GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — The four leading candidates in Michigan’s GOP primary for governor professed their loyalty to former President Donald Trump during a debate Wednesday night while promoting debunked conspiracy theories according to which the 2020 elections were stolen from him.
“President Trump is still my president,” chiropractor Garrett Soldano replied when candidates were asked if they supported Trump even after recent congressional hearings revealed more about his actions before the Jan. 6 insurrection. .
Commentator Tudor Dixon described how she amplified Trump’s accomplishments through conservative media.
“We’re focusing on all the negative and we’re focusing on January 6, where there were peaceful protesters and then some who disrupted the process,” she said in remarks about the deadly riot on Capitol Hill. .
Businessman Kevin Rinke fondly recalled Trump’s social media habits. “I would take mean tweets today for a safer America,” he said.
And Ryan Kelley — a real estate broker who was on Capitol Hill on Jan. 6 and has climbed to the top of the polls since his arrest last month on a riot-related charge — drew a dubious parallel between Trump’s defeat and the cost of gasoline .
“January 6, 2021, back when gas was below $2 a gallon,” Kelley said, poring over a candy bar that fact-checkers found to be fake. “Those were good times.”
Kelley said he did not enter the Capitol on Jan. 6 and was exercising his First Amendment rights.
The debate, one of many ahead of the Aug. 2 primary, was televised live across the state — a great opportunity for the candidates to sell themselves to GOP voters who will nominate a challenger to take on Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in what should be a competitive election this fall.
Trump, who has not endorsed a candidate in the race, has prioritized candidates who are willing to accept or indulge his 2020 election lies.
Kelley’s arrest – he has yet to plead guilty – and a separate scandal involving allegedly fraudulent petition distributors have rocked the race, making it one of the most messy Republican primaries in the country this election cycle. Two high-profile candidates, including former Detroit Police Chief James Craig, were disqualified from the ballot after failing to submit enough valid signatures.
Craig has since launched a written campaign for the GOP nomination but was not included in Wednesday’s debate. Nor is Ralph Rebandt, a pastor from suburban Detroit who didn’t meet the voting threshold.
Michigan, which handed President Joe Biden a narrow victory over Trump in 2020, has been a popular target for Holocaust deniers and conspiracy theorists. None of the four candidates on stage Wednesday rejected false claims that Trump would have won re-election had it not been for widespread voter fraud.
Kelley and Soldano explicitly said they believe the election was stolen from Trump, but offered no evidence, instead citing material featured in ‘2,000 Mules,’ a discredited documentary by right-wing commentator Dinesh D’Souza. Dixon and Rinke were more passive, rehashing claims that fraud and other improper behavior affected results.
Although the candidates largely agreed on Trump, there were arguments during the 90-minute debate over tax policy and which candidates were the most consistent during the race.
Kelley and Soldano, who gained supporters from the activist base after protesting Whitmer’s 2020 Covid policies, both attacked Dixon as a tool of the GOP establishment. Dixon was endorsed by Michigan’s influential DeVos family, whose name is listed on the building where the debate took place, and 20 state legislators. She was also the only candidate Trump referred to by name earlier this year at a rally in Michigan.
“I think as Michiganders, we’re tired of the career politicians and the establishment controlling us all,” Soldano said on the downtown campus of Grand State Valley University.
After the debate, Dixon said the attacks suggested his rivals were worried about his candidacy.
“I think that should tell people in Michigan that they’re having a hard time getting online,” she told reporters. You don’t work with people from your own party, can you reach out across the aisle?”
Lavora Barnes, Michigan’s Democratic chairwoman, remarked on the “nasty infighting” in a statement after the debate.
“Rinke, Kelley, Dixon, and Soldano presented a bleak vision of Michigan’s future, where anti-democracy conspiracy theories and dangerous abortion bans take precedence, while progress on building infrastructure is reversed, funding for law enforcement is cut and public schools are dismantled,” Barnes said. “Instead of this backward division, the people of Michigan deserve a leader who will continue to implement the fundamental principles that make people’s lives better.”