Michigan's GOP gov hopefuls clash: 'What did you do in 2020?'

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Warren — In the first debate featuring only the five final Republican candidates for governor, the contenders feuded Thursday night over who had done the most to fight Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's COVID-19 policies and advance unproven claims of election fraud.

The debate, hosted by the Brighter Michigan political action committee in Warren, included the most dramatic clashes of the campaign so far. It occurred 33 days before the Aug. 2 primary election.

At one point, chiropractor Garrett Soldano of Mattawan said he and real estate broker Ryan Kelley of Allendale had outspokenly opposed Whitmer's approach to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"My question is to the other three candidates," Soldano said. "You guys are all talking a big game right now, you truly are … and you’re giving a bunch of lip service.”

He added, "What did you do in 2020?"

A third candidate, longtime Pastor Ralph Rebandt of Farmington Hills, pushed back on the comments, saying he was counseling police officers and people who were suicidal.

“I was serving the citizens of this state when these guys were in diapers," Rebandt added.

Businesswoman Tudor Dixon of Norton Shores noted her work in conservative media.

“I was making sure it was broadcast nationwide," Dixon said of protests against Michigan's Democratic governor.

The candidates spent a portion of the debate arguing whether fraud — claims of widespread fraud are unproven — cost Republican Donald Trump the 2020 presidential election in Michigan.

Trump lost to Democrat Joe Biden by 154,000 votes or 3 percentage points. The result has been upheld by a series of court rulings, more than 200 audits and an investigation by the GOP-controlled state Senate Oversight Committee.

"How many of you believe the widespread election fraud was enough to swing the election for Biden?” Rebandt asked his competitors.

Rebandt, Kelley, Dixon and Soldano raised their hands to agree with Rebandt's questions.

“He’s still my president,” Soldano said of Trump.

But the fifth candidate, businessman Kevin Rinke of Bloomfield Township, didn't appear to raise his hand.

However, Rinke said during the debate there was fraud.

"It’s not OK to have inaccurate elections," Rinke said.

The debate lasted about an hour. The conversation was mostly driven by moderators' questions.

"This is the first time that they've been able to actually go at each other," said Eric Castiglia, the new chairman of the Macomb County Republican Party and a leader of the Brighter Michigan PAC.

The past three debates, Castiglia said, were like going for a bachelor's degree.

"Tonight was a master's degree," he said.

He added, "Gretchen Whitmer is a pro. So they're going to be going right now for their doctorate."

Kalamazoo lawyer Matt DePerno, the likely Republican nominee for attorney general, was in the crowd. He told reporters the GOP has five great candidates for governor who can all beat Whitmer.

Chiropractor Garrett Soldano was one of five Republican gubernatorial candidates who debated Thursday at the Royalty House in Warren. The debate featured Soldano, Ryan Kelley, Tudor Dixon, Kevin Rinke and Ralph Rebandt and was hosted by the Macomb County Republican Party.

The 2020 election is not the issue Republicans should be focusing on in 2022, said DePerno, who rose to prominence within the Michigan GOP for pursuing unproven claims of election fraud in Antrim County.

"There are so many other issues that we can talk about right," DePerno said, listing inflation, gas prices and crime.

Rinke spoke at length about tax policy during Thursday's debate, touting his plan to do away with Michigan's 4.25% personal income tax. The proposal would trim about $12 billion from government coffers.

"It’s about having an environment for people to be successful," Rinke said.

Rinke hasn't said what functions of state government he would eliminate after ditching the state income tax. He made those comments Thursday night while state lawmakers were finalizing a $76 billion annual operating budget for state government.

Dixon said her campaign is focused on improving the state's workforce and education.

Kelley contended Michigan needs a "fighter" for its next governor.

"Look at the one the left is trying to silent the hardest," he said, referring to the fact that he was arrested June 9 on misdemeanor charges related to the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Soldano and Kelley appeared to get the largest rounds of applause at Thursday's debate.

From the other side of the aisle, Lavora Barnes, chairwoman of the Michigan Democratic Party, said the Macomb County debate featured the wheels falling off the "Republican gubernatorial primary clown car."

"The only thing Michigan families heard about a Rinke, Kelley, Rebandt, Dixon, or Soldano administration is what they would lose: funding for schools, roads and law enforcement, an economy that attracts new, good-paying jobs to Michigan, free and fair elections and Constitutional rights," Barnes said.

The candidates were asked about their anti-abortion stances Thursday, less than a week after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the half-century-old Roe V. Wade ruling that safeguard women's access to abortions nationally.

Soldano said he supported a longstanding Michigan law that bans abortion unless necessary to protect the life of the mother.

Rebandt said he had no exceptions to his opposition to abortion.

Rinke said he backed exceptions for the mother's life and in cases of rape and incest.

cmauger@detroitnews.com