Taylor, Mich. – Tudor Dixon’s campaign for governor is left for dead.
As recently as May, the former conservative commentator and actor was polling near the bottom of a crowded Republican primary field and struggling to raise money. But unlike his character in the low-budget 2011 horror movie “Buddy Bebop vs. the Living Dead,” who was eaten alive by zombies, Dixon has rarely experienced a revival in the big races.
Dixon, 45, has benefited from the chaos created by her rivals, two of whom were disqualified after allegedly collecting fraudulent petition signatures, and from big money from the DeVos family, the real kingmakers in Michigan politics.
And then, late Friday, former President Donald Trump issued a long-telegraphed endorsement of Dixon ahead of Tuesday’s primary, acknowledging how far she’s come and even taking some credit for her rise by recalling the kind words he spoke for her at a Michigan rally months ago. . .
“When I met Tudor Dixon, I didn’t know her, but I could tell she was very special,” Trump said.
Dixon’s fortunes took off when the DeVos family came on board in late May. The family, which includes former GOP nominee for Gov. Dick DeVos and his wife Betsy, who heads Trump’s Education Department, has helped bankroll a pro-Dixon super PAC. As the group’s $2 million advertising blitz took hold, Dixon zoomed to a modest but consistent lead in the polls.
Andy Surabian, a national GOP strategist close to Trump’s political team, told NBC News that the shift in the race and the support of the DeVos family was a game-changer for Dixon’s candidacy.
“Tudor has been the bottom candidate this entire race,” said Sourbian, who follows the race but has not worked with either candidate. “He wasn’t seen as a top-tier candidate for most of the race and the establishment mocked his campaign, but his raw natural talent won him over and he’s now the front runner.”
The closing days of the primaries were no less gauntleted, however. GOP candidates behind Dixon, as well as Democrats who have invested in protecting their incumbent, Gretchen Whitmer, are engaged in every effort to prevent her from winning the nomination.
Dixon, who took target practice in front of news cameras Saturday at Taylor’s Shooting Range, south of Detroit, said Trump called him Friday evening with the endorsement news as he was leaving the county fair.
“I knew it was going to be a lot of work,” she said of her campaign when speaking to reporters. “Even in the beginning, when I first started meeting with some people in the political arena in Michigan, they said, ‘You’ll never do it, it’s too hard.’ And I said, ‘You know what? I’m a really determined person.’
But, he added: “We’ll see on Tuesday.”
Michigan, an electoral battleground, could be key to Trump’s comeback if he runs for re-election in 2024. Whoever becomes governor that year will be in a position to prove the outcome of the election, and each of the GOP candidates for governor, including Dixon, has advanced baseless conspiracies. About the 2020 election in Michigan, echoing Trump’s voter fraud lies. Meanwhile, Whitmer, who is deepening his search for President Joe Biden’s running mate in 2020, has long been a target of Trump’s ire.
A recent poll showed Kevin Reinke, a self-funded former car dealer whose name is familiar to Detroit-area voters, as Dixon’s closest competition. Garrett Soldano, a chiropractor who followed the grassroots right by opposing Whitmer’s Covid policies, is also polling in double digits. So has Ryan Kelly, a real estate broker who has pleaded not guilty to federal charges of participating in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters to prevent certification of the 2020 election.
Dixon’s opponents have tried to use the DeVos endorsement against her, portraying the family as villainous insiders who were insufficiently loyal to Trump. Betsy DeVos resigned from Trump’s cabinet after the deadly riots on January 6. More recently, she said she was among those discussing the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office.
In the debates, Soldano viewed Dixon as career politicians and the establishment. Rinke has spent more than $1 million behind a TV ad branding DeVos a RINO, or “Republican in Name Only,” while accusing Dixon of being backed by “Never Trumpers.”
And in a letter sent Thursday, nine Trump-backed Michigan candidates pleaded with the former president not to side with the “establishment DeVos family.” The missive was widely seen as an attempt to dissuade Trump from endorsing Dixon.
“There is a battle for the soul of the GOP in Michigan with Trump-backed candidates on one side and the establishment DeVos family on the other,” they wrote in the letter, obtained by NBC News and first reported by The Detroit News. . “We urge President Trump not to work with Betsy DeVos in Michigan.”
Trump endorsed Dixon the next day. DeVos defended herself in a handwritten letter to Trump. “I hear that some have indicated that my family and I are working against you in Michigan,” DeVos wrote in the letter, which was obtained by The New York Times. “That’s fake news.”
A last-minute scramble doesn’t matter. The Michigan Secretary of State reported this week that nearly 600,000 early ballots have already been returned — ahead of the pace in 2018, when both parties had competitive primaries for governor.
“It’s definitely too late to have any impact,” a veteran of GOP campaigns in the state, who is not affiliated with either candidate and requested anonymity to speak candidly, said of the effort to stop Dixon. “I think she’s got it in the bag.”
Like his rivals, Dixon had an unorthodox path to the primary. In addition to dabbling in acting (his credits include a web series about vampires), he also worked for his family’s steel company. Most recently she worked with Real America’s Voice, the same network that carries former Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s show, a popular conspiracy theory-fueled program on the right.
“She’s in line with all the other candidates, and this kind of painting or dressing Tudor Dixon as an establishment candidate kind of glosses over the fact that she’s far from the traditional mainstream of Republican candidates in the country and across the country,” Jeff. Timmer, a former executive director of the Michigan GOP who is sour on the party, said. “Every chance she gets she doubles down on Big Lie stuff. She’s against abortion in extreme cases like rape and incest.”
Dixon’s radical stance against abortion is one of several positions he emphasized in his campaign — and one Democrat seized on it to paint him as an extremist. (Dixon supports the exception only when the mother’s life is at risk.) He favors phasing out state personal income taxes. And she frequently talks about “parents’ rights” in education — a concept embraced by GOP candidates nationwide amid battles over how to teach about racism in America and whether schools can discuss sexual orientation.
She is involved in the culture wars, and has attacked the use of gender-neutral language as part of the “war on women”.
Democrats have signaled that Dixon is the candidate they fear most in the general election. A group affiliated with the Democratic Governors Association launched a seven-figure ad blitz this week that portrays Dixon’s state budget proposals as anti-police.
Jason Roe, who served as executive director of the Michigan GOP until the 2020 election was stolen but Trump “blew it,” described the Republican primary contest as a “clown show.”
He added that coalescing around Dixon may be less about beating Whitmer and more about a candidate who doesn’t upset the polls this fall and spend GOP control of the Legislature.
Other candidates have more stuff at the top of the ticket, Roe said. Kelly is charged Jan. 6. Rinke was accused by employees of making sexist and racist comments a few years ago. (He told The Associated Press this month that the allegations were false and that he settled to avoid costly court battles.)
“He’s definitely our best chance to win,” Rowe said of Dixon.
Rinke, who claims Dixon’s private sector experience pales in comparison to his own, rejected Trump’s endorsement at a get-out-the-vote rally outside his campaign headquarters in Troy on Saturday morning.
“Candidates win elections, not endorsements,” Rinke said. “Boy, all those people eating crow is going to taste sweet.”
A few dozen supporters munched on donuts and drank coffee at Rinke’s side. But there was one glaring absence. Matt DePerno, a Trump-backed Republican running for Michigan attorney general, was scheduled to join Rinke. Someone in the crowd asked loudly why he wasn’t there.
“You’ll have to ask Matt DiPerno,” Reinke replied.
A few hours later, the question was answered. DePerno accompanied Dixon to the gun range.