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Michigan GOP governor hopefuls ‘at each other’s throats’ in feisty debate

Republican governor candidates, from left, Ryan Kelley, Garrett Soldano, Kevin Rinke, Tudor Dixon and Ralph Rebandt squared off in a debate Wednesday at Oakland University. (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)
  • Republican governor hopefuls agreed on guns, education policy and business regulations
  • Opponents attacked Tudor Dixon as the ‘establishment’ candidate
  • Kevin Rinke disputed gender, age discrimination lawsuits

ROCHESTER — Michigan Republican gubernatorial hopefuls argued against gun restrictions, business regulations and the teaching of Critical Race Theory in public schools Wednesday night in a televised debate. 

And then they stopped agreeing.

With less than two weeks before voters decide the Aug. 2 primary, the candidates closed the debate by attacking each other over perceived loyalty to former President Donald Trump, who has not yet endorsed in the race, and the fierceness of their opposition to Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

“What we just observed is what we don’t need in Lansing,” concluded Ralph Rebandt of Farmington Hills, a recently retired pastor who has placed last in polls of the five-candidate field but suggested he is the problem solver in the race. 

"This is the very reason why I need to be governor, because I have dealt with situations like this in ministry where people are at each other's throats,” he said.

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Rebandt’s comments concluded a fiery exchange in which Bloomfield Township businessman Kevin Rinke and Mattawan chiropractor Garrett Soldano renewed their attacks on Tudor Dixon of Norton Shores, a former steel industry executive and conservative news host who has led some recent polls. 

“The DeVos family owns you,” Rinke said, referencing an endorsement from the powerful west Michigan GOP donors.

 “You're our version of Gretchen Whitmer."

Rinke, a former car dealership magnate who is bankrolling his own campaign, has aired a series of television ads blasting Dixon because she is supported by former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who criticized Trump and resigned from his administration after riots at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. 

Dixon fired back at the debate at Oakland University, asking Rinke why he had previously donated campaign funds to Mitt Romney, a Michigan native and U.S. senator for Utah who has emerged as one of Trump’s most persistent GOP detractors. 

Dixon also suggested both Rinke and Soldano had also sought the same DeVos endorsement during a “Michigan Opportunity Alliance” meeting the family led in May at the Daxton Hotel in Birmingham, an Oakland County suburb. 

“I know you lied to the Michigan people,” Dixon said, accusing her opponents of “sour grapes” because she won the endorsement.

Soldano denied he too had sought DeVos backing, suggesting he had instead courted the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association, which represents businesses that Whitmer shut down early in the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I've been in the trenches with our fellow Michiganders ever since the beginning, standing up for them while you were doing your podcast,” Soldano said, referencing Dixon’s work as an anchor on America’s Voice News, a conservative network that streams video programs online.

Speaking with reporters after the debate, Rinke acknowledged he previously donated to a Mitt Romney campaign but disputed Dixon’s suggestion the contribution undermines his attacks against so-called “never Trumpers.”

“My parents were friends of the Romney family, and I went with them to a fundraising event when (Mitt) was running for president,” Rinke said. “I didn’t vote for him, but I wrote a check. And as a business guy, by the way, I’ve also written checks to many candidates. That’s part of what you do.”

Rinke donated $2,500 to Romney in 2012,  campaign finance records show.. Over the years, the businessman also has donated similar amounts to former President George W. Bush, Bill Schuette and Brian Calley during their campaigns for governor in 2018, and numerous statewide candidates.

Last year, Rinke donated $10,000 to the Michigan Republican Party, according to records compiled by the website Open Secrets.org.

Ryan Kelley, a real estate broker from Allendale Township, argued he is the strongest “fighter” in the gubernatorial race. 

He cited his work to organize protests against Whitmer’s pandemic orders and his recent FBI arrest on misdemeanor charges stemming from the Jan. 6 protests at the U.S. Capitol, where Trump supporters attempted to block congressional certification of Joe Biden’s election win.

Kelley attacked Rinke over a series of lawsuits employees at his auto dealership companies filed in 1992, including an age and gender discrimination suit Rinke eventually settled for $15,000. 

“We'd really like to know how you're going to battle Gretchen Whitmer with those,” Kelley said, suggesting the lawsuits would make Rinke vulnerable in a general election matchup with the incumbent governor. 

Rinke has denied the allegations and said the $5,000 settlement he paid to three separate defendants amounted to "nothing" after a three-year legal fight. 

"I fought the lawsuit because they weren't true," he said in the debate. "They didn't define me then, and they don't define who I am now.”

The candidates found more common ground early in the debate, when they universally spoke out against Critical Race Theory, which they claim is being taught in Michigan schools and dividing students along racial lines. (Educators have disputed that the theory — usually taught at colleges or law schools — is in Michigan classrooms.)

“I would like them to see an accurate history of what's happened in the United States, the good and the bad,” Dixon said. “I want (students) to know exactly what happened and highlight the people that have done great things so that they know they can do great things too.”

Soldano added: "You can teach my kid how to critically think, but you have no right to teach my kids what to think."

The GOP candidates also consistently argued against the need for new gun regulations to deter mass shootings, including last year’s deadly student shooting at Oxford High School in Oakland County. 

Instead, each called for a greater focus on mental health. Each has also said, either in Wednesday’s debate or previously, that they want to make Michigan a “constitutional carry” state by eliminating the need for concealed pistol permits. 

Kelley, in particular, argued against any new restrictions on the sale of AR-15s, arguing it is a “baseless claim" to call the gun an assault weapon. 

"Assault is an action, and it's not an object,” Kelley said from behind a podium on stage. "You could have an assault podium right here if I threw it at someone.”

Rebandt said he does not “agree with the phrase gun violence” and would instead “call it people violence.”

The education and firearm questions gave the candidates an opportunity to feed “red meat” to the GOP base, said Dave Dulio, director of the Center for Civic Engagement at Oakland University, which hosted the debate.

But the candidates agreed on most policy issues, limiting their chances to differentiate themselves, Dulio said. 

“Other than that, it was kind of muddled.”

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