Michigan GOP gov. candidates infuse debate with conspiracies about Whitmer, voting and COVID
Tudor Dixon, the Rev. Ralph Rebandt, Kevin Rinke and Garrett Soldano participate in a GOP gubernatorial debate as part of the Mackinac Island Policy Conference, June 2, 2022. (Laina G. Stebbins)

Four of the five remaining GOP candidates for governor squared off for a debate Thursday on Mackinac Island, with the discussion running the gamut from banning abortion to mass shootings, and from election fraud claims to slashing state spending.

Since the GOP gubernatorial candidates are unvaccinated against COVID-19, the event was held in an outdoor tent on the front lawn of the Grand Hotel as part of the Mackinac Island Policy Conference. Far-right activist Ryan Kelley boycotted the event in protest of the conference’s vaccine requirement, even though it had been waived for gubernatorial candidates and debate attendees.

Businessman Kevin Rinke, right-wing media personality Tudor Dixon, chiropractor Garrett Soldano and the Rev. Ralph Rebandt participated in the debate. The winner of the GOP primary will face Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Nov. 8.

Five candidates — financial adviser Michael Markey, former Detroit Police Chief James Craig, businesswoman Donna Brandenburg, self-described “quality guru” Perry Johnson and Michigan State Police Capt. Michael Brown — have been kicked off the ballot as of now for not submitting enough valid signatures.

Following recent mass shootings like those in New York and Texas last month, the candidates were asked about guns in schools. They emphasized militarizing schools and tackling mental health issues as topline solutions to prevent further deaths instead of taking action on guns.

Polling has consistently shown support for gun control, such as a new Politico/Morning Consult survey showing 88% support universal background checks, 67% support an assault weapons ban and 84% support “red flag” laws.

“Our schools right now are a soft target. We have to make sure we harden our schools,” Dixon said, suggesting that some of the unused COVID-19 funds should be put toward that end.

Rinke suggested that former military members should train hall monitors, while Soldano said teachers should be armed and schools should only have one point of entry.

“We don’t have a gun problem; we have a mental health crisis,” Soldano said.

Rebandt took a different route and said that the issue of mass shootings stems from the fact that “we’ve taken God out of the classroom.”

Candidates also backed the Secure MI Vote initiative, which Republicans rolled out after Whitmer vetoed a slew of voter suppression bills put forward by the GOP-led Legislature. As many did at a debate in Livingston County last month, several hopefuls continued to espouse conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election that former President Donald Trump lost.

COVID-19 conspiracies also abounded, with most of those casting a negative light on Whitmer, similar to comments made at the Livingston County forum.

Soldano noted that in addition to supporting medical and religious waivers for COVID-19, he would add a “philosophical waiver” as an option to refuse the vaccine.

Dixon pledged to make sure all of the bills pass if she becomes governor.

Abortion was another area with little disagreement among the GOP candidates, who all oppose a ban and described themselves Thursday as “unapologetically pro-life.”

Earlier on Thursday, Whitmer was enthusiastically cheered by business leaders, lobbyists and lawmakers when she vowed in her keynote address to continue her fight for reproductive rights.