GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Candidates to be the Republican nominee for Michigan governor met for a debate Wednesday, seeking to show who they are and why they deserve your vote.
The candidates each expressed disdain for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, questioned the validity of the November 2020 election, talked about drawing businesses to Michigan and advocated for slimming the state budget — not unexpected for a panel of Republicans. But they worked to differentiate themselves, too, touting their individual experiences and plans.
The debate was hosted by WOOD TV8 and held at Grand Valley State University’s Loosemore Auditorium near downtown Grand Rapids. Under Nexstar guidelines, candidates must be listed on the ballot and must have garnered 5% in recent independent polling to be invited to a debate. Tudor Dixon, Ryan Kelley, Kevin Rinke and Garrett Soldano met that threshold. Each candidate was granted one minute to answer a question, three rebuttals and one minute at the end of the televised portion of the debate to sum up their campaigns.
Watch a replay of the debate in the player above. Below, find a summary of candidates’ statements.
WHY ARE YOU RUNNING?
Selected for the first question by double-blind draw before the debate, Ryan Kelley, a real estate broker from Allendale, said he was running because he was concerned about the state of the republic. He said he wants to protect the freedoms of future generations.
Garrett Soldano, a chiropractor from Mattawan, said he was running because it is “time for ordinary people to do extraordinary things.” He said he was pushed to run by Whitmer’s broad executive orders meant to slow the spread of coronavirus.
Tudor Dixon, a former business owner and broadcaster from Muskegon County, also cited the government-mandated closures of the pandemic, specifically the closure of schools that she said deeply affected her children. She said as she discussed the executive orders with people she knows, she heard from her neighbors that Whitmer’s administration was not supporting businesses and helping them thrive.
Kevin Rinke, a businessman from Bloomfield Hills, said the “draconian lockdowns” and “dysfunctional government” pushed him to run for governor so he could try to “fix it.” He said he was energized to protect his Michigan roots.
Asked what the state could do to combat the negative impacts on inflation, Soldano said the key is drawing families and businesses (and therefore taxes) back to Michigan. He blamed Whitmer for “weaponizing the health department,” saying strong pandemic orders discouraged businesses from building in Michigan.
“We need to get government boots off our throat,” he said.
Dixon said reducing the income tax and eventually eliminating it would draw businesses in. She also blamed Whitmer for not approving a gas tax holiday.
“This governor that we have has not said anything about the president and the gas prices,” Dixon said, pointing to Whitmer’s support of President Joe Biden’s energy policies.
Biden has called for a federal gas tax holiday and asked states to do the same.
Rinke said the personal income tax should be eliminated by the start of 2024. Nine other states have done so, he said.
Kelley said drilling more Michigan oil could increase supply and that could “provide relief at the pump.” He said that would benefit everyone.
Taking one of her three rebuttals, Dixon also said that property taxes must be held down and spoke against Whitmer’s energy policies and in support of Enbridge’s controversial Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac.
Asked what state taxes and corresponding spending she would cut, if any, Dixon said she would like to reduce and eventually eliminate the income tax. She said the state can’t just get rid of it — it must be replaced. She said eliminating it would quickly get money back into residents’ pockets.
“We’d like to make sure … that your money is staying with you, that your money is being spent regularly in the state of Michigan,” Dixon said.
Rinke disagreed with a slow reduction. He said simply ditching the income tax would quickly provide relief to residents and also draw more people to Michigan.
Kelley said he would institute a “zero-basis” budget rather than starting from the previous year’s. He said his plan for his first 100 days in office, if elected, would include a budget audit. He also took aim at property taxes, saying they were growing too fast and “not tied to the prosperity of the people.”
Soldano criticized the other candidates for “lip service,” saying they should have been more vocal during the pandemic closures. He called for “forensic accounting on the budget” — going through it line by line — and said spending was “out of control.”
In her second rebuttal, Dixon criticized Rinke’s proposal for immediate removal of the income tax. She said he can’t simply expect the Legislature to do it, noting the Legislature does not work for the governor.
In his own rebuttal, Rinke said “the plan speaks for itself.” He said he would work with the Legislature for a year. He said removing that tax could still allow for a robust state budget.
A viewer asked the candidates whether they believed all forms of abortion should be banned or if there was middle ground. The candidates were also asked what they would do as governor to clarify the state’s position on abortion — its current ban is sitting in limbo amid legal challenges.
Rinke said it was a legislative issue and he said the Legislature should “represent the people of this state” to determine a path forward. He said Roe v. Wade being overturned wasn’t about abortion — it was about each state having the right to choose its own abortion laws.
