The five GOP candidates running for governor in Michigan attend a debate at the UWM Sports Complex in Pontiac on July 27, 2022. | Screenshot
From election conspiracy theorists pushing voter restrictions to a barrage of transphobic comments and the idea that “if we don’t get back to our “Judeo-Christian principles, we’re going to lose our country, we’re going to lose Western civilization as we know it,” the eighth Republican gubernatorial debate Wednesday night was a whirlwind of far-right talking points, bigotry and disinformation.
Five GOP candidates seeking the Republican nomination for Michigan’s highest political office took to the stage at the United Wholesale Mortgage, (UWM) Sports Complex in Pontiac Wednesday night for the final debate before the Tuesday primary: right-wing media personality Tudor Dixon, far-right activist Ryan Kelley, businessman Kevin Rinke, the Rev. Ralph Rebandt and chiropractor Garrett Soldano. The debate was sponsored by the Oakland County Republican Party and moderated by WJR-AM’s Tom Jordan and Kevin Dietz.
Four of the five candidates — Dixon, Kelley, Rebandt and Soldano — have pushed the conspiracy theory that former President Donald Trump won the 2020 election, which he did not, as proven by Republican-led investigations and hundreds of local and state audits. Those hopefuls all promoted voter restrictions during the debate. Rinke, who has said he believes there was “fraud” in the 2020 election and run ads but hasn’t said it was stolen, also pushed voter restrictions. Citing the idea that voter restrictions equate to safer elections, something Republicans have claimed nationwide, all candidates backed efforts by Michigan GOP lawmakers to put up more barriers to vote in the wake of the 2020 election.
Such efforts have included a 39-bill package, Senate Bills 273-311, that was introduced in 2021 and which Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said would “restrict citizens’ voting rights, harm election administration and demonstrate a lack of knowledge of existing procedure and law.” The bills, many of which have since been vetoed by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, included prohibiting the Michigan secretary of state from making absentee ballot applications available online, banning clerks from supplying prepaid return postage for absentee ballots, barring clerks from counting absentee ballots in the weeks before an election, and banning the use of ballot drop boxes on Election Day.
“We will make sure that those bills pass the minute I am in office, and we know it will happen because we know we will vote red and get Republicans in office and those bills will come back to us,” Dixon said in reference to these 39 bills.
Kelley, who the FBI arrested in June for his participation in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, said he would support banning all ballot drop boxes and touted fellow 2020 election conspiracy theorist and QAnon-connected Michigan Secretary of State candidate Kristina Karamo as “brilliant when it comes to the process that our elections need to have in order for all of us to have confidence knowing there’s transparent results.” The Trump-backed Karamo, who the Michigan Republican Party endorsed as the GOP candidate who likely will run against Benson in November, has promoted a long list of lies, including the conspiracy theories that Trump won the 2020 election and the Jan. 6 attack was a “false flag” operation.
Like the other gubernatorial candidates, Soldano backed individuals having to provide photo identification to vote, which Michigan law already requires, but Republicans want additional restrictions. He said he wants to “make sure that [if] anybody interferes with the election, it’s a felony.”
Rinke, meanwhile, said he wants to eliminate mail-in voting “except for our armed forces or special situations for people” but supports early voting.
Rebandt continued to promote the falsehood that there was “fraud” at the TCF Center in downtown Detroit, where election officials counted absentee ballots for the 2020 election. Republicans like Rebandt, Trump and Michigan Republican Party Co-Chair Meshawn Maddock have claimed there was election fraud committed in Detroit — something Trump’s own attorney general, Bill Barr, concluded were baseless accusations.
“Friends, this is a passionate part of my life because if we lose our voting and its sacredness, we lose our constitutional republic,” Rebandt said. “Mike Lindell has endorsed me for Michigan governor because of my stance on this issue.”
Lindell, the CEO of MyPillow, has been a vocal supporter of Trump and has vehemently pushed the lie that the former president won the 2020 election.
Candidates launch transphobic attacks
After being asked by the moderators at the right-leaning radio station about “many elected officials, particularly the Democratic Party” who “have attempted to redefine common words and phrases to adapt to a shifting culture,” such as “exchanging the term woman with the phrase a person who menstruates or a birthing person,” the candidates went on the attack against transgender people and such “woke” concepts as using people’s preferred pronouns — something transgender individuals have said has drastically improved their lives.
