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Tudor Dixon draws big crowds, energy in uphill push for Michigan governor

dixon in a crowd of people
‘We have the energy,’ Republican gubernatorial nominee said after an early morning campaign stop in Saginaw (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)
  • Tudor Dixon is down in polls but drawing big crowds of voters who feel ‘left behind’
  • GOP nominee hammering Gretchen Whitmer over school closures
  • She is targeting Saginaw County, a onetime Democratic stronghold that went for Trump

SAGINAW — It’s 8 a.m. and more than a hundred local voters are packed into the Saginaw County Republican Party’s headquarters, snacking on donuts and coffee as they wait to meet gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon.

“There’s a lot of people in this room who I don’t know, and that’s a good thing,” Bob Anderson, chair of the Saginaw County GOP told Bridge Michigan before Dixon arrived. “Obviously, Tudor’s resonated with them.”

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Dixon is drawing even larger crowds at daytime and evening rallies across the state, building momentum for what remains an underdog campaign against incumbent Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who has vastly outspent her GOP challenger on TV ads and leads most recent polls

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On Wednesday, the day before the Saginaw stop, hundreds of supporters packed into a Midland convention center for Dixon. And hours after the Saginaw stop, hundreds more gathered in a Plymouth Township parking lot for another of what Dixon’s campaign calls “freedom rallies” held across the state. 

“Especially in northern Michigan, people feel like they’ve been left behind,” Dixon told Bridge, explaining why she feels her supporters are so enthusiastic.

“Their communities in many cases lost a lot of businesses (during the COVID-19 pandemic), their gathering places, their restaurants, and they just want to bring that community back. I feel like that's why we have the energy.”

a large crowd for tudor dixon
Tudor Dixon drew hundreds of supporters to a mid-day rally in Plymouth Township. (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)

Public opinion surveys suggest most voters have already made up their minds about the gubernatorial race, leaving Dixon with an uphill fight to make up a projected deficit with just days before the Nov. 8 election.

But in well-attended stump speeches across the state, Dixon remains focused on themes that have dominated her campaign from the start. 

She’s touts parental choice in education, rails against “pornographic” books in Michigan schools, champions more police funding to thwart violent crime and promises to reduce business regulations to jump-start the economy.

"We're here for parents. We're here for students. We want to bring education back," Dixon told Bridge, describing her closing pitch to voters. 

"We're here for our police officers, to make sure we have safe communities. And we're here for our business owners to reduce regulation and make it easier for them to do business." 

A late surge

Dixon is "peaking at the exact right time," said John Sellek, a Republican campaign veteran who now runs Harbor Strategic Public Affairs in Lansing. 

And "that's a relief to a lot of people in the GOP" who thought Dixon's campaign got off to a slow start, he added. "As far as how things have progressed, it probably could not have gone any better than this."

Dixon won a crowded GOP primary in early August, but she was slow to shift her focus to the general election. While she had early backing from the powerful DeVos family of west Michigan, other big money GOP donors had largely shunned Dixon until October, when she raised almost as much as Whitmer.

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce, an influential business group that spent months sitting on the fence, endorsed Dixon this week. 

Dixon is expected to close her campaign with an Election Night party in Grand Rapids. But she spent significant time this week in northern Michigan and areas like Saginaw, where rural voters outside the city have flocked to the Republican Party in recent years. 

That’s made Saginaw County – once reliable Democratic territory – a GOP target. It’s one of 12 Michigan counties that voted for Democrat Barack Obama in 2012 and backed Republican Donald Trump in 2016. 

Whitmer won it by nearly 8 points in 2018, but Joe Biden won by less than 1 point in 2020. 

Under redrawn district maps that took effect this year, Saginaw County is part of one of the most expensive Michigan Senate races: a battle between GOP state Rep. Anette Glenn and Democrat Kristen McDonald Rivet. There’s also a competitive congressional matchup between Democratic incumbent Dan Kildee and Republican challenger Paul Junge. 

The Saginaw municipal region has lost about 2,250 jobs over the past decade, and local Republicans say the COVID-19 pandemic and recent inflation have exacerbated concerns among voters who are ready for a change in the governor’s office. 

"Really it comes down to I think people are resenting how much everything costs," said Saginaw County Commissioner Tracey Slodowski.

"A lot of the COVID missteps that the Democrats took, in my opinion, were just a little bit overreaching, and I feel that's resonating with voters," added Anderson, the Saginaw County GOP chair. 

“Democrats in this area have let us down for a long time, and we're ready for some change. I think we're going to do it this time."

Three months

On stage in Saginaw and Plymouth on Thursday, Dixon spent considerable time recapping her recent debates against Whitmer, which for many voters may have been their first extended look at the Republican nominee. 

Dixon has seized on Whitmer’s debate comment that kids were only out of school for “three months” early in the pandemic even though many large districts remained closed for much of the following academic year. 

“When your own children are watching someone who should be a role model lie on TV, that should be an indication that perhaps she doesn't deserve another four years,” Dixon said to applause. 

Whitmer has defended her school closure timeline, telling reporters she was referring only to the period that districts were forced to close under her COVID-19 orders. Beyond that, the governor and GOP-led Legislature agreed to let local school officials decide whether to return to the classroom or remain virtual. 

But Dixon has hammered the incumbent governor over what she calls "a lie" during multiple appearances on Fox News, which has interviewed the GOP nominee at least six times since last week's debate. 

The debates "went a long way in proving at least to the donors and the media that Dixon was a viable candidate for governor," said Sellek, the GOP campaign veteran.  “I personally think it's affected the overall discussion that's made it more of an actual choice, instead of just being about Whitmer." 

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Whitmer has sought to cast Dixon as a “conspiracy theorist” and election denier because of past comments about COVID-19 and her continued refusal to acknowledge that Biden won Michigan in 2020. 

Dixon scoffed that criticism, noting she is vaccinated and said Whitmer is “grasping at straws.” 

With just days before the election, Dixon has "brought home" the Republican base, but her ability to upset Whitmer will depend on whether she is able to appeal to independent and undecided voters who may have previously been wary of her anti-abortion position, Sellek said. 

"She has to make this election at the end here about inflation and violent crime — two issues that Whitmer and the Democrats just can't succeed on."

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