Kelley agreed the overturning of Roe was about states’ rights. He said there should not be any exceptions to an abortion ban except when the mother’s life was in danger — the only exception in Michigan’s 1931 abortion ban.
Soldano said he was “100% pro-life” but also supported an exception for when the mother’s life in danger. He repeatedly criticized Whitmer for her actions regarding nursing homes during the pandemic and for “bypassing” the will of the people in her challenges of he ban.
Dixon said she is also against abortion and touted her endorsement by Right to Life. She criticized Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, for saying she would not enforce the ban, saying that rule of law must be enforced, and also Whitmer’s support for abortion rights, saying Whitmer’s stance is “radical” and arguing Whitmer has not talked about offering support for families.
In one of his three rebuttals, Soldano said he has actually taken action to fight Whitmer’s administration during the pandemic. He called himself a “statesman” rather than a politician.
THE 2020 ELECTION
A viewer asked the candidates if they thought the November 2020 presidential election was “stolen.”
Kelley said yes, he does believe it was fraudulent and stolen from President Donald Trump. He said in November 2020, he voiced his opinions about it. He cited “signs of suspicious activity” in the election.
Soldano agreed the election was stolen. He said people have told him they’re not voting because their vote won’t count.
“You should know and believe that your vote counts,” Soldano said.
Dixon said Michign Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, must have had a “nefarious plan” in limiting signature matching and said “we know already something illegal happened.” She said Benson was “cheating” in the election.
Rinke said “there’s no question there was fraud” in November 2020. He said voting more than once in an election should be a felony, that long-inactive names of voting rosters should be cleaned up and that ID should be mandatory for voting.
All four candidates mentioned a film called “2000 Mules” about claims of fraud and each referenced unsupported conspiracies. There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in 2020, either nationwide or specifically in Michigan. Michigan’s vote was certified at the county and state level by Republicans and Democrats alike. President Joe Biden won the state by more than 150,000 votes.
JAN. 6 AND SUPPORT FOR TRUMP
A viewer asked what the candidates thought about the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol and whether they still supported Trump given the details that televised congressional hearings have revealed.
Soldano said he does support Trump. He said he supports the right to peaceful protest.
Dixon said many of Trump’s policies were good for Michigan, specifically pointing to the USMCA trade deal, the Platinum Plan for Black communities, the First Step criminal justice reform Act. She said he didn’t get his due for those. She said Jan. 6 included both peaceful and not peaceful protesters.
Rinke said he supported the Jan. 6 protesters but that he does not support those who broke the law, drawing a comparison to riots amid police reform protests following the death of George Floyd.
Kelley faces misdemeanor charges in connection to the Jan. 6 riot. He admitted he was in Washington, D.C. on that day and his actions there were protected under the First Amendment. He criticized the FBI for raiding his home “in front of my wife and in front of my children” on June 9, calling it a “big theater show.” He said he strongly supports Trump.
A viewer asked the candidates what they would have done if they had been governor at the start of the pandemic.
Dixon said she would have trusted businesses and listened to experts. She blamed Whitmer’s administration for how it handled COVID-19 in nursing homes. She also blamed Whitmer for mishandling the unemployment agency, which was overwhelmed with claims after many businesses were closed by state order.
Rinke said Whitmer’s widespread closures “ignored medical science” and chose winners and losers among companies. He cited the January 2021 ousting of the chief of the state health department as evidence that Whitmer was interested in politics, not doing what was best.
That former Michigan Department of Health and Services director, Robert Gordon, testified before the state Legislature that while there were differences of opinion between him and the governor before she asked him to resign, he believed those differences were reasonable.
Kelley said if he was in charge, he would have looked at “individual risk assessment.” He said he would have empowered people with information and knowledge rather than issuing mandates. He said he would not have shut businesses down.
Soldano blamed his opponents for “staying silent” during the pandemic closures. He said he did not, organizing opposition online and pushing for Whitmer’s executive orders to be thrown out. He said he wouldn’t have issued a stay-at-home order or any mask mandates.
In her final rebuttal, Dixon said she supports a Family Rights Act that would prevent hospitals from keeping family members away when a patient is near death. She said the government should not be able to shut down businesses and keep kids out of school.
In his second rebuttal, Soldano said he has been pushing back against the government since the pandemic started. He criticized Dixon as an “establishment” candidate, referencing her endorsement by the DeVos family.
GUNS AND MENTAL HEALTH
A viewer asked whether the candidates supported “red flag” laws — aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of those who may be likely to commit violence — or bans on assault weapons.
Rinke said he supports constitutional carry. He said “red flag” laws didn’t stop the shooter at the Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, Illinois. He said laws won’t prevent mass shootings and that rather, a process must exist to help people who may be disposed to committing harm.
