DETROIT – Fresh off a late-October prime-time debate, Michigan Republican gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon had completed nearly a dozen TV interviews by noon the next day. Campaign ads were finally airing on TV, and Dixon was scheduled to depart for a statewide bus tour in a final push to become Michigan's next governor.
The itinerary was a stark contrast to the early days of her general election campaign against Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, when Dixon emerged from the GOP primary and then seemed to disappear from voters’ sight. Weeks of ads attacking her went unanswered, while Dixon laid low trying to raise more campaign cash, she said.
The shift in campaign strategy has paid off, as a more visible Dixon has made it a closer race with about a week to go before Election Day. She is hoping to capitalize on GOP momentum across the country, fueled by voters' concerns about the economy and inflation, as well as President Joe Biden's low approval ratings.
“This was the plan, and that’s how it went," Dixon told The Associated Press last week. "And I actually think our momentum is coming at just the perfect time.”
Whitmer remains the favorite in the race. But Democrats acknowledge the political environment is tougher than it was in 2018, when a backlash to President Donald Trump helped Whitmer and other Democratic candidates win statewide and take control of the U.S. House. That fall, Whitmer defeated Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette by nearly 10 percentage points. This year’s election is expected to be closer.
“We always knew that this would be a close race,” Whitmer said after an Oct. 25 debate. “I never for a second doubted that. What I did doubt was polls that had it at double digits.”
Dixon, who has never served in an elected office, rose from relative anonymity as a far-right online news commentator to win the Republican nomination on the back of an endorsement from Trump and support from the wealthy family of former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, major players in GOP politics in the state who are among her top donors.
Dixon went silent statewide after the primary as she struggled to keep up with Whitmer's fundraising, with the first-term incumbent having nearly 30 times more cash on hand than Dixon in August. Whitmer and Democrats began airing attack ads that quoted Dixon as saying a 14-year-old rape victim was the “perfect example” for why she didn't support abortion rights. While Dixon doesn't support abortion in cases of rape and incest, she says the quote was taken out of context.
The Republican Governors Association announced earlier this year that it would be spending $3.5 million in Michigan to run ads supporting Dixon, but early voting had been underway for almost two weeks by the time the ads began airing statewide in mid-October. Dixon acknowledged at an Oct. 13 debate that it was the first time many voters would be hearing from her directly.
Some strategists say it may have been too late.
“A whole month went by in August where the Dixon campaign didn’t have any infrastructure, and they were building it up,” said Jason Roe, the former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party. “They were doing it too slow and lost a month, and they got defined by (Whitmer's) ads.”
RGA Chair Doug Ducey called the investment a sign that Dixon is a competitive candidate, saying during a stop with Dixon in mid-October that “we don’t fund lost causes, and we don’t pay for landslides.” Ducey, the outgoing governor of Arizona, also told the crowd gathered for a “parents’ rights rally” in suburban Detroit that “the time is now” for supporters to reach out to friends and neighbors and ask them to vote.
“It really is now that the undecideds start to pay attention, and that is going to be who decides this election,” Ducey said.
Democrats have continued calling Dixon extreme and unfit to serve, citing comments she made in 2020, surfaced by CNN last week, that Democrats were trying to “topple the greatest country in the world” and that they were handed “a gift in the form of the virus.”
Dixon indicated earlier this year that she believed Trump was the rightful winner in Michigan, where Joe Biden won by 154,000 votes, and she has refused to commit to accepting the results of the November election. Dixon told reporters that if Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson “runs an illegal election again, that would be a problem.”
Numerous federal and local officials, a long list of courts, top former campaign staffers and even Trump's own attorney general have said there is no evidence the election was fraudulent.
In an AP interview, Whitmer accused her opponent of spreading conspiracy theories and stoking violence, labeling her “the biggest threat to American democracy.”
“She has stoked violent rhetoric. She has made light of a plot to kidnap and assassinate me. She’s made light of other threats to me and my family,” Whitmer said, referencing comments Dixon made at an event in September that downplayed the significance of a plot in 2020 to kidnap the governor.
Whitmer was a former county prosecutor and legislative leader when she ran for the state's top office in 2018. Since then, she has risen to the top of the state Democratic Party and was considered to be Biden's running mate.
Dixon has attacked Whitmer for her closeness to the president, whom the governor held hands with at an event in September, and his “failing” economic policies. She also criticized Whitmer's implementation of some of the country's strictest coronavirus pandemic policies, which many businesses and schools have struggled to bounce back from.
“Parents are very concerned about where we are in education," Dixon said, noting recent test scores that showed Michigan schools' scores were among the nation's lowest. “You look at what’s happening in education. It is hurting our Black communities more so.”
In response to the criticisms, Whitmer has said that if Dixon were governor during the pandemic “thousands more people would have died." She has also said that inflation is a global issue, caused partly by Russia's war in Ukraine and the pandemic, and that she has taken steps to ease the pain for Michigan residents such as offering help with child care costs.
Former President Barack Obama traveled to Detroit to campaign with Whitmer and other Democrats on Saturday, and he filmed a TV ad on her behalf. Dixon has said the appearance from Obama, who is also campaigning for a number of vulnerable incumbents, is proof of how close the race has become.
A centerpiece of Whitmer’s campaign has been abortion rights, which she helped protect when she filed a lawsuit to block a 1931 law banning abortion from taking effect after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
Democrats are hopeful that a proposal on the November ballot seeking to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution will energize their base and lead to high voter turnout that will help Democratic candidates.
Associated Press writer Sara Burnett in Chicago contributed to this report.
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.