GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — For the first time ever in Michigan, voters in November will decide between two women when they cast their ballots for governor.
But the Republican nominee, Tudor Dixon, has quickly attempted to turn the historic milestone into a front in the culture wars.
"This is going to be an epic battle between a conservative businesswoman and mother and a far-left birthing parent and career politician," Dixon said in her victory speech last week after she secured the Republican nomination to face Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
Dixon, who has a background in right-wing media, emphasized issues such as gender identity during the primary. And her message in the early days of the general election signals to her supporters — a list that includes former President Donald Trump — an eagerness to aggressively draw Whitmer into a debate that she has largely avoided.
“It’s time to elect a real woman in Michigan,” Dixon tweeted hours after her primary win.
“What is a woman?” she added a minute later, tagging Whitmer’s Twitter handle in response to a statement from the communications director of the governor’s re-election campaign.
Gender identity and transgender rights have escalated into major flashpoints in this year’s midterm primaries. Republican candidates across the country have stirred outrage over transgender athletes’ competing in women’s sports while also raising alarm about how topics such as sexuality and gender identity are taught in schools. But as a general election strategy, such emphasis could be a gamble in Michigan, a closely divided battleground state where Whitmer's political profile is tied more to hyperlocal issues, such as road construction and how she managed Covid-19. Whitmer, contrary to how Dixon frames the race, refers to herself as a mom, not as a gender-neutral “birthing parent.”
Whitmer so far has shrugged off Dixon’s gender-based attacks.
"I am going to stay focused on delivering for the people of Michigan," she told local reporters last week when she was asked about Dixon’s “birthing parent” crack. "That’s what I want to be judged on, you know? Some of the ugliness that has been a part of that primary — and obviously it’s going to continue into the general election — doesn’t serve the people of Michigan."
Nevertheless, Dixon's allies have taken a cue. Meshawn Maddock, a co-chair of the Michigan GOP, last week described Dixon, 45, as a "younger, smarter and hotter" version of Whitmer, 50, according to local news reports.
"Meshawn Maddock immediately made it a beauty contest," said Mallory McMorrow, a Democratic state senator from the Detroit suburbs who went viral on social media and gained a national following after she spoke out against anti-LGBTQ rhetoric this year.
"When you've got the co-chair of the state GOP announcing, 'We've got a younger, hotter Gretchen Whitmer,’ it feels to me like this has set us back as women," McMorrow added. "The fact that we finally get to a point when it’s woman versus woman running for the most important office in our state and it’s reduced to women as sex objects? It’s disgusting to me, and it hurts."
Maddock did not respond to an interview request. Officials with the state GOP declined to comment.
"There are clear contrasts in this race on the issues that actually impact Michiganders’ lives," said Maeve Coyle, a spokesperson for Whitmer’s campaign. "Gov. Whitmer is moving Michigan forward by lowering costs for families, making record investments in education and fighting like hell to protect the right to choose, while Tudor Dixon has committed to criminalizing abortion without exceptions and gutting public schools."
Dixon, who says abortion should be legal only when the mother’s life is at risk, avoided cultural issues in response to questions Monday about her "real woman" rhetoric since winning the primary. Instead, she has blasted Whitmer’s pandemic leadership while vowing to ease what she has called "suffering" on the governor's watch.
"I know the problems, I understand the solutions and I am ready to lead the mother of all comebacks," Dixon said in a statement issued through a campaign adviser. "I intend to earn votes with my policy plans."
The debate over LGBTQ rights and gender issues has sparked hostilities in Michigan’s Legislature.
When state Sen. Lana Theis, a Republican, opened a legislative session last spring with an invocation that alluded to “forces” indoctrinating children with lessons on sex, gender and racism, McMorrow and two other Democrats walked out.
Theis responded with a fundraising email that accused McMorrow of wanting to “groom” and “sexualize” young children. In a floor speech that would go viral, McMorrow shot back with by criticizing Theis for a pursuing a “hollow, hateful scheme.”
McMorrow also characterized herself as a “straight, white, Christian, married, suburban mom” who wants “every kid to feel seen, heard and supported — not marginalized and targeted because they are not straight, white and Christian.”
But the debate has continued. This summer, competing in a crowded primary, Dixon joined several GOP legislators in pushing for a bill to prohibit schools from hosting drag shows. MLive, the website of several state newspapers, reported at the time that no one at the news conference was aware of a Michigan school’s ever having hosted one.
Dixon also has likened requests for gender-neutral language to a “war on women” at a time when Whitmer has made protecting abortion rights key to her re-election bid.
"Well, there’s definitely a war on women going on right now," Dixon said last month at a GOP primary debate in response to a question about gender-neutral language, including the term “birthing person.” "And if somebody calls me a ‘menstruating person’ — gross! That’s the last thing I ever want to be called. Why did that term come up?"
Rodericka Applewhaite, a spokesperson for the state Democratic Party, accused Dixon of “looking to distract from her dangerous, out-of-step agenda,” which she said includes opposition to abortion “with no exceptions for rape, incest or health of the mother.” And McMorrow described such efforts to define the word “woman” as a “gotcha” question.
“The culture war is a game to them,” McMorrow said. “Republicans are really good at pointing out very real kitchen-table issues, like inflation, gas prices, right? They scream about that, but then they turn around, and whether it’s drag queens or trans kids or whatever the issue of the week is, trying to say that is the most pressing issue of our time is absolute nonsense.”
Dixon also used the last debate before the primary to argue that her gender — she was the only woman competing in the GOP primary — made her a stronger candidate to unseat Whitmer.
“They attack me,” Dixon said of her four male opponents onstage that night, “and people hate it. Just so you know, that’s what they’ll do with Gretchen Whitmer. And that’s why women will come out in droves and say they don’t want a bully in the governor’s office.”
Three days before the primary, Dixon elaborated in response to a question from NBC News.
“The benefit of me going into the general is it’s an even playing field,” she said. “The guys tend to be a little more aggressive with me. That probably wouldn’t be a great look with Gretchen.”