COVID shutdowns, mental health, Trump: 7 takeaways from GOP governor debate

Two months before the primary election to pick a Republican candidate for governor, four candidates made their case in front of some of Michigan’s most prominent business and government leaders at the Mackinac Policy Conference held at Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel.

Tudor Dixon, Ralph Rebandt, Kevin Rinke and Garrett Soldano participated in the debate on Thursday, June 2.

Topics ranged from guns and mental health to elections and Trump’s endorsement. Here are seven takeaways from the debate.

1. The debate stage is getting smaller

Six candidates did not participate in Thursday’s debate – five who were disqualified from the ballot and one who boycotted due to COVID policies.

The Board of State Canvassers disqualified James Craig, Perry Johnson, Michael Markey Jr., Donna Brandenburg and Michael Brown from the ballot for not having enough valid signatures, due to fraud.

Brown backed out of the race, while the other four are fighting the ruling in court. So far, the courts have ruled against the candidates.

RELATED: James Craig appeal denied, other governor candidate DQ cases head to Michigan Supreme Court

The Mackinac Policy Conference only allowed candidates to participate who were approved for the ballot.

Ryan Kelley had the option of participating, but chose not to because of the conference’s COVID requirements to prove vaccination or a negative test. The debate itself did not have any COVID requirements since it was outdoors – but Kelley stayed away on principle.

“If you allow the radical left to run the show now, you will allow the radical left to run the show later,” Kelley said.

Kelley pushed the other candidates to boycott with him, but nobody joined.

2. Rinke acknowledges election could be decided by voters who don’t support Trump

All four candidates at Thursday’s debate said they would accept former President Donald Trump’s endorsement, and some are actively seeking it.

With Johnson and Craig likely out of the race, Dixon may be the favorite for Trump’s endorsement. She was the only candidate Trump mentioned by name when he rallied in Michigan this spring.

“I have sat down with President Trump several times and we have talked about his focus on Michigan,” Dixon said. “And I think he will likely get into this race. But we’ll see what he does.”

Soldano and Rinke also said they would accept Trump’s endorsement. Although Rinke was the only candidate to admit the complexity of Trump’s endorsement in a tight race.

“Michigan’s a purple state. And this is going to be a tough election. It’s going to be decided by people who have traditionally struggled with President Trump. I voted for him twice. I support the man. I think he did great things for our country,” Rinke said. “We’re going to win back Michigan for Republicans and for President Trump.”

Rebandt said his team is working on catching Trump’s ear to get his support.

“I do have (MyPillow CEO) Mike Lindell’s endorsement … because of my stand against election fraud,” Rebandt said.

3. Candidates blame Whitmer for mental health crisis

We should blame mental health – not guns – for school shootings, Soldano said. And Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s COVID shutdowns are to blame for Michigan’s mental health crisis, three of the candidates said.

“Why do we have a mental health crisis? … It goes right back to the pandemic and these unconstitutional lockdowns that our governor did,” Soldano said. “And to implore one another to wear the masks – and if not, do it forcefully. And then she hammered down on our kids even more and canceled their experiences, their opportunities and diminished their dreams and put them online.”

Throwing money at mental health will not solve problems, Soldano said.

“We have to remove the ‘why,’” Soldano said. “The ‘why’ of who put us into this situation is Gov. Whitmer.”

Rinke also blamed COVID shutdowns for the mental health crisis.

“We are creatures that need socialization. We need to look people in the face, not look at a mask. We need to touch. We need to feel,” Rinke said. “We lost that during this pandemic by separating our kids. Computers and cell phones don’t provide the answers.”

Dixon said Whitmer hurt Michiganders’ mental health by allowing seniors with COVID back into their nursing homes, forcing schools into remote learning and mishandling the unemployment agency.

“We need to hold the governor accountable for the political science decisions that she made that impacted mental health,” Dixon said. She also proposed adding beds for mental health patients in Michigan.

Rebandt didn’t blame Whitmer directly. Rebandt’s solutions include allowing vouchers for kids to go to different schools, not medicating people as much and moving away from marijuana.

“One of the things that’s being hidden and buried right now is the mental health issue connected with marijuana,” Rebandt said.

4. One candidate commits to accepting election results

When asked if they will accept the results of the August and November elections, only one candidate committed to it: Soldano.

