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Trump's pick for governor in Michigan is left to fend for herself as money dries up

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and her Democratic allies are clobbering Tudor Dixon and the Republicans in ad spending, and no one seems ready to come to Dixon's rescue.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon speaks in Lansing, Mich., on Aug. 27, 2022.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon speaks in Lansing, Mich., on Aug. 27.Nic Antaya / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

LANSING, Mich. — Two months ago, former President Donald Trump and the Republican establishment joined forces to elevate Tudor Dixon in Michigan’s messy GOP primary for governor, signaling a united front against Democratic incumbent Gretchen Whitmer.

But since then, national Republicans have largely abandoned Dixon, leaving her to fend for herself in a state that was supposed to be one of the party’s top targets in 2022.

Trump may be the exception. He’s scheduled to headline a Saturday rally for Dixon and other GOP candidates in the state. His visit comes at a time when Whitmer and the Democratic groups supporting her re-election are crushing Dixon and the GOP in ad spending, $16.5 million to $924,000 through Wednesday, according to AdImpact, an ad-tracking firm. 

That gap could widen between now and Election Day. Through Nov. 8, Whitmer and the Democrats have reserved $24 million in ads for the Michigan governor’s race. Republicans have reserved nearly $4 million — most of it from the Republican Governors Association, which is prioritizing other states even after its co-chairs cheered Dixon’s nomination and said they “couldn’t be more excited” to support her in the general election.

Dixon’s campaign has spent just $25,000 on paid ads since the primary. Her campaign’s last finance report showed her with $523,000 on hand, compared to Whitmer’s $14 million. And the two most recent polls have shown Whitmer leading Dixon by double digits. 

“Isn’t that sad that Democrats have to spend so much money?” Dixon said at a news conference Tuesday when asked if she was disappointed in the lack of assistance for her campaign.

Dixon asserted that she has “had a great few weeks of fundraising” and is “confident that we don’t need as much money as Gretchen Whitmer needs because our message is better.”

Trump has taken a major interest in Michigan, where he lost by a slim margin to President Joe Biden. The former president has endorsed a slate of Republicans — Dixon, as well as candidates for attorney general, secretary of state and the Legislature — who have supported his debunked claims that a second term was stolen from him. A weak Dixon showing this fall could drag them, and other Republicans on the ballot, down with her. 

A political novice best known for her work in conservative media before running for governor, Dixon surged to the front of a cluttered GOP primary field after two leading candidates were disqualified and Michigan’s influential DeVos family bankrolled a super PAC to support her. Trump’s last-minute endorsement helped close the deal. 

“Tudor Dixon would be a much stronger nominee today if she won on the strength of her own candidacy,” said John Yob, a Republican strategist who advised the two disqualified candidates. “The famous lesson is that it’s better to teach them to fish than to buy them a fish. Now we’re at a place where she can’t raise enough money to run a real campaign and somebody has to decide whether they’re going to come up with the $10 million or so it would take to make her competitive.”

Some national Republicans believe there’s time for Dixon to rebound. 

“The race is winnable, but right now the money is on the sidelines,” said one Republican close to Trump who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the race.

“If she is able to show a little momentum, and maybe convince a few close benefactors to take a leap of faith, the floodgates will open and Gretchen will fall,” the source added.

Without a paid TV presence, Dixon has been left to earn media coverage. She has increased her public events and news conferences. 

Dixon made headlines last week after twice joking about a 2020 kidnapping plot against Whitmer that has resulted in several guilty pleas and convictions. The governor, Dixon said at one event, “will tie your hands, put a gun to your head and ask if you are ready to talk” and “sure is good at taking business hostage and holding it for ransom.” Dixon later told MLive, a local news outlet, that she also has faced threats including a menacing voicemail in which a caller expressed hope that someone would kidnap and rape her and her daughters — and chalked it up to the price one pays to seek public office.

During a Tuesday press event on the State Capitol lawn, Dixon took a page from Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., who provoked outrage from Democrats earlier this year by championing a law that prohibits sexual orientation and gender identity from being taught between kindergarten and third grade. Critics have dubbed it the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Dixon, who has made the culture wars a staple of her campaign and used her primary victory speech to mock advocates for transgender rights, called for Michigan to enact a similar law.

“These are stunts for cash,” said one GOP consultant in the state who requested anonymity to speak candidly about what they described as a campaign starved for money and attention.

Dixon is not the only Republican nominee for governor struggling to gain traction in what would ordinarily be a competitive and closely watched race in a presidential battleground. In Pennsylvania, for example, the Republican Governors Association has shown little interest in helping state Sen. Doug Mastriano, an election-denier with extreme right-wing views on abortion who is trailing in polls.

At the moment, states like Nevada, Wisconsin, Kansas and Maine — places where GOP leaders are optimistic about unseating Democratic governors — are seeing larger investments. And several Republicans who spoke with NBC News said this year’s Senate races have commanded more national money, given the 50-50 split in the chamber and close contests in states like Georgia, Pennsylvania and Ohio, where TV advertising is expensive.

The Republican Governors Association still has $3.6 million budgeted for ads in Michigan, though a spokesperson acknowledged the funding gap.

Despite the “initial spending advantage” by Democrats, Chris Gustafson, the spokesperson, said, “Tudor Dixon is still within striking distance of a toxic Democrat governor who spent her term in office playing by a different set of rules than the restrictive ones she made her constituents live under. We believe Whitmer can be beaten in November.”

Other groups expected to back Dixon through the general election have also been relatively quiet. That includes Michigan Families United, the DeVos-funded super PAC that helped Dixon win the primary. The group has spent about $870,000 on advertising since then and has less than $330,000 reserved for ads through Election Day. Meanwhile, Put Michigan First, a Democratic Governors Association-backed group that is investing heavily in the race, has already aired two TV ads that characterize Dixon as beholden to the DeVos family, including former Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and their conservative agenda.

“While the governor has traveled all around the state to speak directly with Michiganders, Tudor Dixon continues to rely on special-interest backers and the DeVos family to fund her campaign because they know she will push their dangerous agenda to ban abortion, slash infrastructure funding and dismantle public education,” said Maeve Coyle, a spokesperson for Whitmer's campaign.

A DeVos spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.

Yob, the GOP strategist, believes the outcome of the race could rest in the family's hands.

"They bought it, and now they own it," Yob said of Dixon's candidacy. "And the rest of the party is waiting to see whether they’re going to try to win this general election or leave her for dead."