LANSING, Mich. — For months, a group of Michigan Republicans has been jockeying for the chance to face Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in November’s general election, but it’s been a rough time.
There were once 10 candidates on the GOP side. Everyone was new to running for office. That political inexperience may have added to a significant shakeup of the field in late May. Election staff in the state say that five candidates, including some big spenders, didn’t collect enough valid signatures to make the ballot.
Reports showed that a group of paid petitioners working across campaigns had faked thousands of signatures on the candidate’s nominating paperwork.
Businesswoman Tudor Dixon, who received a late endorsement from former President Donald Trump on Friday night, saw her poll numbers climb following the petition scandal. She has also racked up endorsements from well-known names in Republican politics, like the family of former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and the group Right to Life of Michigan.
“You know, we’ve always planned to go around the state and meet people and gain support, gain supporters, and gain the resources to go out there and get our message broadcast louder,” said Dixon after a debate last week. “And that’s what we’ve been doing. And I think that’s what’s behind it – hard work.”
Businessman Kevin Rinke has referred to Dixon as Gov. Whitmer in sheep’s clothing.
“She’ll say or do anything for position,” he said of Dixon. “I’m a guy that’s running to do the right things for the people of Michigan. This is public service for me. I’m not looking for a career.”
Largely self-funded, Rinke has pitched himself as an outsider who will slash the personal income tax rate, raise literacy and focus on election integrity. (All five Republican candidates have shown support for Trump’s lies that he won the 2020 election.)
“We can move Michigan forward by putting the people first, Democrats as well as Republicans.”
Lately, Rinke and Dixon have both seen relatively strong poll numbers. Still, leading into Tuesday, polling suggests a chunk of Republican voters are still undecided.
In January, chiropractor Garrett Soldano became the first Republican to file in the governor’s race. He’s one of the five remaining. He says he trusts the strategy that got him this far: “We just continue to let our grassroots army do what they do best. And that’s getting out there, and you have voter contacts.”
Pam Dawson, a Michgain voter, watched the Republican debate last week and said all the candidates are strong in their own ways. “And I think they’re trying to be a little bit more cautious. They want to make sure that they’re going to get the one that’s going to beat Whitmer,” she said.
For Dawson, that’s either Soldano or real estate agent Ryan Kelley. The latter saw his name recognition spike after the FBI arrested him in June for misdemeanor charges associated with the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Kelley has pleaded not guilty.
The issues and the odds
The candidates — Soldano, Dixon, Rinke, Kelley and Pastor Ralph Rebandt — have all taken similar stances, like wanting to lower taxes and opposing abortion. Candidates’ ability to attract independent voters will be key to winning the general election against Gov. Whitmer, says pollster Richard Czuba of the Glengariff Group. He says two issues will likely dominate:
“We have to watch how is abortion impacting the vote versus how is inflation impacting the vote. And we don’t know the answer to that, yet.”
Czuba questions how prepared the slate of Republican candidates are to take on the political veteran.
“August 3, we are likely to see a Republican nominee for governor that does not have strong name ID, does not have strong organization and probably doesn’t have any money left in the bank after the primary,” Czuba says.
The Democratic Governors Association has already started running attack ads in the GOP primary and Michigan Republican Party spokesperson Gustavo Portela accuses Democrats of meddling.
“They’re afraid of the message, and they’re afraid of the fact that people are going to have a choice this fall.”
Whoever wins the Republican nomination may have to get used to the pressure. Recent campaign finance reports show Gov. Whitmer has millions to spend.
Colin Jackson is a reporter for the Michigan Public Radio Network.