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GOP governor hopefuls spar over Trump's potential endorsement in primary race

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Rochester — Michigan’s Republican candidates for governor clashed Wednesday night over former President Donald Trump’s potential endorsement and who would be the most competitive against Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

The five GOP hopefuls covered education and economic development as they debated for about an hour on the campus of Oakland University. The event occurred 13 days ahead of the Aug. 2 election and while Michigan Republican voters wait to see if Trump, who still holds great sway with primary voters, will get behind one of the candidates.

Toward the end of the debate, chiropractor Garrett Soldano of Mattawan targeted conservative commentator Tudor Dixon, saying his “definition of establishment is basically” Dixon’s “entire campaign.”

Dixon, who has received praise from Trump in the past, is viewed as the top contender for Trump’s possible endorsement. Recent polling commissioned by The Detroit News and WDIV (Channel 4) showed her with a slight lead in the primary race.

Soldano criticized Dixon for being endorsed by west Michigan’s DeVos family and state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake.

Then, he asked whether Dixon would formally support Republican attorney general candidate Matt DePerno, a key Trump ally in Michigan, who is running against Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel.

During the debate, Dixon responded by saying Soldano and businessman Kevin Rinke of Bloomfield Township had gone to a meeting in May to seek the DeVos family endorsement, which they were now attacking.

“How do you explain going to that meeting?” Dixon asked. “I know you lied to the Michigan people that you did not go to a meeting to try to get the DeVos support.”

Shirkey said Wednesday night that he was present at a meeting during which Soldano pitched a group of business leaders, including representatives of the DeVos family, on financially supporting his campaign for governor.

But Soldano said the meeting wasn’t about seeking the DeVos endorsement.

Asked after the debate if he would have accept the support of the DeVos family, Soldano said, “I would accept anyone’s endorsement understanding and knowing that there is not going to be any string tied to my campaign and no string attached to my administration.”

Rinke, a wealthy businessman from Oakland County who has been self-funding his campaign for governor, fired back at Dixon during the debate.

“Tudor, I wasn’t looking for anybody’s financial support,” Rinke said. “I didn’t need it. I am the candidate who put his money where his mouth is.”

He added later, “The DeVos family owns you.”

‘Stay out of this race’

Earlier Wednesday, Soldano publicly called on Trump to “stay out of this race.” And in a Facebook post, Soldano criticized Dixon, saying the grassroots of the GOP would be unhappy if Trump endorsed her.

Soldano’s move marked a sudden change. On Friday, Soldano told reporters the fight for Trump’s endorsement in the primary race had been a “knockdown, drag-out fistfight in a phone booth.”

Now, Soldano, Rinke and real estate broker Ryan Kelley have all urged Trump to stay out of the primary race. Pastor Ralph Rebandt of Farmington Hills, the fifth candidate seeking the GOP nomination, said he doesn’t believe Trump will endorse.

Dixon said Wednesday that candidates who are failing to gain traction are attempting to weaponize the former president’s endorsement.

“It is sad to see a candidate attempt to manipulate President Trump,” Dixon said before the debate. “Desperate times call for desperate measures from desperate campaigns.”

About two hours after Soldano’s Facebook post Wednesday, Shirkey, a Dixon supporter, endorsed DePerno, one of Trump’s top allies in the state.

“Matt DePerno has shown he is fearless and doggedly determined,” Shirkey said in a statement. “He loves Michigan and America. Matt and I have had our differences, but they pale in comparison to the blatant partisan antics of our current attorney general.”

In April, Shirkey criticized DePerno, who rose to prominence questioning the results of the 2020 presidential election, saying he will “be a weight all the way down the ticket.”

After the debate Wednesday, Dixon smiled when asked if she plans to endorse DePerno, which could be a sign of a greater alignment with Trump.

“I am very supportive,” Dixon said. “We have been working behind the scenes. That may come. You’ll just have to wait and find out.”

“I can’t tell you before Matt,” Dixon told reporters.

Trump is “very interested” in Michigan and she talked to him recently, Dixon added.

During the debate, Dixon called for cutting regulations by 40% and making the state a “gotcha back state” for businesses instead of “a gotcha state.”

A Rinke TV ad 

The race for the GOP nomination to challenge Whitmer has become more hostile in the last week as Dixon and Rinke sparred over a Rinke campaign ad that accused Dixon of being supported by Trump opponents. 

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Wednesday night’s debate was the seventh of the primary and the first to occur since the negative ad from Rinke’s campaign.

The commercial alleged Dixon’s campaign had taken “millions from the same billionaires who tried to illegally remove Trump from office.” The statement was a reference to west Michigan’s DeVos family, which has endorsed Dixon for governor.

But there’s no proof yet in campaign finance disclosures that Dixon’s campaign has received “millions” from anyone, including the DeVos family.

Betsy DeVos, who served as Trump’s education secretary, resigned from Trump’s Cabinet a day after the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol when Trump supporters tried to disrupt the certification of Democrat Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential election victory.

DeVos has since acknowledged that she discussed the possibility of invoking the 25th Amendment with other Cabinet members to remove Trump before his term ended, according to CNN.

On Friday, lawyers working for Dixon’s campaign demanded in a letter that Rinke take down the ad, which they labeled “slanderous.” Dixon’s lawyers, Charlie Spies and Katie Reynolds, noted in their letter that individual donors in Michigan can give only $7,150 directly to a candidate’s campaign committee.

A revised version of the ad posted by Rinke on Twitter on Monday didn’t include the “millions” claim but said Dixon was “bankrolled by anti-Trump billionaires.”

‘Kicked off Airbnb’

Kelley of Allendale, who has argued he’s the “fighter” Michigan needs, went after Rinke during Wednesday night’s debate.

Kelley asked how Rinke would “battle” Whitmer after a series of lawsuits from the 1990s alleged Rinke made sexual and racist comments to employees of a car dealership he ran in Metro Detroit.

Rinke has previously described the lawsuits’ claims as false.

“I fought the lawsuits because they weren’t true. They didn’t define me then, and they don’t define who I am now,” Rinke said. “I have hundreds of thousands of employees that have been very, very happy.”

The people who sued him “got nothing,” Rinke said.

“They’re the ones who asked to settle,” Rinke added. “And they’re the ones that walked away.”

Rinke called for boosting reading scores at Michigan schools and making the state more “conducive” for businesses.

Kelley argued that he had put his statements into action and accused Democrats of trying to silence him. He was arrested and charged with four misdemeanors in connection to the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol. He has pleaded not guilty.

“I got arrested. I got kicked off Airbnb,” Kelley said, referring to the vacation rental company. 

Rebandt talked about uniting the state and the Republican Party.

After one of the tense exchanges among other candidates, the pastor said, “This is the very reason that I need to be governor because I have dealt with situations like this in ministry where people are at each other’s throats … and I have had the opportunity to bring people together.”

What the polling says

Dixon currently holds a slight edge in the Republican primary race for governor with many GOP voters undecided, according to a poll released Monday and commissioned by The Detroit News and WDIV-TV (Channel 4).

Of 500 likely GOP primary voters surveyed July 13-15, 19% said they would vote for Dixon while 15% said Rinke, 13% favored release estate broker Ryan Kelley and 12% backed Soldano. About 2% backed Pastor Ralph Rebandt, while 38% of Republican voters surveyed said they were undecided.

Dixon’s slim lead fell within the poll’s margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.

Among the undecided voters, 63% said a Trump endorsement would be very or somewhat important in helping them choose a candidate, the poll found.

The next Republican primary debate is being organized by the Oakland County Republican Party. It will take place on July 27.

cmauger@detroitnews.com