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Trump's influence on Republicans faces key test in Michigan

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s pandemic leadership remains under scrutiny, but Republicans who hope she loses in 2022 are still fighting 2020 battles.
Gretchen Whitmer
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer at the Romney Building in Lansing, Mich., on May 18, 2020.The Washington Post / via Getty Images

LANSING, Mich. — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s poll numbers aren’t what they used to be, and she’s provided fodder for critics who see her failing to meet her own coronavirus rules.

But a year after then-President Donald Trump urged followers to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” and the FBI scuttled an alleged militia plot to kidnap Whitmer, the GOP has struggled to find a familiar or field-clearing candidate to challenge her in 2022. Many Republican leaders and voters targeting her for defeat are fixated on conspiracy theories and the false conviction that ballot audits such as the partisan one happening in Arizona will prove Trump didn’t lose in 2020.

“Do we even know who’s running?” Toni Shuff, 66, and her friends asked one another on the lawn of the Michigan Capitol last week at a rally for Convention of States, a conservative group that seeks to limit the power of the federal government by amending the Constitution without Congress.

Early dynamics shaping the Republican primary highlight the tensions playing out in other states and high-stakes contests across the country. Would-be candidates for governor are proceeding with caution as they calculate how far, if at all, they can stray from Trump, his mixed pandemic messaging and his incessant lie that a second term was stolen from him.

Those already running are leaning into the far-right fervor of the moment, whether they’re echoing Trump’s provocative rhetoric against Whitmer or continuing to publicly sow doubt in President Joe Biden’s victory. On the latter, they see little downside: A new Morning Consult/Politico poll shows that 51 percent of Republican voters believe that audits like the one in Arizona will change the outcome.

“At this point, it’s irrelevant what I personally believe,” Austin Chenge, one of at least six declared but largely unknown GOP candidates for governor, told NBC News when asked if he believes the election was stolen from Trump. “The vast majority believe there are questions that need to be answered.”

As in other states where pro-Trump activists are taking hold of the party’s levers of power, here it’s become harder to distinguish fringe players from stewards of the establishment.

In March, Michigan Republican Party Chairman Ron Weiser called Whitmer and the two other top female leaders in state government “witches” who should be “burning at the stake.” His co-chair, Meshawn Maddock, helped organize buses to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6 and spoke at a rally there before Trump supporters stormed the Capitol. She also recently suggested that Michigan secede from the U.S., Brexit style. And her husband, state Rep. Matt Maddock, has introduced a bill that would require fact-checkers — like those who have called out the couple’s dubious election claims — to register with the state and insure themselves, or pay up to $1,000 a day in fines if they don’t.

Meanwhile, conservative activists are furious with Reps. Peter Meijer and Fred Upton, two Michiganders who were among the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump in January for his role in the Capitol riot. They also have called for the ouster or censure of the state party’s executive director, who has said Trump “blew” the 2020 election.

All of this contributes to the political environment Michigan Republicans must weigh as they decide whether to seek their party’s nomination for governor in 2022. But raw right-wing credentials might not be enough in a state Biden won by about 154,000 votes. Crossover appeal is important, as is having the resources and name-recognition to compete.

“Michigan and national Republicans’ repeated failures to recruit a viable candidate for governor is no accident,” Rodericka Applewhaite, a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, said. “It’s a direct testament to Gov. Whitmer’s strong leadership through this pandemic while navigating hyperpartisan obstruction in the GOP-led Legislature and a right-wing militia attempt on her life.”

Ronna McDaniel — the former state party chair, granddaughter of former Michigan Gov. George Romney, and Trump’s handpicked Republican National Committee chief — has swatted away the idea that she might run. Two other top Republicans, former Rep. Candice Miller and state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, also have said they’re not interested.

John James, the losing candidate in the state’s last two U.S. Senate elections, is taking his time deciding whether he wants to risk losing three times in four years. Businessman Kevin Rinke accelerated expectations by criticizing Whitmer in a guest column for Fox News this month.

James Craig, who recently retired as Detroit’s police chief to prepare for an expected campaign he hasn’t yet launched, is attracting the most attention and has spoken with Republican Governors Association leaders eager to unseat Whitmer. But the political novice has been slow to build a team and reluctant to offer takes on Trump and other issues.

“I’m evaluating,” Craig said last week. “I don’t get too deep into the weeds.”

