HOWELL — Michigan’s Republican gubernatorial candidates found common ground in their first debate on Thursday, vowing to back a possible abortion ban, push for school choice and investigate the Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer for deaths in COVID-19 nursing homes.
Several candidates have also questioned the effectiveness of the vaccine, and some have argued that former President Donald Trump won Michigan’s 2020 election, despite the state officially losing 154,188 votes.
The crowded debate stage featured eight Republicans competing to take on Whitmer and a conspicuous absence: Former Detroit Police Chief James Craig, who led all polls in the GOP domain, pulled out of the debate in amid allegations of petition signature tampering that could bar him from the ballot.
“Can I answer for James Craig since he’s not here?” joked Garrett Soldano of Mattawan, a chiropractor who said his Republican opponent was failing to live up to his “lead from the front” campaign slogan by staying “on the sidelines.”
With the early GOP front-runner off the stage, candidates such as Perry Johnson of Bloomfield Hills, Kevin Rinke of Bloomfield Township, and Tudor Dixon of Norton Shores took conservative positions and offered their support for a 1931 Michigan law that would ban abortion in Michigan if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, as expected.
“Life begins at conception,” Johnson said, saying he only supported abortion to save the life of the mother, the only exception in the old state law.
“Protecting life is very important to me,” Dixon added, calling the 1931 law a “good law.”
Rinke was one of three candidates who said they supported allowing abortions for pregnancies caused by rape or incest, exceptions not included in the 1931 law. Sharing this position were Michael Markey of Grand Haven and Michael Brown of Stevensville, a Michigan State Police captain who said he’s seen “terrible things with rape and incest” in his career.
Ralph Rebandt, pastor of Oakland Hills Community Church in Farmington Hills, was the only Republican to say he does not support any exceptions to the abortion ban, even for the life of the pregnant woman.
“It’s murder,” he said. “And we have to call it what it is.”
A leaked draft showing the Supreme Court is ready to overturn Roe v. Wade reignited the debate in Michigan and other states.
Whitmer has vowed to “fight like hell” to protect access to legal abortion, and Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel has said she will not enforce any state-level bans.
With Trump yet to endorse in the race for governor, several GOP hopefuls congratulated the former president Thursday night.
Dixon, Rebandt and Ryan Kelley said they believe Trump won Michigan in 2020. Soldano also seemed to approve of the position: “President Trump is still my president,” he said.
Kelley, a former Allendale Township planning commissioner, alleged “massive” voter fraud and said he would try to ban electronic tabulators. This would require laborious and time-consuming manual counting of all ballots on election night, which could delay results for days.
A Republican-led Michigan Senate oversight committee spent months investigating allegations about the 2020 election and concluded there was no evidence of widespread fraud, but most GOP candidates – including Craig – have joined calls for a ‘forensic audit’ of the contest.
Rinke declined to answer yes or no to whether Trump won Michigan in 2020, while Johnson said he would like to see more ‘data’ and a survey before deciding, drawing boos from the crowd of about 700 Republican activists.
Brown and Markey were the only candidates who said they did not believe Trump won Michigan.
“No,” Brown said bluntly. “We have a bunch of people on stage here collapsing like fish on a dock.”
The 10-candidate GOP gubernatorial field could dwindle further in the coming weeks as Michigan’s Board of Elections and State Board of Elections consider challenges to nominations filed by Craig, Johnson and Dixon.
Craig’s lawyer admitted for the first time this week that his campaign may have been “scammed” by circulators accused of a signature forgery scheme, but said he believed Craig would still have the 15,000 valid signatures required, a decision state solicitors will make. May 26.
Craig’s campaign said earlier Thursday that he would not participate in the first Governors’ Debate due to a “pre-commitment” to speak at a Mechanical Contractors Association event in Detroit.
Co-campaign manager Ted Goodman challenged a report that Craig had “removed” from the debate.
In fact, that’s exactly what Craig did, said Livingston County GOP Chairwoman Meghan Reckling, who told Bridge Michigan that the former Detroit police chief was “committed to 100 %” in the debate and had been confirmed “for weeks” before stepping down in recent days.
“It’s very disappointing,” Reckling said, adding that Craig was “one of the first” candidates to engage in the debate, which she helped organize.
While Craig was missing the fight, “none of the other candidates got what they needed” because they failed to make waves, said Adrian Hemond, a Grassroots Midwest Democratic strategist who was invited on site to provide post-debate analysis. .
“Gretchen Whitmer had a really good night,” Hemond explained. “Nothing said on stage tonight is acceptable to a general election electorate,” including ongoing claims regarding the 2020 presidential election.
But Tori Sachs, a Republican strategist with the Michigan Freedom Fund, said Whitmer was the “biggest loser of the night” and credited GOP candidates for talking about “putting students first” and “giving power back.” to parents” after learning about COVID-19. losses.
Education, inflation and crime will be big issues in the fall election and favor the eventual Republican nominee, Sachs said.
She played down the crowd’s apparent attention to pleading the 2020 election, as evidenced by boos for candidates who did not declare Trump the winner.
“We are a party that values freedom of expression and diversity of thought,” Sachs said. “We’ll tell you when we agree with you, and we’ll tell you when we don’t. There is a wide range of where people are on this issue in our party.
While the Republican candidates were in agreement on most topics Thursday night, they offered contrasting opinions.
Rinke and Kelley said they don’t think COVID-19 vaccines helped fight the virus, with the latter saying “the science behind it was political science.”
Other candidates acknowledged studies showing COVID-19 vaccines likely prevented deaths.
Johnson said he thought the vaccine helped older populations, but argued it would be “really crazy” to give it to children. Soldano said the positive impact was likely limited to obese and older people with underlying health conditions.
“It kept them from dying, but that’s a choice,” said Soldano, who gained a large following online in 2020 for opposing Whitmer’s COVID-19 pandemic policies.
Rebandt said he would like to end all public funding of Michigan’s 15 public universities. Others said they would consider cutting funding to universities, which Soldano called “indoctrination centers” that pushed mask and vaccine mandates.
Johnson, Dixon and Markey, however, said they would not support university funding cuts.
“Education is one of the best investments we can make,” Markey said. “Education is one of the best ways to get people into the higher classes.”
The candidates generally agreed that state police or Michigan’s next attorney general should investigate Whitmer over nursing home deaths and an early pandemic policy that was never enforced but would have required facilities with dedicated COVID wards to accept infected patients.
“She opened the door to an investigation into a former governor,” Dixon said, referring to Flint’s water crisis charges against former governor Rick Snyder that were filed by Nessel, not Whitmer. “So yes, she should be investigated.”