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It’s ‘year of the woman’ and Michigan GOP likes Dixon’s odds against Whitmer

Tudor Dixon and Gretchen Whitmer
Michigan is one of six states in which two women are running for governor this year, as Republican Tudor Dixon faces Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. (Bridge file photos)
  • Two women will face each other in the November gubernatorial election — a first in Michigan history
  • Tudor Dixon, who will be the GOP nominee for governor, faces a fundraising deficit against Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer
  • Republican consultants say Dixon must seek support from independent voters by stressing economic issues to stand a chance against Whitmer

LANSING — “The year of the woman” has come, newly-elected Republican gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon announced at a Michigan GOP “unity” luncheon Wednesday afternoon. 

She is not wrong.

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For the first time in Michigan history, two women will face each other in the November general election, as Dixon takes on Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who is seeking re-election. 

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The top-of-the-ticket matchup in Michigan is part of a national trend where voters are getting more used to seeing women candidates — Republican and Democrat — on the general election ballots, said Amanda Hunter, executive director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, a Massachusetts-based nonpartisan organization that researches women in politics.

This year, Michigan is one of six states where two female candidates — both major party nominees — will compete in November, she said. 

But women candidates still face hurdles men don’t when courting voters, such as more scrutiny of their looks, their qualifications and their likeability factor, Hunter said.

As if on cue, some voters and strategists are already comparing appearances. Michigan GOP co-chair Meshawn Maddock on Wednesday called Dixon a “younger, smarter, hotter” version of Whitmer.

Some Republican consultants say Dixon’s gender serves as an advantage, especially in a year that there could be a proposal on the ballot in November to enshrine abortion as a state constitutional right.

Dixon is ardently anti-abortion, while Whitmer has said she’ll “fight like hell” to prevent the procedure from becoming illegal in Michigan after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

“Having a woman lead the fight for the pro-life voices in the state is a much better look than have a male lead that fight,” said Jason Roe, former Michigan GOP executive director. 

Republicans have rallied behind Dixon — the 45-year-old former North Shores steel executive and conservative media personality — as the best shot at defeating Whitmer in November. 

Dixon won 41 percent of the votes in the Tuesday primary, with 98 percent of all ballots counted by Wednesday afternoon. Almost all Michigan counties — 80 out of 83 — went for Dixon

The self-proclaimed “conservative businesswoman” — endorsed by both former President Donald Trump and the family of former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — has the ability to unify sometimes warring grassroots and establishment factions of the Republican Party, according to GOP consultants.

Heading into the primary, the "narrative has been that the Republicans are deeply split and divided," said Michigan GOP pollster Steve Mitchell. 

"That narrative has to change. It's pretty clear that the party did unite behind (Dixon's) candidacy."

Dixon’s path to victory: independent voters, economic issues

For Dixon, the path ahead is an uphill climb, GOP and Democratic strategists acknowledged.

But, they said, Dixon has a path to victory — one that courts non-Republican voters by stressing economic issues and associating Whitmer with President Joe Biden, who is unpopular among voters.

“This is going to be about inflation,” said Mitchell, the GOP pollster. “This is going to be about the high price of gas. This is gonna be the high price of food. This is going to be about Joe Biden as much as the governor won't want it to be about Joe Biden.”

Biden's dismal approval ratings could create conditions for a Republican "tsunami" in the fall, Mitchell predicted, adding that he expects massive turnout from opponents of Biden and Whitmer, while Democrats “are just going to stay home.”

But in order to spread that message, Dixon needs money — and she starts the general election campaign far behind Whitmer.

As of Sunday, Dixon raised a total $1.8 million, roughly 6 percent of the more than $30 million Whitmer has raked in, campaign records show. Dixon benefited from multimillion-dollar ad campaigns from super PACs that helped propel her from the back of the pack in the last six weeks of the race.

