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Hard-line candidates in Michigan hope to advance to November election

Republican gubernatorial candidates are eager to replace Democrat Gretchen Whitmer, but polled voters are not definitively sure who would have the best shot.

DETROIT (CN) — Republican candidates may refine their messaging in the run-up to Michigan’s primary election on Aug. 2 as they straddle opinions on abortion and lingering Covid-19 restrictions, all while former President Donald Trump’s influence lingers in the background.

“Trump has done amazing things for our country,” Republican candidate Ryan Kelley said of the 45th president during a gubernatorial debate on July 7, one day before entering a not-guilty plea to charges in connection with last year’s Jan. 6 riot. 

The FBI raided Kelley’s home and he was arrested on June 9.

Kelley’s participation in the Jan. 6 riot was also the subject of a recent lawsuit seeking to disqualify him from the ballot due to those ties, but it was dismissed by the Michigan Court of Appeals.

David A. Dulio, an Oakland University political scientist, thinks the arrest was beneficial.

“He has a base of support that is tied to relitigating 2020,” he said in a telephone interview. “I think his arrest and indictment helped him, … certainly with name recognition.”

Before she announced her candidacy, conservative commentator Tudor Dixon had a sales career in the Michigan steel industry throughout the early 2000s and later founded Lumen News, which she claimed provided pro-America, pro-Constitution morning news programs to grade school students. 

Dixon, a native of Norton Shores in western Michigan, objected to incumbent Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s Covid-era lockdowns and seethed when her grandmother died in a locked-down nursing home. She blames the governor’s “cruel no-visitation policies” that only allowed her to wave goodbye through an outside window. 

“We saw what happened when our state was shut down by a tyrant governor,” Dixon said at the debate.

According to polling released on July 11 from MIRS News and Mitchell Research, Dixon’s support is surging. With 26% of Republican voters supporting her, she has an 11-point lead over the three other candidates, who are in a statistical tie. One-third of voters remain undecided. Another poll showed her on top albeit with a slimming lead. She has recently secured endorsements from Right to Life of Michigan and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

At a debate on July 20, Dixon addressed the attention she received and said her opponents “have been running silly attack ads against me because they thought it was a popularity contest.”

Dulio noted she is walking a tightrope.

“She is leaning a little more towards the establishment wing of the party … while still trying to keep a toe in the Trump wing,” the professor said.

Dulio highlighted the strategic importance of courting Trump’s base in a post-Trump world.

“Trump brought people to the Republican Party that no one else could,” he said. “If the Republicans can keep the coalition he started together, while not alienating suburban voters, they have a good chance,” he said. 

Kevin Rinke, a businessman from Bloomfield Township, is also running for governor. Rinke ascended through his family automotive dealership business then moved on to the medical field, where he eventually landed at Centria Healthcare and dedicated his focus to autism.

He touted his business acumen at the July 7 debate, but made a point to stress that he would fix the state’s education system since that was a “critical aspect” of business.

Dulio opined Rinke was positioning himself as an outsider executive-type, but with less drama than former President Trump.

“He’s … following in the lines of other folks from outside the political sphere,” he said.

Garrett Soldano positions himself as an underdog against the political machine. His Facebook group, “Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine,” was eventually removed by the social media giant. At a recent debate, he accused Dixon of being bought and paid for by the so-called establishment.

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“We’re sick and tired of the career politicians … having control over all of us,” he declared.

While Soldano could be considered a long shot, Dulio was reluctant to rule him out.

“In some ways, it’s a wide-open race,” he said. “Someone could win this thing with 28% [of the vote].”

In Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District, the state’s primary pits Republican Peter Meijer against Trump favorite John Gibbs.

“I’m not running on a campaign of ‘Why My Opponent Is Awful,’” Meijer told the National Review recently. “When it comes to personality politics … it doesn’t have any impact on the price of gasoline. It doesn’t have an impact on ensuring that our economy is strong and that we are respected on the global stage.”

Gibbs was appointed by President Trump as Acting Assistant Secretary for Community Planning and Development at HUD under then-Secretary Ben Carson. He was also appointed by the President to serve on the 1776 Commission, where he argued against the use of Critical Race Theory in schools.

Gibbs was recently called out by CNN for falsely claiming that the 2020 election results were rigged.

“When you look at the results of the 2020 election, there are anomalies in there … that are simply mathematically impossible,” Gibbs declared at a televised roundtable discussion that aired on WOOD TV8 of Grand Rapids.

Dulio thinks it will be a race to watch.

“It’s a Democratic-leaning district overall and that makes it so interesting because if Peter Meijer wins the primary, I think he wins the general. If Gibbs wins the primary, he loses the general,” he predicted. “The Trump endorsement can be a blessing in the primary, but the kiss of death in the general.”

The winner will advance to face Democrat Hillary Scholten in November, who is running unopposed.

A closely watched election in Oakland County is in the freshly drawn 11th Congressional District and features two strong Democrat candidates in Andy Levin and Haley Stevens.

Dulio conceded it was a tough race to call. 

“They are so similar on so many issues,” he said.

Stevens won the current 11th House District in 2018 and held firm in 2020. She was formerly chief of staff for the task force that navigated U.S. automakers through bankruptcy in the late 2000s and has collected several endorsements, including one from Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“I’ve always known [Stevens] to be a fighter. She ran for office to stand up to Trump's agenda…and is committed to protecting reproductive rights. I’m proud to endorse her for reelection,” the former secretary of state tweeted.

Dulio believes the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade could be a powerful issue for Stevens.

“She can speak to it with credibility and emotion,” he said.

Andy Levin, son of former US House Representative Sandy Levin and nephew to the late former U.S. Senator Carl Levin, has a name familiar to Michiganders. He has touted his progressive record in Congress and has been endorsed by Senator Elizabeth Warren and U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Dulio thought that Stevens has an advantage since she represented a bigger portion of the newly drawn district, but cautioned that Levin has a distinct identity as well as name recognition.

“Levin has tried to carve out the progressive side of the party for himself and he’s done that with the positions he’s taken, with the endorsements he’s gotten,” he said.

Levin was recently arrested during a pro-choice protest.

“I’m willing to do whatever it takes to protect abortion rights — even if it means getting arrested,” he recently tweeted.

The winner will face the Republican winner of the primary, Mark Ambrose or Matthew DenOtter, in a district that is decisively blue.

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