TAYLOR, Mich. — Tudor Dixon's campaign for governor was left for dead.
As recently as May, the former conservative commentator and actor had been polling near the bottom of a crowded Republican primary field and struggling to raise money. But unlike her character in the low-budget 2011 horror movie "Buddy BeBop vs. the Living Dead," who was eaten alive by zombies, Dixon has experienced a resurrection seldom seen in major races.
Dixon, 45, benefited from chaos-inducing stumbles by her rivals, two of whom were disqualified after collecting allegedly fraudulent petition signatures, and from big money from the DeVos family, veritable kingmakers in Michigan politics.
And then, late Friday, former President Donald Trump issued Dixon a long-telegraphed endorsement ahead of Tuesday’s primary, acknowledging how far she has come while also taking some credit for her rise by recalling kind words he had for her at a Michigan rally months ago.
“When I met Tudor Dixon, she was not well known, but I could tell she had something very special,” Trump said.
Dixon’s fortunes took off after the DeVos family got on board in late May. The family, which includes past GOP nominee for governor Dick DeVos and his wife, Betsy, who led Trump’s Education Department, has helped bankroll a pro-Dixon super PAC. As the group’s $2 million ad blitz took hold, Dixon zoomed to modest but consistent leads in the polls.
Andy Surabian, a national GOP strategist close to Trump’s political team, told NBC News the shake-up in the race and the DeVos family backing were game-changers for Dixon’s candidacy.
“Tudor has very much been the grassroots candidate throughout this entire race,” said Surabian, who has followed the race but is not working with any of the candidates. “She wasn’t viewed as a top-tier candidate for most of the race, and the establishment mocked her campaign, but her raw natural talent won out and now she’s the front-runner.”
The closing days of the primary have been no less a gauntlet, though. The GOP candidates who are trailing Dixon, as well as Democrats who are invested in protecting their incumbent, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, have engaged in all-out efforts to stop her from winning the nomination.
Dixon, who took target practice in front of news cameras Saturday at a shooting range in Taylor, south of Detroit, said Trump called her with the endorsement news Friday evening as she was leaving a county fair.
“I knew it would be a lot of work,” she said of her campaign while chatting with reporters. “Even at the very beginning, when I first started to meet with some people who had been in the Michigan political arena, they said, ‘You can never do this, it’s so hard.’ And I said, 'You know what? I am a really persistent person.’"
But, she added: "We’ll see on Tuesday.”
Michigan, an electoral battleground, could be key to a Trump comeback if he runs again in 2024. Whoever is governor that year will be in position to certify election results, and each of the GOP candidates for governor, including Dixon, have promoted unfounded conspiracies about the 2020 election in Michigan, echoing Trump’s voter fraud lies. Meanwhile, Whitmer, who made it deep into President Joe Biden’s search for a running mate in 2020, has long been a target of Trump’s ire.
Recent polls have shown Kevin Rinke, a self-funding former car dealer whose name is familiar to Detroit-area voters, as Dixon’s closest competition. Garrett Soldano, a chiropractor who gained a grassroots following on the right by protesting Whitmer’s Covid policies, is also polling in double digits. So is Ryan Kelley, a real estate broker who has pleaded not guilty to federal charges that he was part of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters aiming to stop the certification of the 2020 election.
Dixon’s opponents have tried to use the DeVos endorsement against her, framing the family as villainous insiders who have been insufficiently loyal to Trump. Betsy DeVos resigned from Trump’s Cabinet after the deadly Jan. 6 riot. More recently, she said she was among those who discussed invoking the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office.
At debates, Soldano characterized Dixon as beholden to career politicians and the establishment. Rinke has put more than $1 million behind a TV ad that brands DeVos as a RINO, or "Republican in name only," while accusing Dixon of being propped up by “Never Trumpers.”