“Part of what made (her victory) possible … was a huge infusion of cash, and she needs another one in the next two to three weeks in order to be competitive with the governor, who has an immense amount of money right now,” Adrian Hemond, Democratic consultant and CEO of bipartisan consulting firm Grassroots Midwest, told Bridge.

Roe, the GOP consultant, said the Republican Governors Association and the Michigan Republican Party will channel money to Dixon’s campaign now it is clear she is the nominee.

“I don’t think Tudor needs to match Whitmer dollar for dollar,” he said. “All Tudor needs to do is to get her message out.”

In addition, Dixon must solicit support from independent voters, consultants say.

“Tudor can’t spend a lot of time talking to Republicans and getting them on board, because we’ve got to go now persuade a majority of voters, and that includes non-Republicans, that she’s the right choice for Michigan,” Roe said.

Dixon has focused on culture war issues, proposing to criminalize adults who bring children to drag shows and ban transgender boys from competing on girls sports teams. In her victory speech Tuesday night, Dixon made clear education — including student learning loss and school voucher programs — are key components of her campaign. 

Whitmer "locked kids out of their schools" early in the COVID-19 pandemic and vetoed reading scholarships to help kids make up for learning losses, Dixon said, referencing a GOP proposal that critics compared to a voucher program.

"Gretchen Whitmer didn't just hurt our kids, her policies were destructive for our workforce and our businesses as well," Dixon told supporters, calling Whitmer the "Queen of Lockdowns" who "decided you were not essential."

Whitmer’s campaign portrayed Whitmer as a problem solver and claimed Dixon “will drag Michigan backwards.”

"Dixon’s plans to ban abortion with no exceptions for rape, incest, or health of the mother and throw nurses in jail, gut funding for public education, reverse progress rebuilding Michigan’s infrastructure and sow distrust in our democracy are dangerous for Michigan women and families," Maeve Coyle, communications director for the Whitmer campaign, said in a Tuesday statement.

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

Abortion could drive voter turnout, boost Whitmer

But on the flip side, abortion could drive more Democrats to the polls to counter a Republican “wave” of dissatisfied voters, acknowledged Mitchell, the Republican pollster.

Reproductive Freedom for All, a constitutional amendment to keep abortion legal in Michigan, could appear on the November ballot with enough valid signatures. The ballot drive turned in more than 753,000 signatures, the most in Michigan history.

The campaign saw a significant boost in volunteers and fundraising efforts after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, which had offered federal protection to abortion rights for nearly 50 years.

"I do not see how this does not become the front-and-center issue, from the top to the bottom of the ballot in Michigan," said Richard Czuba, longtime pollster and founder of Glengariff Group in Michigan.

Czuba pointed to Kansas, where an anti-abortion referendum led to "wildly jacked up turnout" in that state's Tuesday primary and the ultimate defeat of the measure — a win for abortion rights advocates. 

In Michigan, most voters support access to legal abortion, Czuba’s surveys show.

The Democratic turnout motivated by abortion could upend what might otherwise be a good year for Republicans, who were already motivated to vote this year due to high inflation, gas prices and opposition to Biden, Czuba said.

"I see no evidence of a wave in Michigan — for anybody really," he said.

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Jeff Timmer, longtime Republican strategist-turned GOP critic, said the high voter turnout in November would largely benefit Whitmer, especially given the Tuesday primary results in Kansas. 

“It’s going to prove fatal for (Dixon’s) candidacy,” Timmer told Bridge. “When you look at the results of the abortion ballot initiative in Kansas, the Republicans should be shitting bricks right now. The Roe being overturned is a classic example of the dog catching the car.” 

But Roe, the Republican consultant, said Dixon and other Republicans may benefit from the abortion proposal, which opponents have called an “anything goes” ballot measure that would eliminate laws on the books such as parental consent and allow abortion at any stage of pregnancy.

“I think there’s an opportunity to say, ‘Hey, this initiative is extreme’ and tie Democrats to that,” he said. “At a minimum, they’d be fighting to a draw.”

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