GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — The four leading contenders in Michigan's GOP primary for governor professed loyalty to former President Donald Trump at a debate Wednesday night while promoting debunked conspiracy theories that the 2020 election was stolen from him.
"President Trump is still my president," chiropractor Garrett Soldano responded when candidates were asked if they supported Trump even after recent congressional hearings revealed more about his actions before the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Commentator Tudor Dixon described how she amplified Trump’s accomplishments through conservative media.
"We have this focus on all the negative and we have this focus on Jan. 6, where there were peaceful protesters and then some who disrupted the process," she said in remarks about the deadly riot at the Capitol.
Businessman Kevin Rinke fondly recalled Trump’s social media habits. "I would take mean tweets today for a safer America," he said.
And Ryan Kelley — a real estate broker who was at the Capitol on Jan. 6 and has surged to the top of polls since his arrest last month on misdemeanor charges related to the riot — drew a dubious parallel between Trump’s defeat and the cost of gas.
"Jan. 6, 2021, back when gas was under $2 a gallon," Kelley said, leaning into a tidbit that fact-checkers have found was false. "Those were good times."
Kelley has said he didn't enter the Capitol on Jan. 6 and was exercising his First Amendment rights.
The debate, one of several ahead of the Aug. 2 primary, was televised live across the state — a prime opportunity for the candidates to sell themselves to GOP voters who will nominate a challenger to face Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in what’s expected to be a competitive election this fall.
Trump, who has not endorsed a candidate in the race, has prioritized backing candidates who are willing to embrace or indulge his 2020 election lies.
Kelley’s arrest — he has yet to enter a plea — and a separate scandal involving allegedly fraudulent petition circulators have rocked the race, making it one of the messiest Republican primaries in the country this election cycle. Two top-tier candidates, including former Detroit police chief James Craig, were disqualified from the ballot after failing to submit enough valid signatures.
Craig has since launched a write-in campaign for the GOP nomination but was not included in Wednesday's debate. Nor was Ralph Rebandt, a pastor from the Detroit suburbs who failed to meet the polling threshold.
Michigan, which provided President Joe Biden with a narrow victory over Trump in 2020, has been a popular target of election-deniers and conspiracy theorists. None of the four candidates on stage Wednesday rejected the false claims that Trump would have been re-elected if not for widespread voter fraud.
Kelley and Soldano said explicitly that they believed the election was stolen from Trump but offered no evidence, citing instead material presented in "2,000 Mules," a discredited documentary by right-wing commentator Dinesh D’Souza. Dixon and Rinke were more passive, rehashing claims that fraud and other misbehavior affected results.
Although the candidates largely agree on Trump, there were arguments over the course of the 90-minute debate about tax policy and which candidates have been most consistent over the course of the race.
Kelley and Soldano, who gained a following with the activist base after protesting Whitmer’s Covid policies in 2020, both attacked Dixon as a tool of the GOP establishment. Dixon has been endorsed by Michigan’s influential DeVos family, whose name is plastered on the building where the debate was held, and 20 state legislators. She also was the only candidate Trump singled out by name earlier this year at a rally in Michigan.
"I think as Michiganders we’re sick and tired of the career politicians and the establishment having control over all of us," Soldano said at Grand State Valley University’s downtown campus.
After the debate, Dixon said the attacks suggested her rivals are worried about her candidacy.
"I think it should tell the people of Michigan that they are struggling to connect,” she told reporters. "And so when we have that question about how would you work with people across the aisle, people really need to think: If you can’t work with people in your own party, can you reach across the aisle?"
Lavora Barnes, the Michigan Democratic chair, remarked on the "nasty infighting" in a statement after the debate.
"Rinke, Kelley, Dixon and Soldano laid out a dark vision for Michigan’s future, where anti-democracy conspiracy theories and dangerous abortion bans take priority, while progress on strengthening infrastructure is reversed, law enforcement funding is slashed, and public schools are dismantled," Barnes said. "Instead of this backwards focused division, Michiganders deserve a leader who will continue to deliver on the fundamentals that improve people’s lives."