While GOP candidates compete for Trump's attention, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer enjoys a healthy lead.
The four leading Republican candidates for Michigan governor are still jockeying for the endorsement of former President Donald Trump with less than two weeks to go before the state's Aug. 2 primary election.
"No one is more popular with the Republican primary electorate than Donald Trump," Adrian Hemond, CEO of the political consulting firm Grassroots Midwest told the American Independent Foundation. "If he endorses, the race for the nomination is over."
Retiring Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump in January 2021, expressed a similar sentiment.
"Whoever gets Trump's endorsement for the gubernatorial nod on the Republican side is probably going to be the nominee," Upton said in a July 7 interview on NBC's Meet the Press.
At least one candidate in the race has gone on the attack, accusing a rival of not being sufficiently loyal to Trump. In a recent campaign ad, Kevin Rinke, a Detroit auto sales executive, targeted conservative pundit and businesswoman Tudor Dixon, slamming her as a "RINO," or Republican in name only, because of her endorsement by billionaire Michigan GOP power couple Dick and Betsy DeVos.
"She claims to be for Trump," the ad's narrator says of Dixon, "but she's been endorsed by the RINO establishment's leading Never Trumpers. Worse, Tudor Dixon has taken millions from the same billionaires who tried to illegally remove Trump from office. You can't trust RINOs who betray President Trump. You can't trust Tudor Dixon."
David Dulio, Director of Oakland University's Center for Civic Engagement, told the American Independent Foundation that Rinke's ad was "just an astounding development in Republican Party politics, when Betsy DeVos' endorsement gets you labeled as a RINO! That is a strange day!"
Betsy DeVos, who served as Trump's secretary of education, has acknowledged having discussions about invoking the 25th Amendment against her boss following the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. The 25th Amendment put in place the procedures for replacing a sitting president in the event of their death, resignation, or removal from office. DeVos resigned on January 7, 2021.
The DeVos family has deep conservative and Republican roots. Dick DeVos ran unsuccessfully for Michigan governor in 2006, and Betsy DeVos has served as the state's Republican Party chair. Betsy DeVos, a staunch school privatization advocate, recently said that the Department of Education, which she ran, "should not exist," preferring instead to institute a voucher program to permit parents to send their children to private schools.
Dixon, too, has serious Republican credentials which belie the RINO label. Just last week she was endorsed by the Susan B. Anthony List, which is dedicated to ending abortion nationally by supporting anti-abortion candidates for office. Its founder, Marjorie Dannenfelser, has called exceptions for rape "abominable." Dixon's endorsements also include Right to Life of Michigan, among others.
Rinke's ad reiterates the theme of his previous one — his similarity to Trump. That ad promised that Rinke, like Trump, "won't back down," and that he would "restore Michigan's greatness."
While he has yet to weigh in on the governor's race, Trump has endorsed a slate of Republican candidates in Michigan. That list includes Matt DePerno and Kristina Karamo, the GOP nominees for attorney general and secretary of state, respectively.
Trump has also endorsed two Michigan Republicans who challenged sitting GOP House members. In Michigan's 3rd Congressional District, far-right election denier John Gibbs is challenging Rep. Peter Meijer (R-MI), who also voted to impeach Trump. And in the 4th District, Trump endorsed state Rep. Steve Carra over Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-MI). Carra dropped out of the race in March after being drawn out of the district.
"My hunch is that Dixon is ahead, but I wouldn't call her a frontrunner," Dulio said. "I just think it's a fluid race. Everyone is waiting for this Trump endorsement."
Trump has been silent on all but Dixon, however, name-checking her at a Michigan rally in April. She visited Trump's Florida club, Mar-a-Lago, for a February fundraiser at which the former president referred to her as "very special."
But Dixon's DeVos endorsement, Hemond says, makes a Trump endorsement less likely.
"The former president may make an endorsement here," says Hemond. "But I’m very doubtful that it will be Tudor Dixon. He has been very DeVos-skeptical since the end of his administration. If you dig down into the state legislative races, he is on the opposite side of the DeVos family on almost all of them."
According to the Detroit News, Meshawn Maddock, Michigan Republican Party co-chair, weighed in on the race last week to underline the GOP's support for Trump.
"All of us who are loyal to President Trump have an obligation to make certain that our nominee for governor commits now to support President Trump's candidates for AG (attorney general) and SOS (secretary of state) in 2022 and President Trump for reelection in 2024," she said.
Of the three candidates at the top of the race, Kelley, who experienced a bump in the polls last month following his arrest by the FBI on charges following his involvement in the riot on Jan. 6, 2021, is still highly competitive. Hemond suspects Kelley will end up clinching the nomination.
"My money's on him," he said.
Former Michigan Democratic Party chair Mark Brewer filed a lawsuit in the Michigan Court of Appeals last week to keep Kelley off the ballot.
"He has 'engaged in insurrection' in violation of § 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment and therefore is ineligible to serve as a candidate for Governor for the State of Michigan. He is a clear and present danger to democracy in Michigan," the lawsuit states.
Recent polling shows Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer with a healthy lead over all of the GOP candidates in the race. The poll also revealed limited knowledge of the GOP candidates among Republican voters.
Dulio expressed confidence in Whitmer's ability to fend off any of the Republican challengers, along with that of other Democrats.
"In what must be the worst political environment in modern history for candidates of the president's party," he said, "they are all going to win. If it were held today, they are all going to win."
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.