Several polls in recent months have shown Whitmer’s job approval and favorable ratings trending down. A May poll by Michigan’s MIRS News and Target Insyght found her leading Craig by 6 percentage points and James by 10 in hypothetical matchups. A Michigan Republican Party poll this month placed Craig 7 points ahead of Whitmer and James 5 points behind her.

“I think the filing deadline is about 10 months away,” Curt Anderson, a political adviser to James, said via email last week of the primary dynamics. “If John James runs, he will be the nominee.”

With the primary not scheduled until August 2022, many Michigan Republicans are still fighting past battles. In suburban Detroit’s Macomb County, where “Reagan Democrats” became en vogue in the 1980s, party officials are particularly interested in revisiting 2020. As local activists sipped on wine and Heineken beer at a recent county GOP meeting, Stan Grot, the clerk who oversees elections in Shelby Township, urged them to demand “public accuracy tests” for the voting machines in their precincts.

“Take preventative actions before elections,” said Grot, who also leads the 10th Congressional District Republican organization. “We can fix this if we keep our eye on the ball, folks.”

Shuff and her friends, who traveled more than two hours from Grayling in northern Michigan for last week’s Convention of States rally at the state Capitol, also expressed doubts about the last election. And they had a familiar list of grievances against Whitmer. They argued that she doesn’t follow her own rules, recalling the time last year, in the early months of the pandemic, when her husband asked for special treatment for his boat. More recently, Whitmer has seen uncomfortable headlines about a private jet she took to visit her father and a photo that emerged of her gathering in a group larger than her health orders allowed.

Though the friends were unfamiliar with the declared Republican candidates for governor, they had heard of and were intrigued by Craig, the former police chief.

The other hopefuls, meanwhile, are working to assert themselves as plausible nominees largely by leaning into issues and ideas pushed by Trump and right-wing media figures.

Tudor Dixon is a conservative news host on the same network that features former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, who has made adherence to the stolen election lie a litmus test for GOP candidates. She channels Trump on her campaign website with a call for “liberating Michiganders from lockdowns.”

Ryan Kelley, a local planning commissioner, is the founder of the American Patriot Council, a group that has called on Whitmer and other Democrats to be arrested. Kelley also was in Washington on Jan. 6 to support Trump but has said he was not inside the Capitol during the riot.

Garrett Soldano, a chiropractor, earned a social media following — and, he says, a Facebook ban — for organizing pushback against Whitmer’s pandemic rules. If Trump, a businessman and reality TV star with no political experience, could win the presidency, Soldano reasoned by telephone last week, a previously unknown leader of the anti-lockdown movement could, too.

There also are two spiritual leaders: Ralph Rebandt, a soon-to-retire pastor from the Detroit suburbs, and Bob Scott, the vice president of a ministerial association. Rebandt boasts about his work as a police chaplain and lists an endorsement from the Southeastern Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police — handy tidbits when the early front-runner might be a former police chief from that region. Though he has many of the same gripes about Whitmer and says without evidence that the election was stolen from Trump, he’s milder in how he delivers the message.

“Everybody’s angry, and I understand that,” Rebandt said during an interview last week in his church office in Farmington Hills. “But anger is an emotion, not a solution.”

Then there’s Chenge. The businessman, Army specialist and Nigerian immigrant is promising to cancel any state contracts with Dominion Voting Systems, a company at the center of debunked stolen election claims. He also wants to cancel Black History Month, a view that earned him some early attention. Like Craig and James, he’d be Michigan’s first Black governor.

As part of his effort to meet more voters, Chenge last week found himself at New Hudson’s Huron Valley Guns. Eric Trump nixed a campaign appearance at the store last year after the owner revealed that one of the suspects in the Whitmer kidnapping plot had briefly worked there.

On this Wednesday night, Huron Valley had been scheduled to host a gubernatorial candidates forum but, for reasons no one could explain, the event was canceled. Chenge, dressed in a blue suit and tie with a Hi-Point holstered at his hip, stopped by anyway. He quietly introduced himself to a few employees and, as Bob Seger’s “Against the Wind” played over the stereo, headed into the shooting range.

After collecting his safety glasses and earmuffs, Chenge fiddled with the human silhouette target for a moment before sending it down the gallery. A few rounds later, he pulled the target back. He had clipped it on horizontally, as if the man lay on his side.

Only one shot had come close to bull's-eye.