And in a letter sent Thursday, nine Trump-endorsed Michigan candidates pleaded with the former president not to side with the “establishment DeVos family.” The missive was widely seen as an attempt to prevent Trump from endorsing Dixon.
“There is a war going on for the soul of the GOP in Michigan with Trump-endorsed candidates on one side and the establishment DeVos family on the other,” they wrote in the letter, obtained by NBC News and first reported by The Detroit News. “We strongly urge President Trump not to work with Betsy DeVos in Michigan.”
Trump endorsed Dixon the next day. DeVos, for her part, defended herself in a handwritten letter to Trump. “I hear that some have implied that my family and I are working against you in Michigan,” DeVos wrote in the letter, which was obtained by The New York Times. “That is fake news.”
The last-minute infighting may not matter. The Michigan secretary of state reported this week that nearly 600,000 early ballots have already been returned — ahead of the pace in 2018, when both parties had competitive primaries for governor.
“It’s definitely too late to have any impact,” one veteran of GOP campaigns in the state, who is not affiliated with any candidate and requested anonymity to speak candidly, said of the efforts to stop Dixon. “I think she’s got it in the bag.”
Like her rivals, Dixon had an unconventional path to the primary. In addition to dabbling in acting (her credits include a web series about vampires), she also worked for her family’s steel company. Most recently, she worked with Real America’s Voice, the same network that carries former Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s program, a conspiracy-theory-fueled show popular on the right.
“She’s been in line with all the other candidates, and this kind of painting or dressing Tudor Dixon as the establishment candidate has kind of glossed over the fact that she falls far outside the traditional mainstream of Republican candidates in and across the country,” Jeff Timmer, a former executive director of the Michigan GOP who has soured on the party, said. “She doubles down on the Big Lie stuff every chance she gets. She’s against abortion in extreme cases like rape and incest.”
Dixon’s hardline stance against abortion is one of several positions she emphasizes in her campaign — and one Democrats have seized on to paint her as an extremist. (Dixon favors exceptions only when the mother’s life is at risk.) She favors phasing out the state’s personal income tax. And she talks frequently about “parents’ rights” in education — a concept embraced by GOP candidates nationwide amid battles over how to teach about racism in the U.S. and whether schools can foster discussion about sexual orientation.
She is keyed in to the culture wars, and has attacked the use of gender-neutral language as part of a "war on women."
Democrats have signaled that Dixon is the candidate they fear most in a general election. A group affiliated with the Democratic Governors Association swooped in this week with a seven-figure advertising blitz that characterizes Dixon’s state budget proposals as anti-police.
Jason Roe, who served as executive director of the Michigan GOP until he was forced out for saying the 2020 election wasn’t stolen but that Trump “blew it,” described the Republican primary contest as a “clown show.”
He added that the coalescing around Dixon might be less about beating Whitmer and more about having a nominee who won't depress turnout this fall and cost the GOP control of the Legislature.
Other candidates have too much baggage to top the ticket, Roe said. Kelley has the Jan. 6 charges. Rinke was sued years ago by employees who accused him of making sexually suggestive and racist remarks. (He told The Associated Press this month that the allegations were false and that he settled to avoid costlier court battles.)
“She’s definitely our best chance to win,” Roe said of Dixon.
Rinke, who asserts Dixon’s private sector experience pales in comparison to his own, shrugged off Trump’s endorsement Saturday morning during a get-out-the-vote rally outside his campaign headquarters in Troy.
"Candidates win elections, not endorsements,” Rinke said. “Boy, it’s going to taste sweet when all those people are eating crow.”
The few dozen supporters who had turned out for Rinke ate doughnuts and sipped coffee as he spoke. But there was one conspicuous absence. Matt DePerno, the Trump-endorsed Republican for Michigan attorney general, had been scheduled to join Rinke. Someone in the crowd wondered aloud why he wasn’t there.
“You'd have to ask Matt DePerno,” Rinke replied.
A few hours later the question was answered. DePerno walked into the gun range alongside Dixon.