Kelley also said that the shooters are already breaking laws. He said being tough on crime is key.
“Guns are not the problem. It’s the people that are the problem that use them in a way that they injure other people,” Kelley said.
Soldano also voiced his support for the right to bear arms.
“We don’t have a gun problem. We have a mental health problem,” Soldano said. “And that’s where our emphasis should be.”
Dixon also said “red flag” laws don’t solve the problem, saying they didn’t stop the shooting in Highland Park. She said the nation needs more mental health beds and more care for “the people that need it the most.”
In his third and final rebuttal, Soldano again criticized Dixon as an “establishment” politician. He said he would not be bought and paid for the establishment. In his first rebuttal, Kelley also took aim at Dixon as an “establishment” candidate.
Kelley said that government is not the solution to mental health struggles. He said communities could be activated to help those who show signs of trouble.
Soldano said “kids are confused now more than ever,” blaming the pandemic school closures and referencing “sexual and social theories” being taught. He said an emphasis on family and God and engaging parents in schools could help combat the problem. He also said social media companies must be held accountable to police and flag troubling posts.
Dixon said the state simply needs more mental health beds. She said the problem is particularly bad in the Upper Peninsula. She said U.P. sheriffs have told her that they can’t get some people to mental hospitals, so they have to keep them in jail for weeks. She said there must be a “robust” state committee studying mental health.
Rinke cited illiteracy, saying it makes it more difficult to diagnose mental illness. He said an “attack” on families and communities is to blame for the mental health crisis.
As the debate moved into its livestream-only segment, the first question about was about infrastructure.
Soldano said long-term solutions are needed to support more electrical vehicles, floating the idea of a registration fee of EVs.
Dixon said tax reform is needed to draw in businesses and families. She said taxes on the middle class were too high.
Rinke said the federal government should redirect money being given to EV buyers to the states to support roads. He also questioned the truck weight limit for Michigan roads.
Ryan Kelley was skeptical about the future of EVs. He said more data needs to be gathered to work out how EVs will stress the energy grid and look at how gas tax revenue will decline.
Asked how they would approach taxes and spending, Dixon looked at the one-time federal relief dollars the state has access to. She said the money should go to schools, to support kids overcoming the pandemic, specifically mentioning tutoring. She also said money should go to school security.
Rinke said there’s too much pork-barrel spending, specifically studies he thinks are unnecessary. He said the state must refocus on literacy and math readiness. He said as a businessman, he knows how to cut and do more with less.
Kelley also talked about a zero-basis budget, specifically pointing to the state health department. He said the state health department doesn’t need to be promoting the COVID-19 vaccines. He also criticized “woke nonsense,” specifically diversity, equity and inclusion roles in schools. He said he would sign an executive directive to eliminate DEI positions.
Soldano also said the government overspends and said the state has conducted studies that have already been done. He also said he would employ “forensic accounting” and appoint the right people to lead departments to shrink the budget.
In his first of three rebuttals, Rinke said Whitmer’s budgeting process led to government growth, which is what he was fighting.
MICHIGAN’S ECONOMY AND ENERGY DEMAND
Rinke said the state should invest in automotive to ride the electric vehicle wave. But he also said there are more sectors where we can grow; artificial intelligence, aerospace and agriculture. In terms of energy, he supported the expansion of nuclear energy and backed Enbridge’s Line 5 under the Straits of Mackinac, which Whitmer and her administration have worked to shut down.
Kelley said supporting the economy will come down to energy. He said the way to expand the state’s grid is to expand nuclear energy. He also said the corporate income tax is too high; he said cutting it in half or getting rid of it would incentivize companies to move to Michigan. He said lowering the cost of diesel fuel would support the agriculture industry. He also criticized vaccine mandates (which the state has not implemented but some businesses and universities have), saying they put off families.
Soldano said Michigan is primed to grow its tourism and oil sectors. He said what’s slowing that is a lack of infrastructure — also referencing nuclear power — and too much government regulation. He said China’s energy portfolio is growing faster than the U.S.’s and that solar and wind are not enough to support the domestic grid. He said the big utilities should come to the table to find solutions. Also referencing Kelley’s statements on vaccine mandates, he said he would support expansion of waivers, including a “philosophical waiver.”
Dixon said the state must be more business-friendly to both protect traditional economic sectors like automotive but also draw in new businesses and get them up and running quickly. She said she would reduce regulations by 40% over four years. She said a solid grid is something businesses are looking for and also said she would support looking at several smaller nuclear facilities.
