Michigan GOP candidates spar on conservative credentials, tax cuts
GRAND RAPIDS — Michigan Republican gubernatorial candidates got chippy Wednesday in their latest debate, sparring over tax cuts, pandemic responses and “establishment” backing with less than a month before the primary election.
In one tense exchange, Mattawan chiropractor Garrett Soldano attacked Tudor Dixon of Norton Shores, arguing the conservative media personality is “bought and paid for” because she has been endorsed by “the DeVos empire.”
“As Michiganders, we're sick of having the career politicians and this establishment have control over all of us,” said Soldano, who made his mark in politics by protesting Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s pandemic orders.
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Dixon, who touts aggressively conservative policies and is endorsed by the powerful DeVos family, countered by suggesting Soldano sought their backing too by appearing at the same business gathering where she met the family.
And in her closing argument, Dixon framed herself as the only candidate capable of unifying both “grassroots and traditional Republicans” after the primary to ensure GOP success in the fall.
“This is a purple state, and we have to make sure we don’t get Whitmer back in office,” Dixon said.
The philosophical scuffle punctuated a Grand Rapids debate otherwise marked by broad policy agreements amongst the four competing candidates, including Allendale Township real estate broker Ryan Kelley and Bloomfield Township businessman Kevin Rinke.
All four criticized gun control proposals to curb mass shootings, said they support a statewide abortion ban with only limited exceptions, praised former President Donald Trump and criticized Whitmer, including emergency orders she issued to temporarily shut down businesses early in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kelley, recently arrested on misdemeanor charges related to pro-Trump riots at the U.S. Capitol in early 2021, criticized what he called a “January 6 witch hunt” by congress and argued a “majority” of people at the protest were voicing opinions protected by the First Amendment, “myself included.”
Speaking with Bridge after the debate, Kelley said he intends to plead “not guilty” later this week when he returns to court for a virtual hearing.
With record gas prices and inflation increasing costs for Michiganders, all four candidates argued for the need to cut taxes and put money back into the pockets of residents across the state. But they disagreed on some details.
Rinke touted his plan to fully eliminate Michigan’s 4.25 percent personal income tax, saying he’d wait a year for implementation so that he and the Legislature could negotiate spending cuts that may be required by what would be a $12 billion loss in annual revenue used to fund the state and local governments.
Dixon said she also wants to eliminate the state’s income tax but proposed doing so at a more gradual pace, arguing Rinke’s plan is not realistic because he has not identified any areas of the budget he’d cut to pay for it.
“It's not possible to immediately get rid of that income tax because you have to replace that with something else,” she said. “You have to be very careful with that to make sure you don't rob Peter to pay Paul.”
Rinke dismissed Dixon’s warning, arguing that full elimination of the personal income tax would help Michigan attract new businesses and new residents.
“People are suffering now,” he said. “Taking our time to slowly reduce income taxes is like a slow death for the state of Michigan.”
Whitmer's campaign has argued Rinke's plan would slash funding used to pay for "critical services," including education, infrastructure and public safety.
The governor and GOP-led Legislature last week agreed to a $76.9 billion state budget but set aside talk of potential election-year tax cuts for a later date.
Whitmer has proposed $500 rebate checks she said could “immediately” be sent to working families. But the first-term Democrat vetoed larger Republican tax cut plans, including an income tax reduction and a six-month gas tax holiday.
Kelley, who said he wants to increase oil exploration in Michigan in response to rising fuel prices, also reiterated his desire to ban private businesses from enacting COVID-19 vaccine mandates, a position Dixon previously criticized as a big-government encroachment on free enterprise.
“We're not going to allow these businesses to experiment on the people of Michigan,” Kelley said, referencing vaccines that scientists say saved lives and were developed under Trump’s “Operation Warpspeed” initiative.
The debate, hosted by WOOD-TV 8, was the third in a series of four organized by the Michigan Republican Party. It came roughly two weeks after absentee ballots were first made available for early voting ahead of the Aug. 2 primary. The candidates will meet again two weeks from now in Detroit.
As of Tuesday, more than 876,000 Michigan voters had already requested absentee ballots, up from 507,000 four years ago in the last midterm election, according to Secretary of State data. Roughly 61,000 voters had returned their ballots early, down from 77,000 in 2018.
Ralph Rebandt, a pastor at Oakland Hills Community Church in Farmington Hills, is also running for governor but did not meet the five percent polling threshold required to qualify for the debate.
Five other candidates were disqualified over a signature forgery scandal, including big spending businessman Perry Johnson and former Detroit Police Chief James Craig, who is attempting to run a write-in campaign.
Matthew DePerno, the presumptive GOP nominee for attorney general, attended Wednesday’s gubernatorial debate but said he is not yet backing anyone in the race.
DePerno, who won a convention battle with several assists from Trump, declined to say whether he thinks Trump will make a late endorsement in the gubernatorial primary, which experts say could help decide what is now a wide-open race.
"I think those are private conversations we want to keep private," DePerno said, predicting Trump will return to Michigan "probably within the next couple months."
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