GOP governor nominee Tudor Dixon: 'Epic battle' ahead with Whitmer

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Grand Rapids — Tudor Dixon, a conservative commentator and first-time candidate who won the backing of powerful allies, including former President Donald Trump, will be the Michigan Republican Party's nominee to challenge Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in November.

With about 82% of the expected votes in the Republican contest counted, Dixon had 40% of the vote as businessman Kevin Rinke of Bloomfield Township trailed far behind her with about 22% of the vote. Chiropractor Garrett Soldano of Mattawan had 18% of the vote, real estate broker Ryan Kelley of Allendale had about 15%, and Pastor Ralph Rebandt of Farmington Hills had 4%.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon declares victory at her primary election night party at the Amway Grand Hotel in Grand Rapids on Aug 2, 2022.

In a tweet shortly after 9 p.m., the Michigan GOP described Dixon as "our gubernatorial candidate and the next governor of our state." Rinke later told his supporters at an event in Birmingham that his campaign had finished "short," and Soldano conceded, saying he planned to vote for Dixon in November.

Speaking at an event inside the Amway Grand Plaza in Grand Rapids, Dixon sought to define the "battle lines in this race."

"This is going to be an epic battle between a conservative businesswoman and mother and a far-left birthing parent and career politician," Dixon said, referring to a gender-neutral term for a mother.

Dixon thanked her supporters and her family, including her four daughters.

"I'm doing this for you girls and every child in Michigan to make sure that the next four years are filled with opportunities and not locked classrooms and massive grocery bills," Dixon said.

Her speech focused on soaring inflation and Whitmer's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, signaling those issues would be focal points in her campaign against Whitmer.

"She's been riding with Biden, while he's been driving our economy to the ground," Dixon said. "We've lost years of learning. We've lost our businesses. We've lost our life savings, and we've lost so much more.”

Dixon, 45, of Norton Shores in Muskegon County, gained momentum going into Election Day and built a solid lead in early returns on election night. She becomes Michigan Republicans' first female nominee for governor and boasts support from competing wings of the GOP.

Dixon and her supporters had argued that she gives Republicans in the battleground state their best chance to unseat Whitmer. A breast cancer survivor, Dixon built a coalition that includes the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the Police Officers Association of Michigan and Right to Life of Michigan.

"I don't want to see Whitmer get back in," said Linda Milder, a GOP voter who cast her ballot in the Jackson County village of Springport on Tuesday afternoon. "And I want to make sure that (we get) somebody (who) knows what they're doing."

Milder said she voted for Dixon because she views her as being the strongest GOP candidate against Whitmer. Trump's endorsement was a factor in her decision but wasn't the only consideration, Milder added.

But in a statement, Maeve Coyle, the Whitmer campaign's communications director, said Dixon will drag Michigan backward, referencing her position against abortion and contending she will "sow distrust in our democracy."

"While Dixon has focused her campaign on attracting support from special interests and political insiders, Gov. Whitmer has been working to earn support from Michiganders by doing what she has always done: working with anyone to get things done," Coyle said.

The GOP candidates walked a long, winding path to Tuesday's primary election that featured eight debates, five other opponents being disqualified from the ballot in May and Kelley getting arrested on misdemeanor charges related to the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.

Kelley and Soldano emphasized their grassroots support and activism against Whitmer's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Rinke, who loaned his campaign for governor $10 million, touted his experience as a business leader. His family has a long history of running auto dealerships in Metro Detroit.

"Someone's going to win and someone finishes short," Rinke told his supporters Tuesday night. "So we're short."

As for Soldano, he called on all Republicans "to continue fighting, and together we will defeat Gretchen Whitmer in November."

'She can do it'

Jan and Kip Laughlin, a married couple from Springport, voiced their support for Dixon after they cast ballots. Standing outside the village clerk's office, the Laughlins said they were frustrated with Whitmer's performance in the state's top job.

"Our governor is ..." Kip began. Then, Jan interjected, " ... an idiot."

Of Dixon, Kip Laughlin, a U.S. Marine Corps. veteran who served in the 1960s, said, "She's a strong public speaker. I think she can do it."

