GOP gov debate: 2 of 8 Michigan candidates confirm Trump's loss in 2020 election

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Howell — Only two of eight Republican gubernatorial candidates on Thursday said definitively that they believe former President Donald Trump lost the state’s election in November 2020. 

Grand Haven businessman Michael Markey and Michigan State Police Capt. Mike Brown of Stevensville said they did not believe Trump won Michigan during the 2020 election.

Brown noted he’s already on record saying as much, but his fellow candidates were “flopping around like fish on a dock.”

People clap before the debate, Thursday night, May 12, 2022.

Norton Shores conservative commentator Tudor Dixon, Pastor Ralph Rebandt and Mattawan chiropractor Garrett Soldano replied immediately in the affirmative, and Allendale real estate broker Ryan Kelley said Trump would be found the winner should the state investigate the 2020 election.

Bloomfield Township businessman Kevin Rinke said he wouldn’t answer with a yes or no and added after the debate that there was no "simple answer." While Rinke said he  believes there were rules broken during the election, he doesn't know if there were "154,000 plus one" fraudulent votes. 

Bloomfield Hills businessman Perry Johnson said there was “incredible fraud” but the state would need additional “data to find out.”

Candidate Perry Johnson during the debate, Thursday night, May 12, 2022.

Johnson’s response led to heckling as he shouted over the crowd: “Honestly, guys, how would you in a million years without the data know the exact vote count?”

Trump lost Michigan to Democratic President Joe Biden in November 2020 by about 154,000 votes. Post-election audits, bipartisan canvassing boards, court decisions and a Senate oversight investigation have dismissed claims that there was widespread fraud during the 2020 election. 

The Michigan Republican gubernatorial candidates fielded questions on issues from abortion and vaccines to nursing home COVID-19 deaths from the stage in Howell on Thursday, outlining their stances on some of the state's pressing questions and issues. 

The Michigan Democratic Party pushed back on the candidates' responses and defended Whitmer's actions during the pandemic. 

"Throughout the pandemic, Michigan closely followed the science and accurately reported data in line with federal guidelines," the party said in a statement Thursday. "Experts agree: Governor Whitmer’s leadership slowed the spread of the virus and saved lives.

Soldano and Kelley were the clear frontrunners in the debate but all candidates missed out on clear opportunities to speak about issues with broader appeal, such as inflation, said Adrian Hemond, CEO of the Lansing-based consulting firm Grassroots Midwest.

“I think the candidate that had the best night tonight was Gov. Whitmer,” Hemond said. “There are live issues out there that appeal to a Republican primary electorate and to a general electorate and mostly they didn’t talk about those tonight.”

Abortion, virus focus

Each of the eight candidates said they were anti-abortion and would support a ban on abortions in Michigan should the U.S. Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade in the coming weeks. 

Tudor Dixon, left; Kevin Rinke; Ryan Kelley; Perry Johnson; Michael Brown; Ralph Rebandt; Garrett Soldano; and Michael Markey participated in the GOP gubernatorial debate Thursday in Howell.

But they differed on exceptions to the ban, with Dixon, Johnson, Soldano and Kelley supporting the state's 1931 ban with an exception for the life of the mother. 

"The reality is that I am pro-life … life begins at conception and unless the mother’s life is at risk, I cannot accept abortion," said Johnson. 

Rinke, Brown and Markey supported a ban with exceptions for the life of the mother or in cases of rape and incest. 

Whitmer has vowed to defend a woman's right to abortion and, in April, she and Planned Parenthood of Michigan filed separate lawsuits seeking to overturn Michigan's 1931 abortion ban. The ban would take full effect if the U.S. Supreme Court votes to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe decision. 

The Michigan Supreme Court is weighing whether to consider Whitmer's suit by moving it from Oakland County Circuit Court to the high court, in order to expedite consideration of the issue. 

Nessel and several Democratic prosecutors have said they will not prosecute individuals under Michigan's ban and Nessel also has vowed not to defend the state law against Planned Parenthood's lawsuit. 

When asked about whether the vaccine helped to combat COVID-19 in Michigan, Dixon, Markey, Soldano, and Johnson said they believed it helped the elderly and some individuals with underlying conditions to survive the virus.

Others were more skeptical about the vaccine's effect. 

"I believe the science behind it was political science," Kelley said.

Rebandt said he didn't believe the vaccines helped and emphasized his belief that no one should be pressured into receiving the vaccine. 

"We need medical freedom," Rebandt said. "If somebody wants to get the shot that’s fine.”

The candidates criticized Whitmer's handling of nursing home policies during the pandemic, with several indicating that she should be investigated and prosecuted for her actions. 

Brown said Whitmer's nursing home pandemic response was one of the "biggest debacles," but he stopped short of calling for her prosecution. 

Candidate Michael Brown, Thursday night, May 12, 2022.

"That is not the role of the governor to say you need to be prosecuted for that," Brown said. "... We do not need a governor who will target citizens of this state."

Republicans clashed with Whitmer throughout the pandemic over her handling of many aspects of it, but especially her decisions related to long-term care facilities. Whitmer focused on caring for elderly with the virus in isolated areas of current nursing homes while Republicans called for those individuals to be kept in separate facilities to avoid COVID-19 spread.

In March, Nessel said further investigation into how the state tracked COVID-19 deaths in long-term care facilities was “unwarranted” after an Office of Auditor General report found that the state’s methodology for calculating long-term care deaths had excluded about 2,386 COVID-19 deaths.

The report, Nessel wrote, did not support allegations that the state health department intentionally underreported or misrepresented the number of COVID-19 deaths.

Candidates fielded several questions on education reform, ranging from policy for kindergarten instruction to university funding.

When asked whether the Michigan Department of Education should be abolished, several candidates called for a reorganization or change but noted constitutional limitations on an all-out elimination.

“We need to dismantle and rebuild with parent involvement,” Rebandt said.

Some candidates hesitated when asked whether funding should be cut off for Michigan 15 state universities, with several noting there are constitutional protections in place that, to some extent, shield funding for the institutions. Others noted several state universities do good work.

“We have some incredible research coming out of some of our universities, some groundbreaking medical research,” Dixon said. “Our universities are a huge asset to the state. What we need to do with our universities is make sure that they're working with us, make sure that when they graduate students, those students are staying in the state of Michigan.”

All of the candidates said, if given the chance, they would sign legislation similar to Florida’s so-called “Don’t say gay” law banning instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kids in kindergarten through third grade.

“Absolutely, yes,” said Rinke.

The debate featured eight of the 10 GOP candidates running for governor. Former Detroit police Chief James Craig announced several hours ahead of the forum that he had a "prior commitment" speaking to the Mechanical Contractors Association, and Donna Brandenburg of Byron Center declined an invitation to participate, according to Michigan Information & Research Services. 

Five frontrunners in the GOP governor's race, determined by a May survey of Republican primary voters, have been invited to debate at the 2022 Mackinac Policy Conference June 2, the Detroit Regional Chamber announced Thursday. 

The frontrunners invited to the debate include Craig, Johnson, Kelley, Rinke and Soldano.

Staff Writer Craig Mauger contributed.