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In first debate, Michigan GOP governor hopefuls embrace abortion ban, Trump

Businessman Perry Johnson, center, said giving COVID-19 vaccines to children is "nutty" during a Republican gubernatorial debate on Thursday in Howell. (Screenshot)

June 2: Republicans: More guns — not more laws — will keep Michigan schools safe

HOWELL —  Michigan Republican gubernatorial hopefuls found common ground in their first debate on Thursday, vowing to support a potential abortion ban, push school choice and investigate Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for COVID-19 nursing home deaths.

Several candidates also questioned vaccine efficacy, and some argued that former President Donald Trump won Michigan’s 2020 election, despite officially losing the state by 154,188 votes. 

The crowded debate stage featured eight Republicans competing to take on Whitmer and a conspicuous absence: Former Detroit Police Chief James Craig, who has led all polls of the GOP field, pulled out of the debate amid petition signature forgery allegations that could keep him off the ballot.

“Can I answer for James Craig since he's not here?” joked Garrett Soldano of Mattawan, a chiropractor who said his Republican opponent wasn't living up to his “leading from the front" campaign slogan by sitting on the "sidelines." 

With the early GOP front-runner off the stage, candidates including Perry Johnson of Bloomfield Hills, Kevin Rinke of Bloomfield Township and Tudor Dixon of Norton Shores staked out conservative positions and offered support for a 1931 Michigan law that would ban abortion in Michigan if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, as expected. 

“Life begins at conception,” said Johnson, saying he supports abortion only to save the life of the mother, the lone exception in the old state law.

“It’s very important to me to protect life,” added Dixon, calling the 1931 statute a “good law.”

Rinke was one of three candidates who said they support allowing abortions for pregnancies caused by rape or incest, exceptions not included in the 1931 law. Sharing that position were Michael Markey of Grand Haven and Michael Brown of Stevensville, a Michigan State Police captain who said he’s seen “some terrible things with rape and incest” in his career. 

Ralph Rebandt, pastor of Oakland Hills Community Church in Farmington Hills, was the only Republican who said he did not support any exceptions to an abortion ban, even for the life of the pregnant woman. 

“It's murder,” he said. “And we have to call it what it is.”

A leaked draft showing the Supreme Court is ready to overturn Roe v. Wade has reignited debate in Michigan and other states. 

Whitmer has vowed to “fight like hell” to protect access to legal abortion, and Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel has said she will not enforce any ban at the state level. 

‘Flopping around like fish’

With Trump yet to endorse in the governor’s race, several GOP hopefuls praised the former president on Thursday night. 

Dixon, Rebandt and Ryan Kelley said they believe Trump won Michigan in 2020. Soldano appeared to endorse the position too: “President Trump is still my president,” he said. 

Kelley, a former Allendale Township planning commissioner, alleged “massive” election fraud and said he would try to ban electronic tabulator machines. That would require a laborious and time-intensive hand count of all ballots on election night, potentially delaying results for days. 

A Republican-led Michigan Senate Oversight Panel spent months investigating claims about the 2020 election and concluded there is no evidence of widespread fraud, but most of the GOP candidates — including Craig — have joined calls for a “forensic audit” of the contest. 

Rinke refused to answer a yes or no question about whether Trump won Michigan in 2020, while Johnson said he’d like to see more “data” and an investigation before deciding, drawing some boos from the crowd of roughly 700 Republican activists. 

Brown and Markey were the lone candidates who said that they do not believe Trump won Michigan. 

“No,” Brown said bluntly. “We got a bunch of people on stage here flopping around like fish on a dock.” 

A 'very disappointing' no-show

The 10-candidate GOP gubernatorial field could still thin in coming weeks as the Michigan Bureau of Elections and State Board of Elections consider challenges to nominating petitions filed by Craig, Johnson and Dixon. 

Craig’s attorney acknowledged for the first time this week that his campaign may have been “defrauded” by circulators accused of a signature forgery scheme, but  he said he believes Craig will still have the 15,000 valid signatures that are required, a decision state canvassers will make on May 26.

Craig’s campaign said earlier Thursday that he would not be attending the first gubernatorial debate because of a “prior commitment” to speak at a Mechanical Contractors Association event in Detroit. 

Campaign co-manager Ted Goodman disputed a report that Craig had “pulled out” of the debate. 

In fact, that’s exactly what Craig did, said Livingston County GOP Chair Meghan Reckling, who told Bridge Michigan the former Detroit police chief had been “100 percent committed” to the debate and had been confirmed “for weeks” before withdrawing in recent days.

"It's very disappointing," Reckling said, adding that Craig had been “one of the first” candidates to commit to the debate, which she helped organize. 

While Craig was missing in action, “none of the other candidates got what they needed out of that” because they failed to make waves, said Adrian Hemond, a Democratic strategist with Grassroots Midwest who was invited to the venue to provide post-debate analysis.

“Gretchen Whitmer had a really good night,” Hemond argued. “None of what was said on stage tonight is palatable to a general election electorate,” including ongoing claims about the 2020 presidential election. 

But Tori Sachs, a Republican strategist with the Michigan Freedom Fund, said Whitmer was the “biggest loser of the night” and credited the GOP candidates for talking about “putting students first” and “restoring power back to parents” after COVID-19 learning losses.

Education, inflation and crime will be big issues in the fall election and favor the eventual Republican nominee, Sachs said. 

She downplayed the crowd’s apparent focus on litigating the 2020 election, as evidenced by boos for candidates that did not declare Trump the winner. 

“We are a party that values free speech and diversity of thought,” Sachs said. “We’ll tell you when we agree with you, and we’ll tell you when we don’t. There’s a broad spectrum of where people are at on that issue in our party.”

‘It’s a choice’

While the Republican candidates agreed on most topics Thursday night, they did offer some contrasting opinions. 

Rinke and Kelley said they do not believe COVID-19 vaccines helped combat the virus, with the latter arguing the “science behind it was political science.”

Other candidates acknowledged studies showing the COVID-19 vaccines likely prevented deaths. 

Johnson said he thinks the vaccine helped elderly populations but argued it would be “really nutty” to give to kids. Soldano said the positive impact was likely limited to obese and elderly people with underlying medical conditions.  

"It kept them from dying, but it's a choice,” said Soldano, who earned a large online following in 2020 for opposing Whitmer’s COVID-19 pandemic policies. 

Rebandt said he would like to end all state funding for Michigan’s 15 public universities. Others said they would consider funding cuts for universities, which Soldano called “indoctrination centers” that pushed mask and vaccine mandates.

Johnson, Dixon and Markey said they would not support funding cuts for universities, however.

“Education is one of the best investments we can make,” Markey said. “One of the best ways to lead people into higher classes is through education.”

The candidates generally agreed that state police or Michigan’s next attorney general should investigate Whitmer over nursing home deaths and an early pandemic policy that was never enforced but would have required facilities with dedicated COVID wards to accept infected patients.

“She kicked the door open on investigating a former governor,” Dixon said, referencing Flint water crisis charges against former Gov. Rick Snyder that were filed by Nessel, not Whitmer. “So yes, she should be investigated."

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