Why run for Michigan governor? Whitmer, and worries for the future
Whitmer is the reason her challengers ran, not a deterrent
It’s not hard to see why someone would want to be Michigan’ governor. It’s a hard job, but it also carries real power.
The governor’s office controls the executive branch agencies. It can issue executive orders and directives (as we learned during the COVID-19 pandemic), and it can appoint people to advisory boards that steer policy. The spoils of victory are many.
Getting to the governor’s office is not easy. History tells us that displacing an incumbent is difficult. In Michigan, an incumbent governor hasn’t lost an election in more than 30 years — not since John Engler defeated Gov. Jim Blanchard in 1990.
Going into November’s election, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer seems to have every advantage.
She’s an incumbent with a national fundraising base and the bully pulpit. Much of the Michigan media explains her actions, rather than questioning them. And despite the occasional appearance of a fight with the GOP-led Legislature, Whitmer works well enough with lawmakers to sign 900 laws in effect in 3.5 years.
Yet in interviews with four of the five Republicans competing Tuesday for the right to face the governor, Whitmer and her strong position were not a deterrent. In fact, she’s the reason they’re running.
Tudor Dixon is running because she sees threats to Michigan’s viability. She sees rising crime in Michigan’s cities, and regular failure in Michigan’s schools. She worries what kind of state her four children will inherit someday — if they stay here at all.
“I don’t want to have Michigan turn into California,” another state that lost people during the COVID-19 pandemic, Dixon told Michigan Capitol Confidential. “Businesses are leaving. We’re seeing population decline for the first time in 20 years. The state of our state is a total disaster.”
This is Dixon’s first run for office after past lives as a media personality and a businesswoman. She has quickly become the most-attacked candidate of the election cycle.
Dixon’s four Republicans competitors accuse Dixon of being an establishment candidate in a populist race. And the Democratic Governors Association made a $2 million ad buy to air attacks on her. This was widely understood to signal its fear that Dixon matches up best against Whitmer.
“They see me as the biggest threat because they know my experience in business, and my experience as someone who has four children in the education system sets me up perfectly to go up against her,” Dixon said. “She has historically used her gender as a weapon in every race. We know that her biggest weapon is taken away when it comes to me.”
Dixon believes that Whitmer’s advantages are overhyped. While the governor has signed many laws with the Republicans around her, she has also vetoed laws at historic rates. While the numbers indicate a great working relationship, Dixon argues Whitmer is more interested in one-woman rule.
“If it’s not exactly what she wants, she vetoes it,” Dixon said.
Whitmer has lost her taste for the COVID-19 restrictions she issued en masse in 2020, and last year said they likely wouldn’t return. Still, Michigan has 30 emergency laws on the books. Michigan state government could shut the economy down again tomorrow.
Dixon has a problem with that.
“They’re supposed to be three equal branches of government,” Dixon said. “I think we’ve seen in the last four years, what it means to have one equal unequal branch that takes over the state, and how catastrophic that can be. It’s absolutely essential that we restore government to three equal arms of government and no longer have these endless emergency powers that can be used in dictator style.”
Dixon believes school choice is important, and would seek to “fund students, not systems” by allowing families to take their child’s foundation allowance with them, to any school they choose. Michigan law, as it is now, would bar a family from using that money for a private school. Dixon believes that’s holding Michigan back.
“Our third graders just had a 50% failure rate on their literacy exams this past year,” Dixon said. She believes families would be better off with more choices.
Dixon says business owners have been “brutalized” by the heavy hand of government regulation, from farming to manufacturing. She says the state should be a help to businesses, not a hindrance.
During COVID-19 lockdowns, Kevin Rinke, a Bloomfield Township businessman who has dedicated $10 million to his run for governor, considered moving his family out of Michigan.
With the encouragement of his son, who challenged him to fix things rather than flee, Rinke stayed, then stepped into the political arena.
“Just because it’s a tough job doesn’t mean the job doesn’t need to be done,” Rinke told CapCon. “If the people of Michigan want to get government under control, that’s through the governor’s position.”
It’s not just Whitmer’s handling of the pandemic that worries Rinke. He sees a state government whose tax and regulatory environment works against small businesses, and bends over backward to accommodate large firms.
“We’ve reached a time of reckoning,” Rinke said.
Rinke is critical of a $100 million legislative transfer to Ford Motor Co. in June. The money was given to Ford to create 3,030 electric vehicle jobs. The very next month, Bloomberg News reported that Ford would be firing 8,000 people — to fund EV jobs.
“Ford won, Michigan lost, and it was a byproduct of bad leadership,” Rinke said. “We have to sit down with the players in the industry and lay out what our future looks like. The UAW should be afraid right now,” as the electric vehicles touted by leaders in Washington and Lansing require fewer workers to assemble.