But it’s not because Soldano doesn’t believe there was fraud in the 2020 election.

“Will I accept the results? Well yeah, because our movement has been going around over the past several months recruiting licensed election inspectors … to make sure that there’s no shenanigans,” Soldano said.

Rebandt said he would accept the results “if we have proper poll watchers.”

“I know (poll watchers) were thrown out in Detroit because I was one of them,” Rebandt said. “So in order for me to accept the election results, I would have to see and know that people are there and not extracted from the room.”

Rinke did not answer the question, but said there “unquestionably” was fraud in the 2020 election.

Dixon hinted that she thinks Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson will not run a fair election this fall.

“We have to wonder, what will the Secretary of State do when it comes to the ‘22 election?” Dixon said. “If we see the Secretary of State running a fair election the way she should be, then that’s a different story. But we don’t know what she’s going to do.”

Of the 10 candidates who turned in signatures to run for governor, only one candidate has said the 2020 election was fair and accurate – Markey. But even Markey has changed his tune, saying the Board of Canvassers disqualifying him from the race has shattered his confidence in how fraud is dealt with.

“I have significant, severe issues, now, with the 2020 election,” Markey said in a gubernatorial debate in Traverse City last weekend. “Yeah, it’s changed my mind.”

5. They all want budget cuts

All four candidates want to cut Michigan’s budget.

Soldano said he will cut the budget every year, and the first place he would look is Michigan’s colleges.

“Where are we going to cut it? Number one is, look at the universities,” Soldano said. “A lot of the funding that we’re giving them, they should be raising privately.”

Soldano said he wants more money to go toward infrastructure, lead line replacement and making sure Detroit doesn’t flood when it rains.

Rinke said he will go line by line to cut things from the budget, but did not give any specifics of what he would cut. He is advocating to get rid of the 4.25% income tax on residents, which Rinke says would cost the state about $12 billion.

Dixon questioned Michigan’s education spending, saying we’re not getting a return on investment from those dollars because students are falling behind.

Rebandt suggested every department cutting expenses by 10%, switching state police back to Harley Davidson motorcycles instead of BMWs and getting rid of corporate welfare. Michigan gave General Motors $824 million to expand a Michigan plant in late 2021, and has plans to give incentives to more companies so they will invest in the state.

6. Unity is key, but candidates have few bipartisan plans

All four candidates preached unity, when asked how they would work across the aisle with Democrats.

Only Dixon mentioned specifics – saying she believes she can do bipartisan work on improving schools and investing in public safety.

Rebandt, a Farmington Hills pastor, touted the low divorce rate in his congregations over the past 35 years.

“As I look at the slate of candidates … who else has the experience to bring people together who are at odds with one another?” Rebandt said.

Whitmer has had to find bipartisan solutions since Republicans control majorities in both the state House and Senate. If a Republican ousts Whitmer in November and Republicans can keep control of both chambers, bipartisanship won’t be needed to pass laws.

RELATED: Whitmer has vetoed more bills per year than any Michigan governor since 1953

Democrats have not had a majority in either chamber since 2010, and haven’t had majorities in both since 1983. Republicans controlled the governorship, House and Senate in Michigan from 2011 to 2018.

7. Democrats respond, calling candidates “radical” and “out of step”

The Michigan Republican Party declared, in a statement, that the “clear loser” of the debate was Gov. Whitmer (who was not part of the debate). The party criticized Whitmer for COVID shutdowns and not fixing enough roads.

Naturally, the Michigan Democratic Party had a different view.

“This afternoon, four of the remaining Republican gubernatorial candidates pushed fringe plans to ban abortion, slash funding for education and critical services, reverse the progress Governor Whitmer has made on fixing the damn roads and risk our economic growth,” the party said in a statement. “Michiganders deserve better than their radical, out-of-step agendas.”

Whitmer gave her keynote speech at the conference just before the Republican debate Thursday afternoon. She hinted at her opponents briefly in the speech.

“In the weeks and months ahead – heck in the next hour – you’ll hear a lot of other ideas,” Whitmer said. “Achieving our goals – however lofty or ordinary – is predicated on competent leaders in the private sector and public sectors who have the courage of their convictions and know how to get stuff done.”

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