Republican candidates, minus Craig, meet for 1st debate

James Craig, a former Detroit Police Chief, announces he is a Republican candidate for Governor of Michigan in Detroit, Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya) (Paul Sancya, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

LANSING, Mich. – Republicans running for Michigan governor met in their first debate Thursday night, all staunchly opposing abortion before the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling is potentially overturned while disagreeing on exceptions and whether former President Donald Trump won the state’s 2020 election.

Trump, who lost to Joe Biden by 154,000 votes and has pushed bogus claims of mass fraud, has not yet endorsed a candidate in August's GOP primary.

Four of eight candidates on stage — former conservative news host Tudor Dixon, real estate broker Ryan Kelley, pastor Ralph Rebandt and chiropractor Garrett Soldano — falsely said Trump carried Michigan. Two, state police Capt. Michael Brown and financial adviser Michael Markey, said he did not. Perry Johnson and Kevin Rinke, businessmen who have spent millions of their own money to campaign, did not say either way. Rinke refused to answer, while Johnson said he needs to see more data.

The candidates also differed over abortion, which, if the U.S. Supreme Court overrules Roe, would be nearly totally banned under a 1931 state law that remains on the books. It would allow one exception, to protect the pregnant woman's life.

Dixon, Johnson, Kelley, Rebandt and Johnson opposed exceptions for rape and incest. Brown, Markey and Rinke supported them.

Two candidates in the crowded field of political newcomers, top contender James Craig and longshot Donna Brandenburg, did not attend the event that lacked fireworks and featured a lot of criticism of Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The one-hour, 45-minute debate in Howell was organized and moderated by the Livingston County Republican Party and the Lansing-based MIRS news outlet, drawing 700 people who paid $75 each as part of a fundraising dinner. Craig's absence drew a shot from Soldano, who asked if he could answer a question for him.

Craig had a prior speaking commitment at the Mechanical Contractors Association's annual meeting, according to his campaign.

“The chief looks forward to upcoming debates and opportunities to share his message with the voters,” the campaign said.

Both MIRS and the Livingston County GOP said Craig, Detroit's former police chief, committed to the debate before pulling out.

“I guess he still runs from the sideline. (He's) not leading from the front,” Soldano said.

Most of the candidates said the COVID-19 vaccine has helped seniors and those with underlying medical conditions avoid death, though Kelley and Rebandt said it is not helping to combat the coronavirus. Brown said he did not know.

Some backed repealing Michigan's individual income tax. Others got behind significant cuts in state funding for public universities. Many called for Whitmer to be criminally investigated for nursing home orders she issued early in the pandemic and criticized her for closing schools. All said they would sign legislation to forbid instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade, backing a Florida measure that opponents have dubbed the “Don't Say Gay” law.

Another debate, which was sanctioned by the Michigan Republican Party, is planned for June 2 at the Detroit Regional Chamber's policy conference on Mackinac Island.

The winner of the Aug. 2 primary will advance to challenge Whitmer in November.

Three top GOP candidates, including Craig, are facing challenges to their petition signatures that, if successful, could keep them off the ballot.


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