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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

A GOP test in Michigan: Is Trump a help or a hindrance?

Doug Mastriano, Republican candidate for governor, hosts a Hispanic Town Hall Meeting in Philadelphia, Pa. on Sept. 30, 2022.

By Jazmine Ulloa

As she runs to lead a narrowly divided swing state, Tudor Dixon is pursuing a hazardous strategy in the Michigan governor’s race: embracing Donald Trump, and at times emulating his no-holds-barred political style.

She hit the campaign trail recently with the former president’s son Donald Trump Jr. and Kellyanne Conway, the onetime Trump White House adviser — and, in Trumpian fashion, made headlines for mocking her Democratic opponent, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, over a 2020 kidnapping plot hatched against her by right-wing militia members.

In other appearances, Dixon called for a ban on transgender girls playing in girl’s and women’s sports. And on a recent afternoon at an athletic club in an affluent suburb northwest of Detroit, where a life-size cutout of Trump stood by the doors, she promoted his so-called America First business policies.

“‘America First’ — Michigan First — will bring Michigan back together,” she said.

The governor’s race between Dixon and Whitmer carries high stakes for abortion rights, schools and the future of elections. It is historic — the first time two women have ever gone head-to-head for the position in the state.

The contest also serves as a test of whether Dixon and other Republican candidates can win their general elections by harnessing the grassroots energy of Trump supporters that propelled them to the top of crowded and chaotic primaries. That approach — which entails a close association with Trump’s election denialism and other political baggage — worries some Michigan Republicans who believe Dixon is failing to win over the kinds of suburban and independent voters who are crucial in tight races.

But it might be the only option she has. Early voting began Thursday, and with time running out, Dixon is short on cash, well behind in polls, still working to shore up support among her Republican base and being pummeled by Democrats on the television airwaves.

“Uphill, on icy roads,” said Dennis Darnoi, a longtime Republican strategist in Michigan, describing Dixon’s path to victory. “It is a challenge, with a month left, for her to make up the kind of ground that she is going to need.”

Dixon, who joined Trump at a rally Saturday in Macomb County, has appeared unfazed, arguing that her recent fundraising numbers have been high and that her message will ultimately resonate with voters more than Whitmer’s.

On stage Saturday afternoon, Dixon pledged to protect women’s sports and attacked Whitmer’s pandemic and economic policies, suggesting the governor was hiding from voters. Her remarks at times elicited thunderous chants of “Lock her up.” Asked about the challenges ahead for her campaign after she spoke, her team pointed to a new poll from a Republican-aligned firm that put her within 6 percentage points of Whitmer.

“We feel great about it — it means that their message is not resonating,” Dixon said. “She spent millions of dollars to try to take us out, and still people are going to vote red in November.”

Not all Republicans who closely aligned themselves with Trump have struggled to pivot from the primary election to the general. In Arizona, the Republican nominee for governor, Kari Lake, has taken a similar approach, and has narrowed her race to a dead heat — but unlike Dixon, she is not facing an incumbent governor like Whitmer.

Other candidates backed by Trump, including Blake Masters in Arizona’s Senate race and Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania’s contest for governor, have fallen behind their Democratic opponents as they have struggled to raise money. Another Republican Senate hopeful, J.D. Vance, is facing a closer-than-expected race in Ohio.

Trump has maintained a keen interest in Michigan. He eked out a victory in the state in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes before losing to Joe Biden in 2020 by more than 154,000 votes.

“Six weeks from now, the people of Michigan are going to vote to fire your radical-left Democrat Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and you are going to send a very good person, a very, very good woman, Tudor Dixon, to the governor’s mansion,” Trump said Saturday in Warren, Michigan, to cheers from the audience.

In a statement released after Dixon’s remarks, Lavora Barnes, the chair of the Michigan Democratic Party, called her appearance “divisive and desperate.”

“Tonight, Michiganders saw a schoolyard bully on stage — not a leader,” Barnes said. “Tudor Dixon hurled insults and rattled off a litany of grievances because she knows that her dangerous agenda to ban abortion and throw nurses in jail, dismantle public education and slash funding for law enforcement is out-of-step.”

Days before the Republican primary in early August, Trump endorsed Dixon, a conservative media personality backed by Michigan’s powerful DeVos family.

Dixon, 45, a breast cancer survivor, worked as a steel industry executive until 2017, when she helped create Lumen Student News, a company that produces conservative TV news and history lessons for middle and high school students.

In a December radio interview, she said she aimed to restore students’ faith in the country and combat what she described as “indoctrination” in schools. After helping found Lumen, Dixon went on to host a news show, “America’s Voice Live,” on weekday afternoons.

On the stump, Dixon says she became a vocal critic of Whitmer’s coronavirus restrictions as she witnessed their negative impact on Michigan’s economy. The safety measures “took a deeply personal turn,” Dixon’s website states, after her grandmother died in a Norton Shores nursing home that prohibited visits during the pandemic.

Dixon, who has the delivery of someone comfortable in front of an audience, has generated criticism for spreading unfounded claims about voter fraud in the 2020 election and for some of her stances on LGBTQ issues, including calling for “severe criminal penalties for adults who involve children in drag shows.”

On her website, she calls for a ban to prevent school employees from talking to children in kindergarten through third grade “about sex and gender theory secretly behind their parents’ backs.” And she has said that abortion should be allowed only if it is necessary to save the life of a mother, not in cases of rape or incest.

Dixon’s stance on abortion in particular — in a state where voters tend to favor abortion rights and that in November will weigh a ballot measure to enshrine the right to abortion in the state constitution — is a big reason that some Republicans are worried about her chances. They also fear that underperformance at the top of the ballot could cause the GOP to lose control of the state Legislature.

At Dixon’s event at the athletic club in Oakland County, a panel including former Trump administration officials sat against the tall glass walls of a serene, sunlit indoor pool, as they blasted Biden’s economic policies and painted a harrowing picture of crime-filled American cities and unchecked immigration at the southwestern border.

In a short speech, Dixon slammed what she characterized as a “radical sex and gender theory” permeating schools and denounced Whitmer for providing tax incentives to bring a Chinese company to Michigan, rather than an American one.

But mostly, she displayed a rare dose of moderation, critiquing Whitmer’s pandemic restrictions and economic policies, rising crime in the state’s cities, and schools that Dixon argued had failed to adequately teach students to read and write. They were the kinds of remarks that some establishment and moderate Republicans might be hoping for — and they also seemed to appease the people in the room.

Susan Savich, 64, and her 24-year-old son, Jonathan, asked to take photos with Dixon on her way out. They were opposed to schools teaching children anything but basic skills and traditional beliefs, they said, and Savich liked that Dixon was “education first.”

They were also relieved to hear that Trump was coming to the state. “Ms. Dixon is going up against a lot,” Savich said.

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