Michigan GOP finger-pointing underway following Tuesday’s historic loss at the polls

Dixon publicly posts party memo blaming her for Tuesday, attacks MIGOP officials

By: and - November 11, 2022 9:57 am

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

A post-mortem memo on the historic losses suffered Tuesday by the Michigan Republican Party blames candidates being too closely aligned with former President Donald Trump, prompting major donors to withhold their support and leaving the party without the cash needed to compete.

Not only did Democrats sweep the top statewide offices, but they won a 7-6 majority in the congressional delegation, maintained a majority on the Michigan Supreme Court and took both houses of the Legislature for the first time in almost 40 years.

Michigan Republican Party Chief of Staff Paul Cordes released the memo Thursday to party members, noting that gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon came out of the August primary as an “untested candidate” who was “relatively unknown” and low name recognition. 

“Dixon’s campaign had no money, no statewide operations, and was attempting to transition from three weeks of working for and receiving an endorsement from Donald Trump, into a general election audience with a more unfavorable opinion of the former President Trump than of President Joe Biden,” said Cordes.

Dixon left her job as a right-wing commentator, after stints as an actress and in her family’s steel business, to run for governor last year. She rose to the top of a crowded GOP primary field with the early backing of the billionaire DeVos family of West Michigan and a late endorsement from Trump.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and Attorney General Dana Nessel in East Lansing during the final rally of their re-election campaign on Nov. 7, 2022. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)

Dixon, along with GOP attorney general nominee Matthew DePerno and GOP secretary of state nominee Kristina Karamo, were all easily outdistanced at the polls Tuesday by their Democratic incumbent counterparts. Dixon lost to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, DePerno fell short against Attorney General Dana Nessel and Karamo got trounced by Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.

All three GOP candidates were endorsed by Trump and in turn repeated his false claims that the 2020 election was stolen, a notion that polling indicated was rejected by large majorities of Michiganders.

Republican losses at the top of the ticket have led to a historic power shift in Michigan in favor of Democrats, who captured all executive branch offices, Legislature and a majority on the state Supreme Court.

Cordes said that in the past, Republican gubernatorial nominees had been able to come out of the primaries with “several millions of dollars and built out teams … with preparations to expand an already strong operation,” but that had not been the case with Dixon. 

Dixon badly lagged Whitmer — who won with a 10.5-point margin on Tuesday — in fundraising until the final weeks. As a result, the Democratic incumbent and her allies were able to dominate the airwaves with ads that touted Whitmer’s accomplishments and blasted Dixon for her strong anti-abortion stance.

“With almost no cash on hand and work to be done to gain the trust of the Party’s grassroots, Dixon had to start from scratch while Gretchen Whitmer and allies were sitting on tens of millions of dollars, of which they immediately deployed, blasting Dixon on statewide TV, digital, and radio throughout, early and often,” Cordes wrote.

Dixon, in a series of tweets, pushed back against the memo and went on the attack against Cordes, Michigan GOP Chair Ron Weiser and Michigan GOP Co-Chair Meshawn Maddock, a strong Trump ally.

“This is the perfect example of what is wrong with the @MIGOP,” she said. “It’s an issue of leadership – Ron Weiser, Meshawn Maddock, and Paul Cordes all refuse to take ownership for their own failures.”

Weiser and Maddock had publicly been bullish on Republicans’ chances in the gubernatorial race and predicted a “red wave” sweeping across the state.

When Dixon won the nomination in August, Maddock stood side by side with her and told reporters that Dixon was a “younger, smarter and hotter” version of Whitmer. 

Dixon said that it was “easy to come out and point fingers now,” the lack of support from party leaders jeopardized the entire ticket.

“We need fresh leadership at the @MIGOP or Republicans will never have a voice in Michigan again,” said Dixon. “Our state party failed on Let MI Kids Learn and Secure MI Vote. Because of their failure, we now have Prop 2. We have to do better than this current incompetent leadership.”

It’s unclear what Dixon was referring to with the two GOP-backed ballot measures, which would restrict voting and allow school vouchers. They failed to make the 2022 ballot because committees didn’t gather enough signatures in time. However, Republicans were hopeful that the GOP-led Legislature would approve them before they would head to the 2024 ballot — as allowed under Michigan law — and Whitmer would have no power to veto them. 