The candidates’ transphobic attacks come at a time when the LGBTQ+ community, both nationally and in the state, is facing a coordinated legislative pushback on gay and transgender rights. GOP lawmakers in Michigan and across the country have introduced anti-trans bills, equated LGBTQ+ people with pedophiles and more while denying protections for transgender people — 82% of whom have considered killing themselves and 40% of whom have attempted suicide.
Currently, there are more than 175 pieces of anti-transgender legislation in 32 states that are being tracked by the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest LGBTQ+ civil rights organization. Included in that is a Michigan bill that would ban transgender athletes from participating in school sports.
Birmingham resident Katie Kilpatrick, whose daughter is transgender, recently told the Advance that she doesn’t “understand how any kind of affirmative behaviors … or treating people with human dignity is a bad thing.”
When Kilpatrick’s daughter came out as transgender, “I was worried how people would treat her,” she said in a video from Equality Michigan Action Network.
“It turns out, the kids were great,” Kilpatrick said. “It’s the politicians who want to bully her.”
Stories like these do not appear to have resonated with the GOP gubernatorial candidates.
“Friends, we are at this place in our country because we have lost our Judeo-Christian values; we’ve lost the principles our country was founded upon,” said Rebandt, who went on to say that the country’s “founders understood what a boy was, what a girl was.”
“Now they’re throwing out the laws of nature,” Rebandt said. “… If we don’t get back to our Judeo-Christian principles, we are going to lose our country; we’re going to lose Western civilization as we know it.”
Saying there’s “definitely a war on women going on right now,” Dixon went on to label the term “menstruating person” as “gross.”
“If somebody calls me a menstruating person — gross,” Dixon said. “It’s like the last thing I ever want to be called; why did that term come up? I mean, disgusting. Let’s never have that.
“This war on moms is really disturbing to me,” Dixon continued. “Birthing parent? Motherhood is hard, and we want credit for it. We’ve fought for women’s rights. We’ve fought to be moms, and we’re not ready to give that up.”
A term like “birthing parent” is used because women are not the only ones who can become pregnant, despite Republicans’ objections otherwise. Louise Melling, the deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, for example, said, “If we’re talking about pregnant people,’ that language says to people — to transgender men and to nonbinary people — ‘We see you.’
“It should do a fair amount of work to help address discrimination,” Melling said.
Soldano went on to call gender-inclusive language efforts “hot garbage” and then attacked Critical Race Theory, a decades-old college-level academic concept focused on the history and ongoing effects of white supremacy in the United States — such as white European settlers committing a genocide against Indigenous people or hundreds of years of enslaving Black people.
Nationwide and in Michigan, Republicans have set their sights on attacking CRT and have been determined to prove that teaching about systemic racism equates to “Marxism,” as Sen. Lana Theis has argued. However, the concept is taught in virtually no K-12 schools in the state.
Kelley said the “left is really good at manipulating words and creating emotions out of it.”
“I think it’ll be really, really fun when I’m on stage with Gretchen Whitmer, and she’s like, ‘Ryan, you just don’t like to uphold women’s rights, and I’ll be like, ‘Define woman for us. Please go ahead and define woman for us. Please go ahead and blow it with your base right now, and tell us that you actually know what a woman is.’ We have to be unapologetic about being truthful.”
Meanwhile, Rinke said, “in my world there’s boys. There’s girls. There’s men. There’s women. And I will not negotiate. I will not give an inch on these woke issues.
“Joe Biden and Gretchen Whitmer have failed our country and our state,” Rinke continued. “And they continue to recommend all these — excuse my French — crazy ass ideas that don’t represent our country or my Michigan. … We’re going to stop this crazy left push that really isn’t a joke; it’s a sickness, and we need to cure it.”
Rinke didn’t clarify what these “crazy ass ideas” entail.
According to a 2021 poll from NPR and PBS, two-thirds of Americans are against laws that would limit transgender rights, with that opposition coming from both the political left and the right.
“It’s really hard once you’re informed or you know a trans person to support one of these bills because it really strikes at the humanity of a trans person,” Kate Sosin, who reports on LGBTQ+ issues at The 19th, said in the PBS story about the poll. “More than half of people do know transgender people and that number is only going to go up…and if that is the case, this is inevitably going to be a losing issue for lawmakers trying to make this a wedge issue, because even if you don’t support transgender rights, you don’t want to be the lawmaker pushing something that is seen as bigoted.”
The winner of the Aug. 2 GOP primary will run against Whitmer in November’s general election.
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