GOP candidates for Michigan governor spar in fiery pre-primary debate

Heat intensifies on Dixon; Rinke calls her the GOP ‘version’ of Whitmer

By: - July 21, 2022 1:00 am

Ryan Kelley, Garrett Soldano, Kevin Rinke, Tudor Dixon and the Rev. Ralph Rebandt participate in a GOP gubernatorial debate at Oakland University, July 20, 2022 | Screenshot

In the seventh GOP gubernatorial debate Wednesday, the five candidates seeking to challenge Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in November turned up the heat and turned to personal attacks.

The debate, organized in part by the Michigan Republican Party, was held at Oakland University in Rochester just 13 days before voters head to the polls for the Aug. 2 primary election.

The Michigan Advance was denied credentials from the  Michigan Republican Party to attend the debate in person.

Right-wing media personality Tudor Dixon joined far-right activist Ryan Kelley, businessman Kevin Rinke, the Rev. Ralph Rebandt and chiropractor Garrett Soldano on stage Wednesday.

Dixon was absent from the last debate on Friday as she attended her father’s funeral.

That did not quell the attacks on her from Kelley, Soldano and Rinke, which escalated in the second half of the hour-long program.

Tudor Dixon participates in a GOP gubernatorial debate as part of the Mackinac Island Policy Conference, June 2, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins

Prior to the focus on Dixon as the “establishment” candidate, the other Republicans talked critical race theory (CRT), gun violence, education, abortion and business.

Guns like AR-15s are not the cause of mass shootings, Kelley said, people are —  as assault weapons “sit there and do nothing unless someone else does something with it.”

Similarly, Rebandt said he doesn’t agree with the phrase “gun violence,” instead preferring “people violence.”

Dixon said she believes fear causes mental health issues that lead to mass shootings.

“We have to come back with a positive attitude and show people that they’re safe and they live in a great country,” she said.

When asked how they would reduce the number of Michigan children awaiting adoption if abortion becomes illegal in the state, candidates said they would reform the foster care and adoption systems to make it easier for families.

Abortion is currently legal in Michigan due to a court-ordered injunction halting the state’s so-called “trigger law” from 1931. That law prohibits abortions except in the case of threat to the pregnant person’s life, but had been rendered void until last month due to the federal Roe v. Wade ruling in place.

A final ruling in Michigan has yet to come. A coalition recently filed a record number of signatures for a citizen-led ballot measure that would enshrine abortion access in Michigan’s Constitution, circumventing the 1931 law.

“Adoption really reflects what God’s love is for us,” Rebandt said, while Dixon criticized Whitmer for again vetoing GOP anti-abortion legislation.

A question about business led to Kelley and Soldano taking the first shots across the bow.

The two went after Dixon, implying that she hasn’t been an active figure in the GOP actions challenging the 2020 election results that saw Joe Biden win the presidency, COVID-19 health orders and more.

On a question regarding what issue each candidate could work across the aisle on with Democrats, Kelley criticized the entire concept of bipartisanship.

Ryan Kelley participates in a GOP gubernatorial debate at Oakland University, July 20, 2022 | Screenshot

“When we see bipartisanship here in the state of Michigan … It’s an emotional driver to think that everyone’s working together in Lansing. But they’re not working for the good of the people,” Kelley said.

Soldano called out the “establishment” on both sides of the aisle, leading Dixon to challenge him, Kelley and Rinke on their frequent criticism of “this mysterious ‘establishment’ … that they are so against.”

A new Rinke campaign ad released Friday blasts Dixon as being backed by “RINOs” (Republicans in name only).

“My definition of establishment is basically your entire campaign,” Soldano told Dixon, noting state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey’s (R-Clarklake) endorsement of her and the financial backing she has from the billionaire DeVos family.

Dixon has also received endorsements from GOP former Michigan Gov. John Engler, former acting director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell and organizations including the Michigan Chamber of Commerce political action committee, Right to Life of Michigan, Police Officers Association of Michigan, Associated Builders and Contractors of Michigan and the American Conservative Union.

“Both Kevin Rinke and Garrett Soldano were looking for support from all of those same people that now they’re so angry about. Sounds like sour grapes to me,” Dixon said. She alleged that both had met with the DeVos family to get their support but had failed, which the candidates denied.

The West Michigan billionaire DeVos family is a powerful force in Michigan GOP politics, with millions contributed to Republican candidates in the state and across the country. Betsy DeVos also served as former President Donald Trump’s Education secretary.

Rinke hit back, telling Dixon that she “wouldn’t even be here without the DeVoses.”

“The DeVos family owns you. You’re our version of Gretchen Whitmer — you’ll say anything and do anything to get elected,” Rinke said.

Having avoided the debate infighting, Rebandt said he would prioritize “restoring unity to our party.”

Criticizing both Whitmer and Dixon in his closing statement, Soldano claimed that Dixon has “been sitting on the sidelines” and claimed Rebandt does not have “enough” to win the primary.

Garrett Soldano participates in a GOP gubernatorial debate as part of the Mackinac Island Policy Conference, June 2, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins

Dixon, emphasizing that she is running a “policy-first campaign,” hit back against her opponents for “puffing up their chests.”

“I’ve been doing all the work behind the scenes. I’ve gotten the endorsements. I have the police behind me, I have Right to Life,” she said.

“My opponents, what have they been doing? They’ve been talking at you. They’ve been puffing up their chests, and they’ve been running silly attack ads against me because they thought it was a popularity contest.”

The next Republican primary debate will take place on July 27 and is being organized by the Oakland County Republican Party.

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, Native issues and criminal justice for the Advance. 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. When Laina is not writing or spending time with her cats, she loves art and design, listening to music, playing piano, enjoying good food and being out in nature (especially Up North).