With an incoming Democratic-majority Legislature, the fate of those two petitions looks dicier.

GOP consultant Fred Wszolek was a spokesperson for both ballot initiatives and also ran the pro-Dixon super PAC Michigan Strong. He was spinning a Dixon win even up to election night, when he tweeted to a reporter at Dixon’s Grand Rapids party, “I think you’re in the right place for the big story tonight.”

Dixon had the support of other prominent GOP operatives until the end, including Tori Sachs of the DeVos-funded Michigan Freedom Fund — although she mostly retweeted right-wing accounts backing Dixon and attacked Whitmer in her own tweets.

Dixon also had strong defenders in right-wing media. She appeared as a frequent guest on Fox News shows during the last months of the election where she had friendly interviews with hosts including Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson. 

The Republican was endorsed by the conservative Detroit News editorial page, whose members Nolan Finley and Kaitlyn Buss frequently praised her and hammered Whitmer, with Finley slamming the Democrat in 2020 as an an ”arbitrary and condescending dictator.” 

In an Oct. 26 column following the second gubernatorial debate, Finley and Buss lauded Dixon, saying she “never buckled. She was never caught by surprise, answered nearly every question with confidence and, more importantly, demonstrated that her showing in the first debate was not a fluke.” 

They even claimed the debate “reflected the reality of a race that has tightened to a near dead heat,” even though the Detroit News’ own polling never reflected that. The paper’s last poll from the Glengariff Group, released after the column, showed Whitmer beating Dixon by 9 points — which was under the Democrat’s Tuesday margin of victory.   

Ingrid Jacques, a USA Today columnist and Detroit News opinion page alum, also highlighted Dixon in a column just before the election, claiming that “GOP candidates like Tudor Dixon connect with voters on schools, economy.” Jacques, who has been a staunch supporter of the DeVos school choice agenda, also wrote that “there has been an astonishing movement in support for Republicans, especially among the key groups of independent voters and white suburban women.” That claim did not materialize in Tuesday’s election in Michigan and elsewhere as Democrats’ abortion rights support won over women voters.

Ironically, podcaster Charlie LeDuff, who also writes a Detroit News column and has been a ferocious Whitmer critic for years, had a widely cited interview with Dixon in which she said that a 14-year-old incest victim was the “perfect example” of her anti-abortion stance that excludes exceptions for rape, incest and the mother’s health. LeDuff protested the interview ending up in pro-Whitmer ads.

Put Michigan first ad on GOP gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon and abortion | Screenshot

The public Republican infighting could set up a battle for the Michigan GOP chair race early next year. There’s been speculation amongst politicos that Dixon or someone else in the DeVos orbit could be interested in the role.

Ryan Kelley, who was arrested in connection with the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and finished fourth in the Michigan GOP gubernatorial primary,  has indicated he might run. 

Other Republicans with grassroots support include DePerno and Garrett Soldano, another GOP gubernatorial candidate. And former Michigan GOP Chair Laura Cox, a former House member who’s married to former Attorney General Mike Cox, has been highly critical of the Weiser-Maddock operation.

Exit polls showed that while inflation was a top concern for voters in other states, abortion was the key issue for voters in Michigan. That was seen in the overwhelming approval of Proposal 3, which permanently placed reproductive rights in the Michigan Constitution.

Dixon, DePerno and Karamo were strongly opposed to Prop 3.

On the “abortion question,” Cordes said that the lack of financial resources allowed “the Democrats to spend millions defining not just the abortion narrative, but Tudor Dixon herself,” and that neither “her campaign nor the Party had the resources to push back.”

Cordes said with Proposal 3 on the ballot and Democrats “in sole possession of the airwaves,” the terms in which abortion would be discussed centered on “Dixon’s position of no exceptions,” and not, as he put it, “Whitmer’s radical stance” on abortion. 

The Michigan GOP opposed Proposal 3, along with the Michigan Catholic Conference and Right to Life of Michigan, two groups which spent heavily against it. Wszolek served as a spokesperson against Prop 3.

Cordes said the measure also allowed Democrats to “aggressively” target women and young voters, “driving them to the polls in record numbers to hold Tudor Dixon accountable for her comments.”