If one of the Republican candidates becomes governor, they will inevitably have to work with Democrats in the Legislature, regardless of who controls each chamber.
Soldano recognized a divided nation and said truth and transparency would restore faith in government. He said his “Sunshine Plan 2.0” would promote the public’s understanding of government. He also said conversations between varying people can move the state forward.
Dixon said she has already reached out to many people in her own party and among Democrats. She said she believes in being open and listening. She said she wants to work across the aisle.
Rinke said his leadership would represent what both sides want: a fair business environment, fair regulations, good schools and safety. He said his has led large businesses filled with employees with different perspectives and worked to help them all. He said focusing on what benefits everyone can lead to bipartisanship.
Kelley criticized Whitmer as not being bipartisan, but he also said it doesn’t always lead to solutions for the people. He said he would be willing to work with anyone but that the key is sticking to the tenets of the Constitution and he would not compromise his conservative values.
Before the television broadcast segment of the debate ended, each candidate was given time to sum up his or her campaign.
Kelley said the state is at a “pivotal moment.” He said Whitmer overstepped her power amid the pandemic. He said there is a new direction. He said he wants to rebuild confidence in leadership, protect the republic and protect people’s freedoms.
Soldano again criticized Dixon as the “establishment” candidate. He said his campaign is about fighting Whitmer’s executive orders to combat the pandemic. He said he will stand up for what is right and make sure such orders may not happen again.
Dixon agreed we’re at a “critical point” in the state. She said she wants to improve education and support skilled trades. She said she will support businesses. She promised to bring people together, recognizing Michigan is a “purple” state.
Rinke touted his experience as a businessman, saying he is prepared to be the state’s chief executive. He said he will support employees and serve people. He said he has proven results that will translate into leading Michigan.
AFTER THE DEBATE
Following the debate, News 8 spoke with each of the four candidates.
Dixon criticized Nessel, who has said she would not enforce Michigan’s 1931 abortion ban if it becomes law.
“That is the job that she was elected to do, is enforce the law,” Dixon said. “When you have somebody whose job is to be the chief law enforcer of the state and she refuses to do that, that should be a message to the people. Because what other laws do we have in place to keep us safe that she is unwilling to enforce?”
Dixon said the law, which would ban abortions including in cases of rape and incest, is a good law. Soldano said he’d push local prosecutors to enforce it.
Kelley spoke about the charges he faces in connection to the Jan. 6 riot. The FBI has accused him of directing people toward entering the Capitol building.
“’Accusing’ is first and foremost. In America, we’re innocent until found guilty,” he said. “In this instance here they’re making claims that are untrue and with pending litigation, we’ll have more to talk about as time goes on.”
He said he looks forward to the primary.
“This was great debate tonight. It was good to connect with everybody and share some great thoughts on stage. I look forward to the primary on Aug. 2,” Kelley said.
Kelley said he wants to drill more oil in Michigan to bring down gas prices.
“We see $5 a gallon: That affects all areas of our economy,” he said. “The individuals driving to and from work, where they go on leisure. It affects all of our business operations, the diesel fuel for our trucks drives up the prices of everything around us.”
Rinke said he wants to eliminate the personal income tax by January of 2024.
“The people of Michigan are suffering and they don’t need gimmicks and they don’t need fancy treatments or ‘maybe we’ll give you a one-time check’ or ‘we’ll give you a tax credit in the coming year,’ they need money back in their pockets,” he said. “I believe in the people of Michigan. They know how to spend it better than Lansing.”
He also said it’s not the governor’s job to determine abortion laws and instead the Legislature should determine Michigan’s path forward.
“It allows the people of Michigan to speak through their elected representatives and that’s our process,” he said. “I’m pro-life and I’m proud of that. I had the same position as Donald Trump and the same position as Ronald Reagan. And I feel good about that and yet I understand there are people out there that are looking for something different. They need to go to their legislators, they need to impact and determine where Michigan goes on the issue.”
Soldano said the other candidates were not passionate enough about stopping lockdowns during the pandemic.
“We don’t want people sitting on the sidelines. Do what’s right. And as a leader that’s what you have to do. Sometimes you’re going to have to stand up, even though it may be unpopular to do so, but you have to stand up for those very words that were inked on that piece of paper called the Constitution,” he said. “I think we’re all sick and tired of waiting for these elected officials to do something because they failed us over the last two years and so now it’s time for ordinary people to do extraordinary things.”
Absentee ballots have already gone out for the Aug. 2 primary. The Republican winner will face incumbent Whitmer, a Democrat, in the general election on Nov. 8.
—News 8’s Byron Tollefson and political reporter Rick Albin contributed to this report.