Michigan gubernatorial candidates hold their first debate Thursday as Republican challenger Tudor Dixon tries to use the primetime appearance to close her gap with Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
Dixon is a former commentator on a conservative online program endorsed by former President Donald Trump. She has never held public office and is still working to introduce herself and her ideas to voters — some of whom may be seeing her in action for the first time at Thursday’s debate.
For months, Whitmer and his fellow Democrats have been running attack ads portraying the Republican as too extreme on issues like abortion, noting Dixon’s opposition to the procedure even in cases of rape or incest. Those ads went largely unanswered as Dixon struggled to raise money to compete with Whitmer’s multimillion-dollar campaign.
But with just weeks to go before the Nov. 8 election, Dixon is expected to hit back at Whitmer during the debate in Grand Rapids. He has described the governor’s views as “radical” on issues such as education, abortion and criminal justice. Dixon has also criticized Whitmer on the campaign trail for her approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, saying the lockdowns she imposed are hurting the state’s economy.
Whitmer is seeking her second term as governor after serving in leadership in the Michigan Legislature, where she publicly shared her rape story in 2013 during a debate on abortion insurance coverage. He has since said he will “fight like hell” to protect abortion rights, including filing a lawsuit earlier this year to block the state’s 1931 ban after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade .
Abortion has been an especially important issue in Michigan this year because voters in November will also decide whether to enshrine the right to the procedure in the state constitution.
Dixon said she supports abortion only to save her mother’s life and has been supported by anti-abortion groups, including Right to Life Michigan.
He had support from the family of Betsy DeVos, Trump’s former Secretary of Education, and a well-known member of the state’s Democratic Party establishment. Her campaign said it was getting help preparing for the debate from another supporter, former Gov. John Engler.
Dixon emerged from the five-candidate Republican primary after receiving Trump’s endorsement. He said during the primaries that he believed the 2020 election was stolen by Trump, whose loss to Joe Biden in Michigan by about 154,000 votes was confirmed through multiple investigations and lawsuits.
The mother of four criticized Whitmer about education in the state, saying parents should have more rights than what children are taught.
The two candidates are scheduled to debate again on Oct. 25 at Oakland University in Rochester.
Joey Cappelletti is a staff member of The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on undercover issues.
Burnett reported from Chicago.