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Tudor Dixon seeks a culture war in campaign against Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

<i>AP</i><br/>Tudor Dixon
Tudor Dixon

By Eric Bradner and Donald Judd, CNN

Tudor Dixon, the Republican taking on Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in November’s midterm election, is turning to tactics that have worked for other Republican winners in competitive governor’s races as she seeks to turn the race into a cultural battle over education, transgender athletes and more.

But her clash with a well-funded Democratic incumbent governor — one taking place in a state where a referendum that would enshrine abortion rights in the state’s constitution has emerged as a dominant issue — is showcasing the limits of those efforts at cultural appeals to the moderate, suburban voters who could decide the race’s outcome.

National Republicans have largely abandoned Dixon in the race’s closing weeks, leaving her outspent and floundering in one of the nation’s most important swing states.

Dixon sought to change the race’s trajectory on Saturday when former President Donald Trump traveled to Michigan for a rally in Warren with Dixon and other GOP candidates, including Matthew DePerno, who is challenging Attorney General Dana Nessel, and Kristina Karamo, who is taking on Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. Dixon, DePerno and Karamo have all parroted Trump’s lies about widespread fraud in the 2020 election.

Trump called Whitmer “one of the most radical, most sinister governors in America,” criticizing her support for abortion rights and Michigan’s pandemic-related lockdowns.

The former President, echoing Dixon’s focus on cultural issues and education, called Dixon “a national leader in the battle to protect our children by getting race and gender ideology out of the classroom.”

Trump’s attack on Whitmer as “sinister” is the latest in a series of rhetorical escalations by the former President. On Friday, he said on his social media website Truth Social that the top Senate Republican, Mitch McConnell, had a “death wish” after Congress approved stopgap funding to avert a government shutdown.

Dixon, meanwhile, spoke twice Saturday — once before Trump, and again when Trump invited her on stage. As she lambasted Whitmer, the crowd repeated a familiar Trump rally chant, this time directed at Whitmer rather than 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton: “Lock her up.”

“We’re not going to let our kids be radicalized. We’re not going to let our kids be sexualized. We’re not going to let our law enforcement be demonized. We’re not going to tell our businesses they can’t expand,” Dixon said.

Dixon, a conservative commentator and first-time candidate, emerged from a crowded primary after receiving the financial support of former Trump education secretary Betsy DeVos’ family. The Michigan GOP megadonors funded a super PAC bolstering Dixon’s campaign. And Trump waded into the race in the closing days of the primary with a Dixon endorsement that came after a handwritten letter from DeVos urged him to back Dixon, as reported by The New York Times.

“The Dixon campaign is seeking to get its name ID up and MAGA base fully engaged to close the polling gap and that is what they hope to gain from a Trump rally in Macomb County,” said John Sellek, a Republican public relations adviser and head of Harbor Strategic Public Affairs in Lansing.

However, she has struggled to raise money and gain traction since her August primary victory.

Democrats on Saturday said Dixon’s comments at the Trump rally were an effort to distract from issues on which her positions are unpopular — particularly abortion rights.

“Tonight, Michiganders saw a schoolyard bully on stage — not a leader,” Michigan Democratic Party chairwoman Lavora Barnes said in a statement. “Tudor Dixon hurled insults and rattled off a litany of grievances because she knows that her dangerous agenda to ban abortion and throw nurses in jail, dismantle public education, and slash funding for law enforcement is out-of-step.

“Michigan families deserve a real leader who will work with anyone to get things done, and Tudor Dixon has shown time and again she will continue to divide and pit people against each other if it means she and Betsy DeVos gain political power,” Barnes said.

Whitmer’s campaign and her supporters have dwarfed Dixon in television advertising spending — and Dixon’s campaign is currently off the air in Michigan, underscoring the reality that major Republican donors have shifted their focus to other races they view as more winnable.

Since the primary on August 2, Democrats have spent about $17.6 million on ads in the governor’s race, while Republicans have spent just $1.1 million, according to data from the firm AdImpact. And over the next month through election day, Democrats have $23.4 million booked while GOP has just $4.3 million booked.

Early voting is already underway in Michigan. And in the governor’s race, Whitmer is widely viewed as the favorite by nonpartisan analysts. The race is rated as one that “tilts Democratic” by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales. The Cook Political Report and University of Virginia Center for Politics director Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball rate it as “likely Democratic.”

“The battle has been fought on the Democrats’ terms with millions and millions of dollars, and there’s been essentially no effort to fight back,” Michigan-based Republican strategist John Yob said on the Michigan Information & Research Service Inc.’s “MIRS Monday” podcast this week. “On the Republican side, we’ve never faced this before. And, you know, it doesn’t look very good in terms of a way out unless some serious money gets on TV pretty quickly.”

Dixon looks to shift focus away from abortion battle

The most dominant issue in the governor’s race has been abortion rights in the wake of the Supreme Court’s June decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. Michigan’s Republican-led legislature has refused to change a 1931 law that would prohibit abortion in nearly all instances. Whitmer and other pro-abortion rights groups sued to block that law. And a Democratic-backed referendum that would amend Michigan’s constitution to guarantee abortion rights is on November’s ballot in the state.

