ROCHESTER, Mich. – Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer accused Republican challenger Tudor Dixon on Tuesday of “stoking violence” and pushing conspiracy theories meant to divide people, while Dixon said voters have felt the pain of the Democrat's failures and “you deserve better.”
Dixon, a former businesswoman and conservative commentator endorsed by former President Donald Trump, is hoping a late surge of support will help her unseat the first-term incumbent Democrat, who has had a multimillion-dollar fundraising advantage.
Whitmer and fellow Democrats spent months pummeling Dixon with ads before the Republican and her supporters — including the family of former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — responded. The final weeks of the campaign have seemed more like a competitive contest, with both hopefuls on TV and the candidates holding public events around the state.
“We always knew that this would be a close race,” Whitmer told reporters after the debate. “This is a great state but it’s a divided state at times. I take no person, no vote, or no community for granted.”
Tuesday's debate was the final meeting before the November election. Here's a look at some of the exchanges:
With persistent inflation and high prices one of the top issues on voters’ minds, Dixon said Whitmer “has not done anything to help.” She criticized Whitmer for vetoing a GOP measure earlier this year to freeze the state’s 27-cents-per-gallon gas tax and said a recession is “at our doorstep.”
But Whitmer called the measure the Republican-led Legislature approved “a gimmick.” The legislation would have frozen the tax for six months effective in 2023 — a delay Whitmer said wouldn't provide immediate help to people who needed it.
“I don’t have time for games, and I don’t think you do either,” Whitmer said, adding that inflation is a problem around the globe. She said her administration was able to help people in Michigan by providing help such as free or low-cost child care.
Whitmer questioned how Dixon – who supports repealing the state’s income tax – would balance the state budget and ensure sufficient funding for areas like education without the roughly $12 billion the state receives from income taxes.
Dixon countered that she would eliminate the tax over time, suggesting it could be done over eight to 10 years, and noted there are other states without an income tax and it's not a “radical” idea.
Whitmer delivered one of her sharpest lines of the night regarding school safety. The debate at Oakland University was held about 15 miles (24 kilometers) from Oxford High School, where a teenage student fatally shot four students last year. The 16-year-old shooter on Monday pleaded guilty to charges including first-degree murder.
During one of several exchanges about education, Dixon was critical of Whitmer's administration for allowing books in school libraries that she says are inappropriate because they reference sex and gender. Whitmer called it a distraction at a time when deadly school shootings occur with regularity.
“Do you really think books are more dangerous than guns?” Whitmer asked. She called for stricter gun laws, including background checks and secure gun storage.
Asked after the debate about the remark, Dixon said she doesn’t differentiate.
“I think there are dangers all over for our children. I don’t rank one as different than the other,” she said. “I want to make sure our kids are safe no matter what.”
Dixon is endorsed by the National Rifle Association and said during the debate that she supports having armed guards at schools and single-entry buildings. She pointed to a report on how to better secure schools and said if it had been implemented at Oxford “we might have saved lives.”
Whitmer, a former prosecutor, countered.
“Ask yourself, who’s going to keep your kids safe? A former prosecutor with plans or a candidate with thoughts and prayers?”
The first question of the night once again centered on abortion, a topic that’s dominated the race since the U.S. Supreme Court in June overturned the landmark case granting the right to abortion. Prior to the decision, Whitmer filed a lawsuit to stop a 1931 abortion ban from taking effect in Michigan.
A proposal on the state’s November ballot will let voters decide whether to enshrine the right to the procedure in the state constitution. The two candidates disagreed on what the constitutional amendment would allow.
Dixon, who opposes abortion except to save the life of the mother, claimed the proposal would allow abortion “up to the moment of birth for any reason” while calling it the “most radical abortion law in the country." But Dixon said voters could vote how they wanted on the proposal – while also voting for her.
Whitmer said the proposal would return abortion rights that had been in place for 49 years before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade and said none of what Dixon said about the proposal was true.
Asked by moderators to say something nice about their opponents, each focused on the other’s role as a mother. Dixon has four school-aged daughters, while Whitmer has two college-aged daughters and three stepsons.
Dixon praised Whitmer’s emphasis on her daughters and her fight for women, while Whitmer said of Dixon that she appreciates “how hard it is to run for office and raise kids."
The race between Dixon and Whitmer is the first time two women have faced off for Michigan governor. Nationally, there are five woman-vs.-woman races this fall. That’s more than there have been, combined, in all elections in the country’s history, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
Burnett reported from Chicago.
Joey Cappelletti is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.