Cordes concluded that those two accomplishments, “all but determined the fate of Dixon and the Anti-Proposal 3 campaign.”

Michigan Reproductive Freedom For All coalition announced Monday morning that would be filing more than 750,000 signatures during a press conference on July 11, 2022 | Allison R. Donahue

Dixon’s strategy in the last two months of the campaign focused on anti-LGBTQ+ issues, such as banning “pornographic” books, supporting a Florida-style “Don’t Say Gay” law and barring trans athletes from playing on school sports teams. That agenda was endorsed by Maddock and was used by other Republicans like DePerno, Karamo and legislative candidates including state Sen. Tom Barrett (R-Charlotte), who lost his congressional race to U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Lansing).

Cordes took aim at Dixon for concentrating only on “red meat issues.”

“Tudor’s efforts focused largely on Republican red meat issues, in hopes of inspiring a 2020 like showing at the polls,” Cordes wrote. “There were more ads on transgender sports than inflation, gas prices and bread and butter issues that could have swayed independent voters. We did not have a turn out problem — middle of the road voters simply didn’t like what Tudor was selling.”

Cordes’ final comments indicate a split may be emerging within the party over fealty to Trump and his priorities moving forward. 

Trump was widely hailed in 2016 for narrowly winning the state and many Michigan Republican leaders lined up in 2020 to endorse or indulge his lies that he won Michigan and the entire election.

In 2022, he twice rallied Republicans in Macomb County. Although DePerno promised a November rally, that never materialized. Trump stumped in nearby Ohio on Monday, the day before the election.

Cordes slammed both DePerno and Karamo, who won the Michigan GOP’s early endorsement convention in April over more experienced establishment candidates. Their support from Trump proved decisive, but Cordes said it cost Republicans in donations.

“Donors for the most part decided against supporting Trump’s hand-picked AG and SOS candidates from the April convention, and also withheld millions in traditional investment into the State Party, despite Chairman Weser’s historic contributions of more than $5 million into MIGOP, candidates and caucuses,” said Cordes.

Cordes argued that was fatal to the GOP’s chances in November.

“In what many of them saw as sending a message to Donald Trump and his supporters, longtime donors to the Party remained on the sidelines despite constant warnings of the possibility of the outcome we saw come to fruition on Election Day: A statewide sweep and one-party Democratic rule in Lansing, something that has not been seen in nearly 40 years in Michigan,” he wrote.

Maddock, who was one of the fake GOP electors in 2020, has continued to be a Trump loyalist during the 2022 midterms.

Cordes added that “countless hours” had been spent by the party courting donors who expressed concern about “Mar-a-Lago’s influence [Trump] over our process, Party and voters.”

GOP nominees (L-R): Tudor Dixon for governor, Matt DePerno for attorney general and Kristina Karamo for secretary of state at former President Trump rallies | Laina G. Stebbins and Allison R. Donahue photos

At the same time, Cordes said Democrats were raising tens of millions of dollars and investing record amounts across the state and in legislative districts.

“By the time some GOP donors did engage in October – one month before the election – most of the investments paled in comparison to Democrat counterparts,” he said. “And money spent in October doesn’t go nearly as far as money spent in August and September. Being late to the game was devastating. The narrative was set, the damage was done and the statewide races had likely been out of reach since mid-September.”

Rich Studley, the former Michigan Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, was one Republican supporter who didn’t necessarily share Cordes’ interpretation of the election results. 

“State party leaders need to accept responsibility for this debacle; engage in serious introspection; & think about stepping aside,” he tweeted. “The Mich GOP needs less dogmatic & more pragmatic party leaders.”

After sitting on the sidelines for most of the election, the Michigan Chamber — which has been a huge force in Michigan GOP politics and policy for decades, pushing against business regulations, for Right to Work, for corporate tax cuts and more — made a last-minute endorsement of Dixon the week before the election.

After Democrats’ historic wins on Tuesday, the Michigan Chamber put out a statement Wednesday congratulating Democrats, titled, “The Votes Are In – Time to Move Michigan Forward, Together.”

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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.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 22-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQ+ people, the state budget, the economy and more. She previously served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 90 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 5,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 80 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two kids along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.

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