LANSING, Michigan – Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s poll numbers aren’t what they used to be, and she has provided fodder for critics who see her breaking her own coronavirus rules.
But a year after then-President Donald Trump urged his supporters to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” and the FBI scuttled an alleged militia plot to kidnap Whitmer, the GOP has struggled to find a familiar or clearing candidate to challenge her in 2022. Many Republican leaders and voters who aim her for defeat are obsessed with conspiracy theories and the false belief that ballot audits such as the partisan one that takes place in Arizona will prove that Trump did not lose in 2020.
“Do we even know who is running? Toni Shuff, 66, and her friends wondered on the Michigan Capitol lawn last week during a rally for the Convention of States, a conservative group that seeks to limit the power of the federal government by amending the Constitution without Congress.
The early dynamics shaping the Republican primary highlight the tensions unfolding in other states and high-stakes contests across the country. Potential gubernatorial candidates proceed with caution when calculating how far, if any, they can distance themselves from Trump, his mixed pandemic messages and his relentless lie that a second term has been stolen from him.
Those already showing up are looking at the far-right fervor of the moment, whether they echo Trump’s provocative rhetoric against Whitmer or continue to publicly cast doubt on President Joe Biden‘s victory. On this last point, they see little downside: a new Morning Consult / Politico poll shows that 51% of Republican voters believe audits like Arizona’s will change the outcome.
“At this point, what I personally believe is irrelevant,” Austin Chenge, one of at least six declared but largely unknown GOP candidates, told NBC News when asked if he thought that the election was stolen from Trump. âThe vast majority think there are questions that need to be answered. “
As in other states where pro-Trump activists seize the party’s levers of power, it has become more difficult here to distinguish fringe actors from establishment stewards.
In March, Michigan Republican Party Chairman Ron Weiser called Whitmer and the two other female state government leaders “witches” who should “be burnt at the stake.” Its co-chair, Meshawn Maddock, helped organize buses to Washington, DC, on Jan.6 and spoke at a rally there before Trump supporters stormed the Capitol. She also recently suggested that Michigan separate from the United States, Brexit-style. And her husband, State Representative Matt Maddock, introduced a bill that would require fact-checkers – like those who exposed the couple’s questionable election allegations – to register with the state and s ‘insure, or pay up to $ 1,000 a day in fines if they don’t.
Meanwhile, Conservative activists are furious at Representatives Peter Meijer and Fred Upton, two Michiganders who were among 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump in January over his role in the Capitol Riot. They also called for the ouster or censorship of the state party’s executive director, who said Trump had “blown up” the 2020 election.
All of this contributes to the political environment Michigan Republicans must weigh when deciding to seek their party’s gubernatorial nomination in 2022. But crude right-wing credentials might not be enough in a state Biden has. won by around 154,000 votes. Cross-appeal is important, as is having the necessary resources and notoriety to compete.
âThe repeated failures of Michigan and National Republicans to recruit a viable candidate for governor are no accident,â said Rodericka Applewhaite, spokesman for the Michigan Democratic Party. “This is a direct testament to Governor Whitmer’s strong leadership throughout this pandemic while facing hyperpartisan obstruction in the GOP-led Legislature and an attempt by the right-wing militia against his life.”
Ronna McDaniel – the former state party chairperson, granddaughter of former Michigan Governor George Romney and head of Trump’s hand-picked Republican National Committee – dismissed the idea that she might run . Two other prominent Republicans, former Rep. Candice Miller and state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, have also said they are not interested.
John James, the losing candidate in the last two US Senate elections, is taking his time deciding whether he wants to risk losing three times in four years. Businessman Kevin Rinke has stepped up expectations by slamming Whitmer in a guest column for Fox News this month.
James Craig, who recently retired as Detroit Police Chief to prepare for an expected campaign he has yet to launch, is drawing the most attention and has spoken to leaders of the Republican Governors Association eager to overthrow Whitmer. But the political novice has been slow to put together a team and reluctant to offer views on Trump and other issues.
