Self-funding Republican Kevin Rinke launches campaign for governor with ad blitz

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Republican Kevin Rinke, a Metro Detroit businessman who could shake up the race for Michigan governor, launched his campaign Monday with ads that contend the state faces a choice between an American muscle car and a Yugo.

Rinke's family is known for its car dealerships. His grandfather started one of the first General Motors franchises in Michigan more than 100 years ago, according to his campaign. The candidate, who's from Bloomfield Township, has said he will invest at least $10 million into his bid to win the GOP nomination and to challenge Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in fall 2022.

Rinke's ability to self-fund his effort appears to set him apart from other Republicans in the primary, including former Detroit police Chief James Craig. Rinke's spending started immediately Monday with what his campaign described as a "six-figure advertising buy on broadcast, digital and cable systems." The ads focus on his background and criticisms of the Democratic incumbent.

Republican Kevin Rinke officially launched his campaign for Michigan governor with TV advertising blitz on Monday, Nov. 22, 2021.

"Next November, we face a choice to either drive Michigan into the ground or blaze a bold new path of freedom and opportunity," he says in one version of the ads. "I'm Kevin Rinke, conservative businessman and outsider, but not a politician. I'm running for governor because in Michigan, we don't get taken for a ride. We drive."

The ads open with Rinke comparing a black 1969 GTO, an iconic muscle car, with a Yugo, which is known for its shaky engineering and was built in the former nation of communist Yugoslavia. The Yugo is a "pile of junk," like the "terrible socialist system it came from," Rinke says in the ads.

"This is a choice we face as a nation and in Michigan: freedom or failure," Rinke says.

He argues the problems ahead for Michigan are clear, listing a "tyrannical government," closed small businesses, illegal immigration, critical race theory and voter fraud. While supporters of former President Donald Trump have claimed Michigan's 2020 election was stolen from him, there's been no evidence of widespread fraud in the vote. 

Rinke is making good on his promise to buy his run for governor, said Rodericka Applewhaite, spokeswoman for the Michigan Democratic Party. He has "extreme views" and wants to relitigate last year's election, she said.

"Michiganders deserve a governor that’s actually going to fight for working families and the issues they care about, like the recently signed infrastructure law that will invest in fixing local roads and create good-paying jobs," said Applewhaite, referring to the federal infrastructure law that is funneling about $10 billion to Michigan.

Rinke, 60, is a former owner of the Rinke Automotive Group. He started working in the family business, clearing trash, cleaning restrooms and washing cars, according to his campaign. He's led other businesses, including a traumatic brain injury center and Centria Healthcare.

He has been married to his wife, Janine, for 25 years. They have three children.

A self-proclaimed political outsider, Rinke is untested in the world of running for office. So far, 10 other candidates have formed committees to seek the GOP nomination for governor in August 2022. The winner will challenge Whitmer, who won the 2018 race by 9 percentage points against then-Attorney General Bill Schuette.

The field of potential GOP candidates for next year lacks experience in elected office and still has much to prove, said Bill Ballenger, a former Republican lawmaker and longtime Michigan political analyst.

"At this point, it’s a conundrum," Ballenger said of Rinke. "Is he the new Rick Snyder? That is really the question, I think, on everyone’s mind."

Snyder was another political newcomer who ran for governor. In 2010, he won the GOP nomination against a crowd field, spending $6 million of his own wealth.

Rinke's family has a history of business success, Ballenger said. An unanswered question is how much of the family's success is because of Rinke as opposed to others in the family, he said.

Whitmer gained national attention during the COVID-19 pandemic and established a financial war chest of more than $12 million that could boost her reelection hopes. 

"Governor Whitmer has been hard at work — rebuilding the Michigan economy, making the largest investment in K-12 education in our state’s history without raising taxes, fixing the damn roads, and cutting costs for everyday Michiganders," the governor's re-election campaign said in a fundraising email issued Monday in reaction to the businessman's campaign announcement.

In his new ads, Rinke levels a series of attacks against the governor, saying she "acts like a queen."

Rinke's campaign plans to focus on rejuvenating the state’s economy and small businesses, repairing children’s education, stopping "their indoctrination," respecting the rule of law, ensuring families are safe and secure, and restoring faith in elections, according to Monday's announcement.

"I’ve traveled all over Michigan and met with countless families and small business owners and employees," Rinke said. "They are honest, smart, tough and resilient people.  

"They want a leader to put an end to Gov. Whitmer’s assault on our values and our way of life. I’m fighting for their kids, their jobs and their future, and I won’t back down."

News of the GOP candidate's ads broke Friday as the purchases were disclosed by advertising trackers. In reaction, John Sellek, the CEO of the Michigan political consulting firm Harbor Strategic Public Affairs, said the window for sitting back and watching Whitmer was closing, less than a year before the November election.

"The GOP nomination is still up for grabs and vulnerable to someone with the money to get started outside the Lincoln Day circuit," Sellek tweeted.

In July, one of Rinke's advisers, Chris Grant, said the businessman was planning an initial investment of $10 million in his potential campaign for governor.

So far, Craig has raised the most money of the GOP candidates at $1.4 million. The second most active fundraiser has been chiropractor Garrett Soldano of Mattawan, who's raised $1.1 million. Soldano was the first of the GOP candidates to air TV ads in the race at the end of October.

Other contenders for the GOP nomination include Tudor Dixon, a conservative commentator and businesswoman from Norton Shores, and Michael Brown, a Michigan State Police commander from Stevensville.