By Ben Solis
Posted: May 13, 2022 1:08 PM
The eight-person Republican gubernatorial debate hosted by Livingston County Republicans on Thursday evening gave GOP primary voters and general onlookers their first taste of how the candidates act, think and what they would prioritize should they be elected to office in November.
But like most primary contests, especially in the post-Trump age, the debate was in some ways a purity test of who was most loyal to the former president and who was most aligned with the current sentimentalities of grassroots Republicans in Michigan.
Topics ranged from COVID-19 policy, potential investigations into Governor Gretchen Whitmer, whether Donald Trump won the 2020 election and abortion. It was clear based on the crowd response who was resonating and who was not (See Gongwer Michigan Report, May 12, 2022).
Whether any of those points will play well with general election voters was left to interpretation.
In the fast lane based on crowd response were candidates Garrett Soldano and Ryan Kelley, who have built grassroots operations staked on investigating Ms. Whitmer over pandemic decisions. Both seemed to elicit nods, shouts of agreement or applause. The same goes for pastor Ralph Rebandt, who was also able to raise his status with at least this crowd in Livingston.
The candidates considered to be the higher echelon in the field had middling performances, with Tudor Dixon making only a handful of splashes, Kevin Rinke waffling on a question about whether he believed Mr. Trump won the 2020 election and with Perry Johnson fumbling through several responses rife with personal anecdotes.
Michael Brown played it straight through the debate and had few flashy moments, although his response to the Trump election garnered some scorn form the crowd as he would not say that the former president won the last election (Mr. Trump lost Michigan by some 150,000 votes). His most memorable moment came here when he compared those having a hard time answering the question to a flopping fish out of water.
Michael Markey had a harder time gaining traction with this crowd as he staked out a moderate route.
Following the debate, political strategists Adrian Hemond of Grassroots Midwest, a Democrat, and Tori Sachs, a Republican, with the Michigan Freedom gave alternating views on how the candidates did last night.
For Mr. Hemond, the obvious standout was Mr. Soldano while Mr. Johnson faltered.
"(Soldano) got a lot of applause from the crowd. They seemed to really resonate with him," he said. "Perry Johnson had kind of a rough time, and his answer about Trump winning the election was not satisfying to the crowd. But also, it wasn't much of an answer."
Ms. Sachs, however, said the big winner of the evening was not one of the candidates themselves, but voters across Michigan concerned with the state of education, as K-12 learning loss and university funding were major focuses in the debate.
"The biggest winners tonight were Michigan parents. Every single person on that stage supports giving parents the tools needed to make sure their child gets a good education," she said. "Every single person on that stage is going to put parents and children first."
That said, Mr. Hemond believed Ms. Whitmer had a good night as "none of what was said on stage tonight is palatable to a general election electorate." To those who tried to walk the line, he said that there was no walking that line with this crowd.
"They want red meat and they were very happy with the candidates that gave it to them," he said. "Literally none of it (will translate into votes from independents or moderates). There was shockingly little take about the rampant inflation in the economy. That's a leading issue for Republicans and they barely mentioned it. That's shocking. That's not what this crowed wanted to hear about and so that's not what they were talking about."
Ms. Sachs said she disagreed with that assessment, as Republicans appear giddy to retire Ms. Whitmer with any candidate that ends up on the ballot.
"We had 700 or 800 people here and Republicans are obviously fired up. It's a Thursday, a school night, in Livingston County … the energy for anyone to take on Gretchen Whitmer is super high," she said. "The best thing about the Republican Party is that we appreciate diversity of thought. We show up and hear people whether we agree with them or not. And I think whoever wins this primary, from what and who we saw on this stage tonight, Republicans are going to be fired up to support that person and fired up to fire Gretchen Whitmer in 2022."
When asked if their stance on the 2020 election would hurt the general election chances of either Mr. Brown or Mr. Markey if they eke out wins in the primary, she said no, and that Republicans all agree that there were problems in the 2020 election regardless of if that leads to the conclusion that Mr. Trump won.
"There's a great amount of support for things like voter ID, all the reforms that are in the Secure MI Vote initiative, we all agree on that," she said. "And we're fired up for whoever takes on Gretchen Whitmer to get those things done."
Asked about the lack of talk about inflation issues, Ms. Sachs said talk about economic woes in the debate focused on ways to give relief to people.
"We all know inflation is a problem. The number one issue when you're at the grocery store or at the gas pump, whatever it is that you're buying in this country, you know and especially in Michigan that inflation is hurting you," she said. "What we heard tonight from every Republican … was how they're going to give relief at the state level to taxpayers. … I feel confident that every Republican up there talked about returning tax money to the people. It's a great first step to give people more buying power."
James Craig, the one-time frontrunner in the race who has since fallen in stature after multiple mishaps and a lingering challenge to the validity of his ballot signatures, did not appear at Thursday's debate.
When asked about the state of Mr. Craig's campaign, who was speaking at a trade association dinner instead, Mr. Hemond said the question is when he'll bow out of the race as opposed to if he'll bow out.
"It's my understanding somewhere (in Detroit) right now, which is good because he needs a job and it's not going to be as the next governor of Michigan," he said. "I think that much is clear, or even as a candidate for governor of Michigan."
Bridge Michigan reported that Mr. Craig's campaign early Thursday said he had a prior commitment and disputed reports of him pulling out of the debate. But Livingston County GOP Chair Meghan Reckling told the outlet that he had been confirmed for weeks and that he was one of the first candidates to commit.
Mr. Hemond said that signals the end of the road for Mr. Craig's gubernatorial ambitions.
"We're at the end game," he said. "I'm sure he's giving a speech to this nice corporate group because he's going to need money, first of all, to pay the consultants that he still has because he's burning through money so fast. It's time to wrap it up."
On whether some of the candidates shined more without him there, Ms. Sachs said voters and members of the media should focus on who was actually there.
"We need someone who is going to stand up for their beliefs and take on Gretchen Whitmer," she said. "I feel the people who were here tonight will be capable of doing that, absolutely more than capable of taking her on and returning the governor's office to Republicans."