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Former Detroit police chief enters crowded Michigan race to unseat Gov. Whitmer

James Craig will seek the Republican nomination to face Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer
Former Detroit police chief James Craig.Anntaninna Biondo / Detroit Free Press - USA Today Network

Former Detroit Police Chief James Craig has officially launched a campaign for governor of Michigan, joining a crowded field of Republicans angling to unseat Democrat Gretchen Whitmer.

Craig, who had been openly exploring the race since retiring as chief in May, had scheduled a three-city kickoff tour to begin Tuesday morning.

"Michiganders deserve competent, consistent leaders who will always put people before politics," Craig said in an emailed statement. "I spent 44 years protecting and serving my community, including eight years as chief of police in Detroit, and I'm prepared to lead from the front."

Protesters drowned out Craig at his first event on Detroit's Belle Isle — a confrontation captured on video by local reporters. Craig left quickly after attempting to deliver an announcement speech.

Well-wired Michigan Republicans — worried about a primary filled with politically unseasoned activists best known for protesting Whitmer’s pandemic shutdowns or baselessly fomenting doubts about the results of the 2020 election — had encouraged Craig’s candidacy. John Engler, a former Michigan governor, is helping lead a political action committee that has been promoting Craig for governor, the Detroit Free Press reported last month.

A late August poll from EPIC-MRA showed a statistical tie between Whitmer and Craig, with 52 percent of the likely voters who responded saying they didn’t recognize Craig’s name.

Craig’s toughest primary competition could come from Tudor Dixon, a conservative media personality who has attracted several allies of former President Donald Trump to her campaign.

Craig and Dixon are among at least nine declared GOP candidates. The field includes Mike Brown, a Michigan State Police captain; Ryan Kelley, a local planning commissioner and founder of a group that has called for Whitmer's arrest; Garrett Soldano, a chiropractor who made waves for leading opposition to Whitmer’s Covid restrictions; Ralph Rebandt, a pastor from the Detroit suburbs; and Austin Chenge, a businessman from Grand Rapids.

A 10th potential candidate, businessman Kevin Rinke, whose family name is familiar from its ownership of Michigan car dealerships, last week formed an exploratory committee.

Whitmer’s handling of the pandemic is a central issue for Republicans, who have seized on occasions when she or her husband have appeared to ignore her mandates and recommendations. A May photo of Whitmer gathered with a group larger than the state’s health orders allowed has become a particular object of outrage for her GOP opponents. Half of the voters in the recent EPIC-MRA poll said they viewed her job performance negatively — down from a 52 percent positive rating in the polling group's February survey.

"The inconsistent, incompetent response to the pandemic by so many career politicians, including our current governor, just further highlights the need for new leadership," Craig said in Tuesday’s statement. "The failed response permanently shuttered thousands of small businesses, kept our kids from receiving a proper education and destroyed livelihoods."

The governor’s allies in the Michigan Democratic Party have zeroed in on Craig, characterizing him as an establishment candidate who has sidestepped questions about Trump and is headed for a brutal primary against an activist base loyal to the former president.

“Even if Republican party insiders succeed in getting Craig past this messy and divisive primary, they won’t have much time to pivot to a unity campaign that will be mission-critical to winning a close election in battleground Michigan,” Lavora Barnes, the state’s Democratic chairwoman, wrote in a memo shared with reporters this week. “It’s unlikely that this crop of candidates will resist the urge to cry fraud and instead fall in line behind anyone post-primary, much less Craig who continues to dodge questions on his thoughts on 2020 and a wide range of issues.”