Dixon at final GOP debate: Female voters don't want 'bully' as governor

Craig Mauger Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Pontiac — Michigan's Republican governor hopefuls clashed Wednesday over who's best positioned to defeat Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in November, with the lone female candidate saying voters don't want a "bully" occupying the state's highest office.

Six days before the primary election, the exchanges highlighted the eighth and final debate of the race to be the Republican nominee to take on Whitmer this fall. 

Bloomfield Township businessman Kevin Rinke contended Michigan needs someone with a business background to lead its state government while real estate broker Ryan Kelley of Allendale said the GOP must nominate a fighter. Yet, conservative commentator Tudor Dixon of Norton Shores noted that her opponents and Democrats have been targeting her in the final days of the race.

"They attack me," said Dixon, the lone female contender in the primary, of the other Republican candidates. "And people hate it. Just so you know: That’s what they’ll do with Gretchen Whitmer.

"And that’s why women will come out in droves and say, 'They don’t want a bully in the governor’s office.'"

Dixon's retort aimed at her male opponents came amid heightened tensions among the candidates and as Democrats and Rinke's campaign have begun airing a rush of negative TV ads against Dixon.

During the hour-long debate at the UWM Sports Complex, Rinke labeled Dixon the Republican Party's "version of Gretchen Whitmer." 

Mattawan chiropractor Garrett Soldano called Dixon the "establishment-bought" candidate because of her backing from the wealthy DeVos family and Lansing-based lobbying organizations.

GOP candidates (left to right) Ryan Kelley, Kevin Rinke, Tudor Dixon, Ralph Rebandt and Garrett Soldano attend the GOP Gubernatorial debate at the UWM Sports Complex Auditorium in Pontiac, Mich. on July 27, 2022.

The GOP candidates also called for long-term tax relief to combat soaring inflation and argued a temporary suspension of the state's gas tax, as the GOP-led Legislature has proposed as part of a broader tax relief plan, was not enough to ease the economic pain residents are feeling.

Instead, they said Michigan should lower other long-term tax burdens and aim for energy independence that could ease pain at the pump and bring in more revenue for the state.

Whitmer has vetoed bills that would temporarily pause the collection of Michigan's 27-cent-per-gallon gas tax and instead advocated for a suspension of the federal gas tax or the state's 6% sales tax on gasoline.Whitmer said she vetoed the gas tax pause because it wouldn't take effect until next year.

The vetoes are part of larger, dueling tax relief plans that Whitmer and the Legislature have been squabbling over the past several months, with both sides vowing to refocus on the issue this fall. 

The comments came as the GOP candidates gathered for a debate sponsored by the Oakland County Republican Party and WJR-AM (760), moderating and airing the discussion.

Soldano called Whitmer’s gas tax suspension vetoes sarcastically the “gift that keeps on giving” and said he would have gone forward with a temporary suspension of the state gas tax. But he and other candidates argued the issues facing the state amid record inflation were more long-term. 

GOP candidate Garrett Soldano talks during the debate.

“They’re trying to dance around this recession talk” and “switch this narrative,” Soldano said. He argued Whitmer’s controversial actions would be multiplied should she win a second four-year term as governor and turn her attention to a bid for the White House.

Rinke said a gas tax suspension was a temporary solution that wouldn’t address long-term issues in the economy. Instead, he advocated for an elimination of the state’s 4.25% personal income tax, arguing the state’s record budget could absorb the loss of that tax revenue.

“Lansing, right now, are pigs at the trough,” Rinke said. “They're drunk on your money.”

Last month, lawmakers sent Whitmer a record-setting $76 billion state budget that was fueled by multibillion-dollar budget surpluses and leftover federal COVID relief funds.

Rinke's proposed elimination of the income tax would deplete the state's coffers by an estimated $12 billion annually. Through multiple debates, Rinke has not identified what areas of state government he would eliminate to make up for the lost revenue.

Farmington Hills Pastor Ralph Rebandt also noted any gas tax suspension would be short-term and argued instead for a property tax break for seniors and cultivation of resources within the state, including harnessing mineral resources in the Upper Peninsula.

GOP candidate Ralph Rebandt speaks during the debate.

Dixon said the state is heading into a recession and that Whitmer is “doing nothing" to stop it. 

Dixon argued Whitmer was doing the opposite of easing the state’s high gas tax prices with her efforts to shut down Enbridge Energy's Line 5 pipeline through the Straits of Mackinac, a plan opposed by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

“Our governor is more radical than Justin Trudeau,” Dixon said.

Kelley said suspending the gas tax was important but temporary. He instead advocated for some relief on homestead property taxes and working with surrounding states to drill for domestic oil.

“Those short-term solutions I believe are what we need to do in order to get our economy working again,” Kelley said.

Earlier this month, Dixon held a slight edge in the primary, according to a July 13-15 poll commissioned by The Detroit News and WDIV-TV (Channel 4). Of 500 likely GOP primary voters, 19% said they would vote for Dixon while 15% picked Rinke, 13% favored Kelley and 12% backed Soldano. About 2% supported Rebandt, while 38% of Republican voters surveyed said they were undecided.

However, Dixon's slim lead fell within the poll's margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points, and political consultants have described the race as a "toss-up."

Put Michigan First, a group backed by the Democratic Governors Association, revealed an ad Tuesday night that attacks Dixon, saying her plan to phase out the state's 4.25% personal income tax would "slash" funding for police. The organization is putting about $2 million behind the commercial in the days before Tuesday's election.

Dixon, who's been endorsed by the Police Officers Association of Michigan, has said the ad is an attempt to knock her out in the primary because Whitmer's supporters don't want to face her in the general election.

Republican gubernatorial primary candidate Tudor Dixon speaks during the GOP Gubernatorial debate at the UWM Sports Complex Auditorium in Pontiac, Mich. on July 27, 2022.

“The idea that this attack ad has come out and said that I would ever reduce police funding is baloney,” said Dixon Wednesday morning during a roundtable event with police officers supporting her candidacy. “We clearly stated on our website that we would never do that.”

Meanwhile, Rinke has been funding ads claiming Dixon is "bankrolled" by opponents of former President Donald Trump. His commercials refer to Betsy DeVos, a Michigan resident and Trump's former education secretary.

DeVos resigned from Trump's Cabinet a day after the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol when Trump supporters tried to disrupt the certification of Democrat Joe Biden's 2020 presidential election victory. DeVos has since acknowledged that she discussed the possibility of invoking the 25th Amendment with other Cabinet members to remove Trump before his term ended, according to CNN.

Wednesday night's debate was the first since campaign finance disclosures revealed members of the DeVos family contributed $1 million to Michigan Families United, a political committee that's been sponsoring TV ads in support of Dixon.

At the last debate on July 20, Soldano said his "definition of establishment is basically" Dixon's "entire campaign." On Wednesday, Soldano called Dixon the "establishment-bought" candidate.

Trump has not endorsed in the primary so far, but he has previously made positive comments about Dixon. In a statement on Tuesday, Trump said Republicans in Missouri and Michigan are "waiting" for him to officially announce support for a candidate.

"They say, whoever I endorse will win," the ex-president said.

Soldano told reporters Trump's potential endorsement remained "up in the air" on Wednesday night.

"I think he’s going to in the next 48 hours," Soldano said.