Dixon launched her campaign for governor in May 2021. Before becoming a candidate, she worked in conservative media and had started Lumen Student News, which offered conservative news programs for middle school and high school students. She moved to west Michigan with her family from Illinois in 2002 when her father, Vaughn Makary, bought a foundry in the region and launched Michigan Steel.

On the campaign trail, she called for giving parents a larger say in how their children are educated at schools and for easing regulations to improve the state's business environment.

Dixon gained the support of well-known GOP consultants and operatives, some of whom had close ties to Trump, including Taylor Budowich, a spokesman for the former president and Susie Wiles, who advises Trump.

Trump endorsed Dixon on Friday, four days before the primary election.

"When I met Tudor Dixon, she was not well known, but I could tell she had something very special — it was a quality that few others have," Trump said in his endorsement statement.

Trump's influence

Dixon's primary opponents have criticized her ties to the "establishment" wing of the GOP, including west Michigan's DeVos family, who contributed $1 million to a political action committee that aired TV ads promoting her.

Rinke ran his own commercials, saying Dixon was "bankrolled" by Trump opponents, referring to Trump's former education secretary, Betsy DeVos.

Betsy 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.

Kelley, Rinke and Soldano had asked Trump to stay out of the primary race.

GOP gubernatorial candidate Kevin Rinke hugs a supporter after conceding the race Tuesday during an election night party at The Dow at Dick O' Dow's in Birmingham.

As a longtime businessman, Rinke had a more conventional biography for a statewide candidate than his primary competitors did: a lengthy career and a family name that's somewhat known in the most populated area of Michigan.

He attempted to balance his desire to appeal to moderate primary voters with the influence of the former president's supporters. Rinke's remarks on the campaign trail have focused on economic policy, but one of the main TV ads he sponsored featured a zombie wearing voting stickers.

"Why is it that dead people always vote Democrat?" Rinke said at the beginning of the ad, which was released on June 2.

The ad, which touched on conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election, drew criticism. Rinke had previously said he hadn't "seen anything that would indicate there was fraud" in the last election. The ad was meant to be "tongue in cheek," Rinke argued.

Judy Rogers, a homemaker from Rochester Hills, was among those who voted for Rinke on Tuesday.

"I really feel like the last administration is all about spending, but spending what we don't have," Rogers said. "And I think a lot of this led to inflation, so I'd like to see more of a common sense business approach to what's going on."

The road to Tuesday

While Rinke said the state needed a businessman to lead it, Kelley said Michigan Republicans needed a "fighter."

Kelley gained attention as an activist, criticizing COVID-19 restrictions and protesting the results of the presidential election. When he was arrested on charges related to the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol, he gained the national spotlight and accused authorities of trying to silence him.

He struggled to raise the money required to run a statewide campaign. As of July 17, his campaign had reported raising $306,673.

Kelley and Soldano courted many of the same voters in the primary race. Soldano gained prominence in GOP circles in 2020 and 2021 by speaking out against Whitmer's COVID-19 policies on Facebook.

Soldano, a former football star at Western Michigan University, raised more money than Kelley did, relying on small-dollar contributions. But he still didn't have the financial backing that Dixon and Rinke did in the final months of the race.

During a debate in Rochester on July 20, Soldano targeted Dixon, saying his "definition of establishment is basically" Dixon's "entire campaign."

Dixon, Kelley, Rebandt, Rinke and Soldano likely benefited from five other GOP candidates being disqualified from the ballot in May because of a wave of fraudulent petition signatures.

Those tossed from the primary ballot included businessman Perry Johnson, who spent $7 million to promote his campaign, and former Detroit police Chief James Craig, who was once viewed as the front runner.

Craig launched a write-in campaign for the GOP nomination.

As for Whitmer, she was unopposed in Tuesday's Democratic primary. She is a former state lawmaker who won her first term as Michigan's governor in November 2018, defeating then-Attorney General Bill Schuette, by 9 percentage points.

She'll have a significant financial advantage to begin the general election race. As of July 17, her campaign had $14.7 million available to spend.

Staff Writers Kalea Hall, Anna Liz Nichols, Hannah Mackay and Beth LeBlanc contributed.