âI’m in the process of evaluating,â Craig said last week. “I’m not getting too deep in the weeds.”
Several polls in recent months have shown that Whitmer’s job approval and favorable ratings are waning. 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 clashes. A Michigan Republican Party poll this month put Craig 7 points ahead of Whitmer and James 5 points behind her.
âI think the filing deadline is about 10 months away,â Curt Anderson, James’s policy adviser, said by email last week on Main Dynamics. “If John James shows up, he will be the candidate.”
With the primary not scheduled until August 2022, many Michigan Republicans are still fighting past battles. In Macomb County, a suburb of Detroit, where âReagan Democratsâ became all the rage in the 1980s, party officials are particularly interested in revisiting 2020. As local activists sipped wine and beer 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 compound.
âTake preventative measures ahead of the election,â said Grot, who also heads the Republican 10th District organization of Congress. âWe can fix this if we keep an eye on the ball, folks. “
Shuff and his friends, who traveled more than two hours from Grayling in northern Michigan for the State Convention rally last week at the State Capitol, also expressed doubts about the latest election. And they had a familiar list of grievances against Whitmer. They argued that she was not following her own rules, recalling times last year, in the early months of the pandemic, when her husband requested 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.
Although the friends did not know the declared Republican gubernatorial candidates, they had heard of Craig, the former police chief, and were intrigued.
The other candidates, meanwhile, are struggling to assert themselves as plausible candidates largely by relying on the issues and ideas pushed by Trump and right-wing media figures.
Tudor Dixon is a Tory news host on the same network who introduces former Trump adviser Steve Bannon who made adherence to the stolen election lie a litmus test for GOP candidates. She channels Trump on his campaign website with a call to “free the Michiganders from lockdowns.”
Ryan Kelley, a local planning commissioner, is the founder of the American Patriot Council, a group that called on Whitmer and other Democrats to be arrested. Kelley was also in Washington on Jan.6 to support Trump, but said he was not inside the Capitol during the riot.
Garrett Soldano, a chiropractor, got a social media ban – and, he says, a Facebook ban – for staging a pushback against Whitmer’s pandemic rules. If Trump, a businessman and reality TV star with no political experience, could win the presidency, Soldano explained by phone last week, a hitherto unknown leader of the anti-containment movement could do so as well.
There are also 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 brags about his work as a police chaplain and lists an endorsement from the Southeast Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police – useful information when the top favorite could be a former police chief from that area. While he has many of the same complaints about Whitmer and says without proof that the election was stolen from Trump, he’s gentler in the way he delivers the message.
âEveryone is angry, and I understand that,â Rebandt said in an interview last week in his church office in Farmington Hills. “But anger is an emotion, not a solution.”
Then there is Chenge. The businessman, army specialist and Nigerian immigrant promises to cancel any contract with the state with Dominion Voting Systems, a company at the center of debunked stolen election claims. He also wants to cancel Black History Month, a point that earned him early attention. Like Craig and James, he would be Michigan’s first black governor.
As part of his effort to meet more voters, Chenge ended up last week at the Huron Valley Guns in New Hudson. Eric Trump turned down an appearance at the store last year after the owner revealed that one of the suspects in the Whitmer kidnapping plot had briefly worked there.
This Wednesday evening, Huron Valley was scheduled to host a gubernatorial candidates’ forum but, for reasons no one could explain, the event was canceled. Chenge, wearing a blue suit and tie with a Hi-Point hanging from his hip, stopped anyway. He quietly introduced himself to a few employees and, as Bob Seger’s âAgainst the Windâ played on the stereo, walked over to the shooting range.
After collecting his safety glasses and earmuffs, Chenge played with the target of the human figure for a moment before sending it to the gallery. A few laps later, he shot the target back. He had hung it horizontally, as if the man was lying on his side.
A single shot had approached the target.