with something else,” Dixon said. “So you have to be very careful with that to make sure that you don’t rob Peter to pay Paul. We have to take that income tax and reduce it over time. That’s the quickest way to get money into the pockets of Michigan people to make sure their hard earned money is going back to them.”

None of the candidates provided specifics on just how those cuts would be achieved and which programs or departments would need to be cut, such as K-12 education, Michigan State Police or local government funding.

One significant area of dispute arose when Soldano accused Dixon of not representing the values of conservative voters.

“You are backed by the establishment,” Soldano said, referring to Dixon. “You’re backed by the DeVos empire and I think as Michiganders, we’re sick and tired of the career politicians and these establishments having control over all of us and having somebody’s administration bought and paid for, which yours is, Mrs.  Dixon.”

When Dixon suggested Soldano had also sought an endorsement by the DeVos family in a closed-door meeting, he bristled at the implication.

“She’s lying,” he said. “Every candidate in this room was at that same business-associated meeting. We were all in that banquet. I didn’t get ushered in after [to] a closed-door, behind-the-scenes [meeting], not at all. And this is the establishment politicians that we’re sick and tired of folks who have given us lip service, lying and not telling the truth. And that’s why we need somebody who loves this country and loves this flag, that’s going to be bought and paid for by the people, not the establishment.”

Rebandt failed to meet the 5% polling threshold set by the event’s organizers, so he was not allowed to participate. Rebandt criticized the policy, saying that many voters remain undecided and that none of the candidates had reached double digits in polling, with just a few points separating them.

The Rev. Ralph Rebandt participates in a GOP gubernatorial debate as part of the Mackinac Island Policy Conference, June 2, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins

“It’s just plain poor journalism judgment to leave one candidate off the stage,” said Rebandt.

Following the debate, Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes issued a statement condemning the positions that had been expressed.

“Between bouts of nasty infighting, the Republican gubernatorial field fought to stake out the most radical stances and again refused to offer any real solutions for Michigan families,” said Barnes. “Rinke, Kelley, Dixon and Soldano laid out a dark vision for Michigan’s future, where anti-democracy conspiracy theories and dangerous abortion bans take priority, while progress on strengthening infrastructure is reversed, law enforcement funding is slashed, and public schools are dismantled. Instead of this backwards focused division, Michiganders deserve a leader who will continue to deliver on the fundamentals that improve people’s lives.”

The winner of the Aug. 2 GOP primary will face Whitmer in November.


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Jon King
Jon King

Jon King has been a journalist for more than 35 years. He is the Past President of the Michigan Associated Press Media Editors Association and has been recognized for excellence numerous times, most recently in 2021 with the Best Investigative Story by the Michigan Association of Broadcasters. He is also an adjunct faculty member at Cleary University. Jon and his family live in Howell, where he also serves on the Board of Directors for the Livingston Diversity Council.