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In debate, 3 of 4 Republican governor candidates say they support Michigan's strict 1931 abortion law

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Paulette Parker
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Michigan Radio

The president, the pathogen, and the future of abortion rights in Michigan. Those were some of the main topics of discussion during a nearly 90-minute debate Wednesday night among four of the Republicans running to be Michigan’s governor.

The debate, recorded in Grand Rapids and broadcast on WOOD-TV, also featured talk of tax cuts, guns, nuclear energy, and jobs. A fifth Republican candidate, Ralph Rebandt, wasn’t invited because he did not meet a threshold of 5% voter support in the polls, according to WOOD-TV.

Abortion

Early in the debate, when asked if they saw any middle ground on the issue of abortion, three of the four participating candidates suggested they’d support a 1931 Michigan law that punishes performing or obtaining abortion with up to four years in prison. The law, which is being challenged in court, has no exceptions for cases involving rape or incest.

“Yeah I’m 100% unapologetically pro-life,” said Garrett Soldano, a west Michigan chiropractor. “The 1931 law, it’s there.”

“I do believe that there are no exceptions for abortion except for the life of the mother,” said Ryan Kelley, a former planning commissioner from Allendale Township, near Grand Rapids.

“I think it is appalling to hear our attorney general say she won’t enforce these laws,” said Tudor Dixon, a businessperson and conservative news broadcaster from Muskegon County.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel has said she won’t use the state’s resources to defend the 1931 abortion law as it’s being challenged in court, and she won’t use it to prosecute anyone, calling it “draconian.”

Among the Republicans on stage Wednesday night, there was one who dodged discussing the issue directly. Oakland County businessman Kevin Rinke said he believes the issue should be left up to the state Legislature, not the governor.

“This is a legislative issue,” said Rinke. “And the Legislature needs to represent the people of this state to determine what our path forward is.”

The President

On the president, the candidates spoke mostly of Donald Trump, the former president. All four candidates support him. Two said they believe the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him, despite two years of investigations — including one led by Michigan Republicans — that failed to show any evidence of it.

“Yes, the 2020 election in the state of Michigan was fraudulent, and it was stolen from President Trump,” said Kelley, who cited “ballot drops,” “pizza boxes … on the windows” of the TCF Center in Detroit, and a documentary film by a conservative activist who was pardoned by Donald Trump for campaign fraud in 2018.

The claims, though often repeated over the past two years, have been repeatedly debunked, including by Trump’s own former Attorney General, Bill Barr, who declined to investigate any of the claims due to a lack of evidence. Despite that, both Ryan Kelley and Garrett Soldano said at Wednesday night’s debate they still believe the 2020 election was stolen, and Kelley called out the other two Republican candidates for failing to say it unequivocally.

January 6

All four candidates also played down the events of January 6, 2021, when Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol building in an effort to disrupt the certification of the presidential vote.

Kelley has been charged with a federal misdemeanor for trespassing at the Capitol that day, but he wasn’t the only one on Wednesday who defended what happened.

“President Trump is still my president, and I’m all about everyone’s right to peacefully protest,” said Soldano, who added that he didn’t support those who turned violent on that day.

Trump "never got the attention that he deserved for the good things that he did,” said Dixon. “We have this focus on all of the negative. We have this focus on January 6, where there were peaceful protesters and then some who disrupted the process.”

“I did not and do not support those that broke the law,” said Rinke. “It’s unfortunate that the FBI has acted inappropriately in how they have charged or gone after some of those people on January 6, while ignoring the others. But I’ll tell you, I would take mean tweets today for a safer America. I would take jobs today versus what we have.”

The four candidates blamed Governor Gretchen Whitmer for her emergency orders during the pandemic that they said cost the state jobs. And all four said it was those restrictions, in response to a novel pathogen, that set each of them off on the path toward running for governor in Michigan.

The pathogen

“I was putting my 10 year old to bed one night and she looked up at me and she had tearful eyes and she said, ‘Mom I think this is what depression feels like,’” said Dixon, who said she also lost her Grandmother during the pandemic, and wasn’t able to say goodbye because of nursing home visitor restrictions.

Dixon said she’s discussed legislation with current lawmakers that would guarantee family visitation rights in the future.

Asked what they would have done differently to respond to the pandemic in 2020, each of the Republicans said they would not have gone as far to try to stop the spread of the virus that’s now killed about 34,000 people in the state.

“You never, ever quarantine the healthy,” said Garrett Soldano, who said he launched his campaign after starting a popular Facebook group opposing the pandemic restrictions. “You don’t mask up society. You don’t run and hide in fear. You do common sense solutions with this.”

During the debate, the candidates also discussed tax cuts. Kevin Rinke says he’d eliminate Michigan’s income tax in one year. Tudor Dixon shot back that he has no plan for how to make up the revenue, and said she’d work instead to phase out the income tax over a number of years. On energy, the candidates also expressed some uncertainty about vehicle electrification, but said they support expanding nuclear power in the state.

Michigan’s primary election is on August 2.

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Radio’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Radio since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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