ROCHESTER, Mich. (AP/WOOD) — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer accused Republican challenger Tudor Dixon on Tuesday of “stoking violence” and pushing conspiracy theories meant to divide people, while Dixon said voters have felt the pain of the Democrat’s failures and “you deserve better.”
Dixon, a former businesswoman and conservative commentator endorsed by former President Donald Trump, is hoping a late surge of support will help her unseat the first-term incumbent Democrat, who has had a multimillion-dollar fundraising advantage.
Whitmer and fellow Democrats spent months pummeling Dixon with ads before the Republican and her supporters — including the family of former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — responded. The final weeks of the campaign have seemed more like a competitive contest, with both hopefuls on TV and the candidates holding public events around the state.
“We always knew that this would be a close race,” Whitmer told reporters after the debate. “This is a great state but it’s a divided state at times. I take no person, no vote, or no community for granted.”
Tuesday’s debate was the final meeting before the November election. Here’s a look at some of the exchanges:
With persistent inflation and high prices one of the top issues on voters’ minds, Dixon said Whitmer “has not done anything to help.” She criticized Whitmer for vetoing a GOP measure earlier this year to freeze the state’s 27-cents-per-gallon gas tax and said a recession is “at our doorstep.”
But Whitmer called the measure the Republican-led Legislature approved “a gimmick.” The legislation would have frozen the tax for six months effective in 2023 — a delay Whitmer said wouldn’t provide immediate help to people who needed it.
“I don’t have time for games, and I don’t think you do either,” Whitmer said, adding that inflation is a problem around the globe. She said her administration was able to help people in Michigan by providing help such as free or low-cost child care.
Whitmer questioned how Dixon – who supports repealing the state’s income tax – would balance the state budget and ensure sufficient funding for areas like education without the roughly $12 billion the state receives from income taxes.
Dixon countered that she would eliminate the tax over time, suggesting it could be done over eight to 10 years, and noted there are other states without an income tax and it’s not a “radical” idea.
Whitmer delivered one of her sharpest lines of the night regarding school safety. The debate at Oakland University was held about 15 miles (24 kilometers) from Oxford High School, where a teenage student fatally shot four students last year. The 16-year-old shooter on Monday pleaded guilty to charges including first-degree murder.
During one of several exchanges about education, Dixon was critical of Whitmer’s administration for allowing books in school libraries that she says are inappropriate because they reference sex and gender. Whitmer called it a distraction at a time when deadly school shootings occur with regularity.
“Do you really think books are more dangerous than guns?” Whitmer asked. She called for stricter gun laws, including background checks and secure gun storage.
Asked after the debate about the remark, Dixon said she doesn’t differentiate.
“I think there are dangers all over for our children. I don’t rank one as different than the other,” she said. “I want to make sure our kids are safe no matter what.”
Dixon is endorsed by the National Rifle Association and said during the debate that she supports having armed guards at schools and single-entry buildings. She pointed to a report on how to better secure schools and said if it had been implemented at Oxford “we might have saved lives.”
Whitmer, a former prosecutor, countered.
“Ask yourself, who’s going to keep your kids safe? A former prosecutor with plans or a candidate with thoughts and prayers?”
The first question of the night once again centered on abortion, a topic that’s dominated the race since the U.S. Supreme Court in June overturned the landmark case granting the right to abortion. Prior to the decision, Whitmer filed a lawsuit to stop a 1931 abortion ban from taking effect in Michigan.
A proposal on the state’s November ballot will let voters decide whether to enshrine the right to the procedure in the state constitution. The two candidates disagreed on what the constitutional amendment would allow.
Dixon, who opposes abortion except to save the life of the mother, claimed the proposal would allow abortion “up to the moment of birth for any reason” while calling it the “most radical abortion law in the country.” But Dixon said voters could vote how they wanted on the proposal – while also voting for her.
Whitmer said the proposal would return abortion rights that had been in place for 49 years before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade and said none of what Dixon said about the proposal was true.
Asked by moderators to say something nice about their opponents, each focused on the other’s role as a mother. Dixon has four school-aged daughters, while Whitmer has two college-aged daughters and three stepsons.
Dixon praised Whitmer’s emphasis on her daughters and her fight for women, while Whitmer said of Dixon that she appreciates “how hard it is to run for office and raise kids.”
The race between Dixon and Whitmer is the first time two women have faced off for Michigan governor. Nationally, there are five woman-vs.-woman races this fall. That’s more than there have been, combined, in all elections in the country’s history, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
AFTER THE DEBATE
Leading up to the election, polls have shown a tightening Michigan gubernatorial race. Just a few weeks ago Gov. Gretchen Whitmer led by double digits. Now she only leads by a few points.
After their debate on Tuesday, Whitmer said she always expected a close fight.
“We always knew this would be a close race. I never for a second doubted that. What I did doubt was polls that had it at double digits. I never saw that. This is a great state but it is a divided state at times,” Whitmer said.
Dixon, who has been closing the gap in recent polls, is hoping to ride the wave of momentum to the governor’s office.
“I feel strong. We’re not going to change anything that we’re doing. We’re going to continue to push in the next 14 days and hold the governor accountable,” Dixon said after the debate.
During the debate, Dixon painted Whitmer as too close to the Biden agenda. She claimed the governor has failed to work across the aisle, vetoing Republican proposals meant to help families dealing with historically-high inflation.
“This governor has not done anything to help inflation,” Dixon said during the debate. “But I would put money back into your pockets. I would make sure we have that child tax credit. I would make sure we reduce the income tax.”
Whitmer said the governor alone can’t fix global inflation, but she said she has taken plenty of action to help struggling families.
When asked if she’s been too close to the president’s policies, Whitmer said that is a “Republican talking point.”
“It’s baloney. Everyone knows we are dealing with global inflation. It hurts. And that’s why I’ve taken action to put more money in people’s pockets,” Whitmer said. “I’ve got proposals in front of the legislature to eliminate the retirement tax, triple the earned income tax credit and pause the sales tax on gas.”
During the debate Dixon brought up parents being concerned about books in school libraries with sexually explicit images, referencing how the Spring Lake school board voted to remove a book from their high school library last week.
“Parents can go and say, ‘I don’t think this material is appropriate.’ In the case of Spring Lake, they were able to take that off the library shelves,” Dixon said.
Whitmer said there are more important issues on the line.
“Do you really think that books pose a greater danger to our kids than gun violence does? Ms. Dixon is trying to distract us,” Whitmer said during the debate.
To that, Dixon later replied, “I think there are dangers all over for our children. I don’t rank one as different than the other. I want to make sure our kids are safe no matter what.”
Whitmer defended her record, saying the economy is growing and Michigan’s can’t afford to change course.
“We’ve had a lot of challenges that we’ve had to navigate. And yet we’ve put people at the center of our work. We put our fiscal house in order, we’ve given people tax relief and we’ve made record investments in things like education, skills and we’ve been out so much in terms of job opportunities,” Whitmer said.
Burnett reported from Chicago.
Joey Cappelletti is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.