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Michigan GOP gubernatorial candidates eager for Donald Trump's endorsement

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MACKINAC ISLAND — Every Republican gubernatorial candidate at a debate Thursday said they would readily accept former President Donald Trump’s endorsement, support that likely would send a candidate over the top in a field reeling from a signature forgery fiasco

However, multiple candidates at the Mackinac Policy Conference GOP debate suggested they could bridge the divide between those who oppose the former president and ardent Trump supporters. 

“Michigan’s a purple state, and this is going to be a tough election. It’s going to be decided by people who have traditionally struggled with President Trump,” said Oakland County businessman Kevin Rinke. 

Joining Rinke onstage outside the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island were Norton Shores businesswoman and conservative commentator Tudor Dixon, Oakland County pastor Ralph Rebandt and Kalamazoo chiropractor Garrett Soldano.

The four candidates largely agreed on most policy questions posed during the hour-long cordial debate: all described themselves as anti-abortion, opposed broader changes to gun regulation, promised to cut the budget and criticized Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s leadership of the state. 

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But Rinke’s answer on whether he’s spoken with Trump about an endorsement was a bit of an outlier among candidates who are clearly eager for his approval. 

Dixon, the only candidate to say she had talked with Trump directly, noted she’s spoken with Trump several times and that she knows he’s watching the race very closely. When Trump visited Macomb County earlier this year to campaign for other Republican candidates, Dixon was the only gubernatorial hopeful he mentioned by name. 

“I think that he’s watching it closely because Michigan seems to be changing on a daily basis. I don’t know if you’ve noticed that — people are in the race, people are out of the race,” Dixon said, alluding to the petition signature fraud scandal that prompted several prominent candidates to be disqualified from the ballot. 

“We all feel blessed that he’s been waiting and watching, and I think that he will likely get into this race. But we’ll see what he does.” 

Soldano said Trump is “still my president,” echoing previous comments that incorrectly suggest the 2020 election was stolen. He also suggested voters are tired of the “fringe left and the fringe right,” despite holding views on the election and vaccines that have prompted Democrats to label him a radical. 

“I think what labels the fringe right is if you don’t agree with everything that they do 100%, then they attack you,” Soldano said, saying most people were in the middle. 

Rebandt also said he would welcome Trump’s endorsement. “He’s my favorite president. Because not only did he have awesome policies, but he had amazing tweets,” Rebandt said. 

After the debate, Rinke elaborated on his strategy to both court voters exhausted by the former president and those ready to spend hours in the cold just to catch a glimpse of him. 

“We’re gonna win over the traditional Regan Democrat, or maybe the female suburban moms who didn’t like some of the tweets or didn’t like some of the actions,” Rinke said. 

“We cannot not elect good people because we don’t like their tweets, when their policies do good things for us. And I think President Trump recognizes how difficult an election it’s going to be in Michigan, and I think that he’s going to do the right thing. In fact, I know he’s going to do the right thing.” 

While Trump has yet to endorse in the governor’s race, he backed Matthew DePerno as his attorney general choice and Kristina Karamo in the race for secretary of state. Both were at the debate — while neither named a favorite, DePerno said he thought one candidate stood out. 

That doesn’t mean he thinks Trump will jump into the race anytime soon.  

“I don’t believe President Trump is ready to make any endorsement yet,” said DePerno, adding Trump calls him “from time to time” to ask questions about Michigan politics. 

“Certainly what happened last week was a shake-up that changes things within the race. We haven’t heard anything from the Supreme Court yet, but assuming these are the five candidates that we have, it changes the dynamics of the race. They’ll have to be more vetting to be done.” 

More: Trump praises only one GOP gubernatorial candidate during Michigan rally

More: Higher education funding highlights divisions among GOP candidates for governor at debate

He’s referencing administrative and legal losses suffered by prominent Republicans attempting to claw their way back onto the gubernatorial ballot. 

The Court of Claims earlier Thursday rejected a request from ex-Detroit Police Chief James Craig to accept thousands of signatures on his candidacy petition deemed invalid by the state Board of Elections. Courts have rejected similar arguments from Perry Johnson and Michael Markey. 

Johnson and Markey have appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court, and Craig has announced plans to do so. For any to get on the ballot, the court would need to act before Friday’s deadline for certifying the names of candidates to appear on the ballot. 

The forgery scandal leaves five candidates remaining in the GOP field, none of whom have consistently polled in double digits. The field is wide open as candidates scramble for donors, advocates and voters looking for a new home.

Ryan Kelley, an Ottawa County real estate agent who was in Washington, D.C. during the Jan. 6 insurrection, declined an invitation to participate in the debate. He cited the conference’s COVID-19 vaccine or testing requirement, despite the fact the chamber did not mandate vaccination to participate in the debate. 

Earlier in the day, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declined to answer questions about the Republican gubernatorial field. She said she’s busy governing while highlighting what she sees as her accomplishments during her tenure. 

“As I look around at the world, I’m worried. I know many of you are too. Too many of us devote far too much of our attention to angertainment. Too many mimic divisive rhetoric to score cheap points or achieve short-term goals. Today, ideology too often prevails over ideas,” Whitmer said during her keynote address. 

“I don’t have time for that. And I sure as hell don’t want to live that way. I suspect you don’t either. I want to solve problems. Grow our economy, create jobs and lower costs.” 

All four GOP candidates said Whitmer is largely the cause of many of Michigan’s problems. They blasted her administration’s approach to ending the COVID-19 pandemic, said she’s allowed government to grow too bloated and accused her of inaction on making schools safer. 

Each candidate agreed the governor should do more to work with the Legislature on increasing school safety. But none said the answer was changing access to guns: the field agreed lawmakers and law enforcement need to find ways to improve security at school buildings. 

“Our schools right now are a soft target. We have to make sure we harden our schools,” Dixon said. 

Rebandt suggested creating one entry for schools, deploy “gun-sniffing dogs” and hiring retired law enforcement to patrol schools. Soldano raised the idea of arming teachers and training them so they’re comfortable with a firearm. Rinke explicitly said he did not support arming teachers. 

“We don’t want our kids to feel like they’re going to prison,” Rinke said, instead suggesting former military members volunteer as hall monitors. 

“We’ll have people protect them. It doesn’t need to be teachers with guns. We’ll have folks that are familiar with guns and comfortable with them.”

The debate marked a new chapter in a potentially very competitive race, where there’s no apparent front-runner. 

Michigan Republican Party Chairman Ron Weiser said it will be up to the remaining candidates to show GOP voters who may be unfamiliar with the field why they deserve to be the next leader of the state. 

“I’m not going to give you my opinion, it’s the voters who have to make that decision. And I’m sure they will see this debate and make that decision,” Weiser said after the event. 

“It’s going to be a primary that determines this, it’s not the party. … I think we’ll have to see who emerges.”

Contact Dave Boucher at dboucher@freepress.com or 313-938-4591. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Boucher1.