Rinke sees Michigan as losing the future, badly, absent a change in direction.
“Michigan isn’t set up or prepared, because of government, because of our tax structure, because of our infrastructure, because of our regulations, to attract the businesses that are going to be built” to support EVs, Rinke said.
Rinke added: “If you’re a big corporation, and you are considering Michigan, you’re gonna look at the cost to be there. You’re going to look at, do they have people that can work in the jobs that we’re going to create at a skilled level? You’re gonna look at our cities and communities — can they create an environment that is favorable for our employees and our corporation? When we do overlays, when we look at where Michigan compares to other states, the simple truth is we don’t offer that opportunity.”
Ryan Kelley was the first challenger to enter the Michigan governor’s race, back in February 2021. The Allendale real estate agent was little-known back then.
Campaigning has raised his profile, but not quite as much as a highly public June FBI arrest at Kelley’s home. The FBI went through the hoopla so Kelley could face misdemeanor charges owing to the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.
Kelley does not apologize for being in Washington, or partaking in a “USA!” chant on the steps of the Capitol. But he says he never entered the building, and the government has not alleged any different.
“We have to be unapologetic about our positions,” Kelley told CapCon.
When someone told Kelley recently that he “fights like a Democrat,” he took it as a compliment.
Still, the FBI’s pre-dawn raised his profile among Republicans. Breathless news coverage followed the arrest. In past times, a candidate who was arrested might have dropped from the race. But Kelley stuck it out.
“It brought a lot of support in our direction,” Kelley said. “Name ID went through the roof.”
Kelley, like the other candidates, sees reason to worry for Michigan’s future, from family finances to the public school system.
“We’ve got inflation, record high gas prices, food prices through the roof, the threat of rolling blackouts coming to any of us at any time, the shutting down of all these power plants,” Kelley said. “We have schools teaching radical racial and sexual ideologies when we have kids who don’t know how to read and write.”
The path has not been easy, but Kelley says traveling it is necessary.
“I’m targeted everywhere I go now,” Kelley said.
Kelley says he sees the American dream slipping into the abyss. Citing Whitmer’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which consisted of lockdowns and state-made lists of essential and non-essential businesses, Kelley says, “We’ve seen things we never thought would happen.”
“We have seen authoritarian control in Michigan,” Kelley said. “We’ve seen the ignoring of our Constitution unless it fits a certain agenda or narrative.”
Ralph Rebandt, a pastor, says he’s running to “restore our Judeo-Christian culture.”
“It’s what we’ve had over the past 235 years, but I’m watching them erode as a pastor and as a citizen,” Rebrant told CapCon. “They are the foundation of our civilization, and when they erode our constitution erodes; and when our Constitution erodes, society is gone.”
Rebrandt says a spiritual war is taking place, and not just in politics.
“We’ve sent businessmen and women to Lansing. We’ve sent politicians, we’ve sent loud people, we’ve sent quiet people to Lansing. We have sent everybody to try to fix our state, the only person we haven’t sent is a pastor,” Rebrant told CapCon.
As recently as just a few years ago, Rebrandt said he saw the two parties as taking different approaches to get things done. Now he sees it as a matter of good vs. evil, that there’s “an all-out effort to destroy civilization as we know it.”
Rebrandt does not feel government is the answer to every problem. When asked at a recent debate how he would help Michigan families with child care, Rebrandt did not mention a voucher program. He would rather families have the resources to take care of themselves, and believes this involves getting government out of the way, not more involved.
“I believe that the hand that rocks the cradle rocks the world,” Rebrandt said, referring to mothers. “It is not government’s job to supply child care. In fact, as governor, my plan is to cut cut the budget so we can cut taxes so parents can choose to stay home if they would like and raise their own children.”
“Our government was founded for a religious and moral people," Rebrandt added. “It was founded on the principles of self-government. And the more you take moral and religious issues out of culture, the more you have to sign bills and regulations because you’re trying to control the population, because they can’t control themselves.”
Even Rebandt’s criticism of Whitmer carries a biblical flavor.
Rebrandt quotes from Proverbs 29:2: “When the righteous thrive, the people rejoice; when the wicked ruled, the people groan.”
“Michigan has been groaning the last four years under Whitmer,” Rebandt said.
These are four very different people, who were living fine lives before running for governor. All of them saw things in the governor’s office that made them decide to stand up and run for office, despite the many reasons not to.
We can’t tell you who to vote for. We can only shed light as to who the candidates are, why they’re running, and what they have to say for themselves.
Garrett Soldano did not respond to requests from Michigan Capitol Confidential.
James David Dickson is managing editor of Michigan Capitol Confidential. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.