Michigan GOP on the Ropes After Bruising Primary
Michigan is a microcosm of what one analyst calls the national ‘fight between the traditional Republican establishment and a newer Trumpist element.’
Take a dollop of fraud, mix in a few unpopular positions, sprinkle on some partisan infighting, stir in a fierce and expensive primary election, and the recipe for how not to turn a state red in 2022 comes to fruition. It’s what the GOP has been cooking up in Michigan.
In 2016, President Trump barely squeaked by in the state, winning with less than a quarter percent of the vote. In 2020, Michigan went to President Biden by about three points. With an unpopular incumbent Democrat as president and a midterm advantage, Republicans could have made it a competitive state.
The governor, Gretchen Whitmer, is expected to sail to victory in the Great Lakes State. FiveThirtyEight’s official projections give Republicans only a 5 percent chance of defeating her in November. July polling from Glengariff Group suggests that Ms. Whitmer enjoys a 10-point lead over her newly nominated opponent, businesswoman Tudor Dixon.
The numbers are a result of a perfect storm of scandal, abortion politics, and Republican infighting, all of which combined to hurt the GOP’s chances of winning statewide.
The first scandal of the campaign season occurred when the one-time GOP frontrunner, businessman Ryan Kelly, was arrested on charges related to the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
While the arrest initially propelled him ahead of his GOP primary competitors, Mr. Kelly’s candidacy — and those of four of his competitors — ended when they all were disqualified for submitting petitions with thousands of forged signatures in late May.
The May massacre left the five remaining contenders scrambling to secure an endorsement from Mr. Trump, which he delayed making until just days before the August 2 primary.
Mr. Trump eventually endorsed Ms. Dixon, who had previously received backing from the family of Betsy DeVos, who served as education secretary during the Trump administration and whose family holds considerable sway in Michigan politics.
A political scientist at the University of Michigan, Jonathan Hanson, describes the endorsement as an attempt to “paper over” the break between the “traditional Republican establishment” and Mr. Trump’s supporters by telegraphing Ms. Dixon’s selection as a truce between the two factions.
The truce worked, and Ms. Dixon won the primary with about 40 percent of the vote in a five-way field. She easily defeated the runner-up, who carried only about 20 percent of the vote.
Ms. Dixon, now lined up to compete against Ms. Whitmer, has already made what many consider to be a critical mistake. She has thrown her support to hardline abortion policies by getting behind a 1931 law that would make performing an abortion a felony in the state, with exceptions only for situations “necessary to preserve the life” of the mother.
In a debate she called the 91-year old statute “a good law.” It had always been on the books but never enforced, until the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade opened the door. Now, pending a ruling by the Michigan supreme court, state officials are considering dusting off the law.
Ms. Dixon doubled down on her hardline position in an interview with the No BS Newshour, during which she reiterated that she would not support an exception for abortions in cases of rape or incest and that the only exception she supported was if the “life of the mother” is threatened.
The interviewer, Charles LeDuff, teed up the hypothetical example of a 14-year-old who is pregnant following abuse by an uncle. Ms. Dixon was asked whether she thinks that such a pregnancy should be carried to term.
She responded that such a case would be is the “perfect example” of why she supports an abortion ban, adding, “a life is a life for me.”
Later, Ms. Dixon also claimed that Planned Parenthood employs a “business model” in which it introduces sexual education to middle schoolers so it can make money when the students get pregnant later in high school.
Her hardline rhetoric could be problematic in a state like Michigan, where polls suggest that most voters support a woman’s right to an abortion. July polling from Glengariff Group found that 57.7 percent of Michigan voters opposed the overturning Roe v. Wade and 86.2 percent said abortion rights is an “important” issue.
Voters could be reminded of Ms. Dixon’s position on abortion when they are in the polling booth because there are good odds a measure on the topic, the Right to Reproductive Freedom Initiative, will be on the same ballot that carries her name.
The measure would enshrine protections to abortion rights similar to those that were protected under Roe v. Wade.
Although it is a matter of debate whether this would have a similar effect in Michigan in November, an abortion ballot measure in Kansas this week appears to have driven up turnout significantly, especially among Democrats.
To make matters worse for Ms. Dixon, her campaign is running comparatively low on funds. According to July campaign filings, she has raised a total of $1.2 million and spent much of that in her hotly contested primary, compared to Ms. Whitmer’s $14.7 million.
Mr. Hanson tells the Sun that this gives Ms. Whitmer’s campaign the chance to set the narrative for the general election when it starts spending money in the coming weeks.
The race in Michigan is a microcosm of the national “fight between the traditional Republican establishment and a newer Trumpist element” in the party’s base, Mr. Hanson said.
The situation that the Michigan GOP finds itself in now demonstrates the damage that this infighting can do to a party’s efforts to win in the general election, he said.
Mr. Payne is a political reporter at The New York Sun. He covers a broad range of topics focusing on New York State and New York City.