Dixon, who opposes abortion except when necessary to protect the life of the mother, has struggled to redirect the race’s focus.

“You can vote for Gretchen Whitmer’s position without having to vote for Gretchen Whitmer again,” she told reporters last week, explaining that voters could support the referendum but oppose the incumbent governor.

In an effort to shift the contest’s focus, Dixon’s campaign has borrowed tactics from Republican governors who have won in battleground states in recent years.

For months, she has focused on parental control of schools’ curriculum, as well as school choice. It’s a message built on that of Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, the Republican whose 2021 victory was an early harbinger of a potentially favorable political landscape for the GOP in this year’s midterm elections.

“That’s why Gov. Youngkin’s message resonated,” Dixon said in an August interview on Fox News alongside Youngkin, who was campaigning in Michigan.

“He said, ‘I’m listening to you. I want parents involved. And I’m going to bring you back into the schools,'” Dixon said. “That’s what people want to hear right now.”

In her latest move to redefine the race, Dixon this week proposed two policies aimed at the LGBTQ community and schools.

In Lansing on Tuesday, Dixon proposed a policy modeled after the controversial measure Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law earlier this year that critics have dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

“This act will require school districts to ensure that their schools do not provide classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in grades K through three, or in any manner that has not age- or developmentally appropriate,” Dixon told reporters, blasting what she called “radical sex and gender instruction.”

Florida’s HB 1557, the Parental Rights in Education bill, passed earlier this year effectively bans teachers from discussing sexual orientation and gender identity in classrooms for young students. LGBTQ advocates say the measure has led to further stigmatization of gay, lesbian and transgender children, causing more bullying and suicides within an already marginalized community.

Then, on Wednesday in Grand Rapids, she unveiled her proposal for a “Women’s Sports Fairness Act,” which would ban transgender girls from competing in sports with the gender they identify with.

“As a mother of four girls, nothing infuriates me more than the prospect of my daughters losing their friends and their teammates, losing opportunities in sports or otherwise, because some radically progressive politicians decided one day that they should have to compete against biological men,” she said. “Gretchen Whitmer has embraced the trans-supremacist ideology, which dictates that individuals who are born as men can be allowed to compete against our daughters.”

Whitmer’s campaign has largely ignored Dixon’s proposals, and did not respond to a request for comment on them. Instead, Whitmer has in recent days emphasized her economic message and her support for abortion rights.

Whitmer is leaning into policies enacted by Democrats in Washington in recent months, including the Inflation Reduction Act, which was signed into law by President Joe Biden in August.

Whitmer in September signed an executive directive capping insulin costs at $35 per month and out-of-pocket costs at $2,000 a year for Medicare recipients.

And last week, Whitmer announced that student loan borrowers will not be taxed on the debt relief that Biden had ordered.

Dixon jokes about Whitmer kidnapping plot

What has dominated media coverage of the race in recent days, though, are a series of jokes Dixon has made about the 2020 kidnapping plot against Whitmer.

A federal jury in August convicted two men of conspiring to kidnap Whitmer at her vacation home in 2020. They were also convicted of one count of conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction after prosecutors detailed their plans to blow up a bridge to prevent police from responding to the kidnapping of the governor. The men now face a maximum sentence of life in prison.

“The sad thing is that Gretchen will tie your hands, put a gun to your head, and ask if you’re ready to talk,” Dixon said at an event last week in Troy alongside Kellyanne Conway, a former Trump White House aide. “For someone so worried about being kidnapped, Gretchen Whitmer sure is good at taking business hostage and holding it for ransom.”

After her comment drew backlash, Dixon joked again about the kidnapping plot at a second event Friday, this time with Donald Trump Jr., the son of the former President.

She told a crowd that, at a stop with President Joe Biden at the Detroit Auto Show last week, Whitmer looked like she’d “rather be kidnapped by the FBI.”

“Yeah, the media is like, ‘Oh my gosh, she did it again,'” Dixon said, anticipating the reaction to her second reference of the day to the 2020 kidnapping plot.

As she told the crowd that her earlier remarks about the plot to kidnap Whitmer had been characterized as a joke, Dixon said: “I’m like, ‘No, that wasn’t a joke.’ If you were afraid of that, you should know what it is to have your life ripped away from you.”

Whitmer’s campaign and Democratic groups condemned Dixon’s remarks Friday.

“Threats of violence and dangerous rhetoric undermine our democracy and discourage good people on both sides of the aisle at every level from entering public service,” Whitmer campaign spokesperson Maeve Coyle said in a statement.

“Governor Whitmer has faced serious threats to her safety and her life, and she is grateful to the law enforcement and prosecutors for their tireless work,” Coyle said. “Threats of violence — whether to Governor Whitmer or to candidates and elected officials on the other side of the aisle — are no laughing matter, and the fact that Tudor Dixon thinks it’s a joke shows that she is absolutely unfit to serve in public office.”

This story has been updated with additional developments.

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