TAYLOR, Mich. — Tudor Dixon’s campaign for governor has been left for dead.
As recently as May, the former conservative commentator and actor had polled near the bottom of a crowded Republican primary field and was struggling to raise funds. But unlike his character in the 2011 low-budget horror film “Buddy BeBop vs. the Walking Dead,” who was eaten alive by zombies, Dixon experienced a resurrection rarely seen in major runs.
Dixon, 45, took advantage of the mayhem-causing stumbles of his rivals, two of whom were disqualified after collecting allegedly fraudulent petition signatures, and big bucks from the DeVos family, veritable kingmakers in Michigan politics.
And then, on Friday night, former President Donald Trump issued Dixon a lengthy telegraphed endorsement ahead of Tuesday’s primary, acknowledging how far he’s come while taking credit for his rise by recalling the kind words he had. for her at a rally in Michigan months ago. .
“When I met Tudor Dixon she wasn’t well known, but I could tell she had something very special about her,” Trump said.
Dixon’s fortunes took off after the DeVos family arrived in late May. The family, which includes former GOP nominee for governor Dick DeVos and his wife Betsy, who ran Trump’s education department, helped fund a pro-Dixon super PAC. As the group’s $2 million publicity blitz took hold, Dixon zoomed in on small but consistent leads in the polls.
Andy Surabian, a GOP national strategist close to Trump’s political team, told NBC News that the upheaval in the race and support from the DeVos family was a game-changer for Dixon’s candidacy.
“Tudor has been the core candidate throughout this race,” said Surabian, who has followed the race but does not work with any of the candidates. “She wasn’t seen as a top contender for most of the race and the establishment mocked her campaign, but her raw natural talent won out and now she’s the frontrunner.”
The final days of the primary were no less difficult, however. The GOP candidates who trail Dixon, as well as the Democrats who are invested in protecting their incumbent, Governor Gretchen Whitmer, have made every effort to prevent him from winning the nomination.
Dixon, who practiced target practice in front of news cameras on Saturday at a shooting range in Taylor, south of Detroit, said Trump called her with the news of approval Friday night as she was leaving a county fair.
“I knew it would be a lot of work,” she said of her campaign while chatting with reporters. “Even in the very beginning, when I started meeting people who had been in the Michigan political arena, they said, ‘You can never do that, it’s so hard.’ And I said, ‘You know what? I’m a really persistent person.'”
But, she added, “We’ll see on Tuesday.”
Michigan, an election battleground, could be key to a Trump comeback if he runs again in 2024. Whoever is governor that year will be able to certify the election results, and each of the GOP gubernatorial candidates, including Dixon, have promoted unsubstantiated conspiracies. about the 2020 election in Michigan, echoing Trump’s lies about voter fraud. Meanwhile, Whitmer, who went deep into President Joe Biden’s search for a running mate in 2020, has long been the target of Trump’s ire.
Recent polls have shown Kevin Rinke, a former self-funded auto dealer whose name is familiar to Detroit-area voters, as Dixon’s closest contender. Garrett Soldano, a chiropractor who has gained a popular right-wing base by protesting Whitmer’s Covid policies, is also voting by double digits. The same goes for Ryan Kelley, 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 aimed at preventing certification of the 2020 election.
Dixon’s opponents have tried to use DeVos’ endorsement against her, calling the family evil insiders who haven’t been loyal enough to Trump. Betsy DeVos resigned from Trump’s cabinet after the deadly Jan. 6 riot. More recently, she said she was among those who considered invoking the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office.
During the debates, Soldano called Dixon indebted to career politicians and the establishment. Rinke has invested more than $1 million in a TV ad that calls DeVos a RINO, or “Republican in name only,” while accusing Dixon of being endorsed 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 stop Trump from endorsing Dixon.
“There is an ongoing war for the soul of the GOP in Michigan with the Trump-endorsed 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 strongly urge President Trump not to work with Betsy DeVos in Michigan.”
Trump endorsed Dixon the following day. DeVos, for her part, defended herself in a handwritten letter to Trump. “I hear some have suggested that my family and I are working against you in Michigan,” DeVos wrote in the letter, which was obtained by The New York Times. “This is fake news.”
Last minute infighting may not matter. Michigan’s secretary of state reported this week that nearly 600,000 early ballots have already been returned – ahead of the pace of 2018, when both sides had competitive gubernatorial primaries.
“It’s definitely too late to have an impact,” said a veteran GOP campaigner in the state, who is not affiliated with any candidate and requested anonymity to speak candidly, of the efforts to arrest Dixon. “I think she has it in the bag.”
Like his rivals, Dixon had an unconventional path to the primary. Along with dabbling in acting (her credits include a vampire web series), she also worked for her family’s steel company. Most recently, she worked with Real America’s Voice, the same network that airs former Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s program, a show fueled by popular right-wing conspiracy theory.
“She’s been in line with all the other candidates, and this kind of painting or dressing up of Tudor Dixon as an establishment candidate kind of glossed over the fact that she sits well outside the traditional mainstream of Republican candidates in and across the country,” Jeff Timmer, a former Michigan GOP executive who soured on the party, said. “She doubles down on the Big Lie stuff every chance she gets. She is against abortion in extreme cases like rape and incest.
Dixon’s hardline stance against abortion is one of many positions she’s pushing in her campaign — and one Democrat has seized on it to portray her as an extremist. (Dixon favors exceptions only when the mother’s life is in danger.) She favors phasing out the state’s personal income tax. And she speaks frequently about “parents’ rights” in education — a concept embraced by GOP candidates nationwide amid battles over how to teach racism in the United States and whether schools can foster discussion of sexual orientation.
She is central to the culture wars and has attacked the use of gender-neutral language as part of a “war on women”.
Democrats have flagged Dixon as their most feared candidate in the general election. A group affiliated with the Democratic Governors Association stepped in this week with a seven-figure ad campaign characterizing Dixon’s state budget proposals as anti-police.
Jason Roe, who served as the Michigan GOP’s executive director until he was expelled for saying the 2020 election wasn’t stolen but that Trump ‘ruined everything’, described the primary Republican as a “clown show”.
He added that the merger around Dixon could be less about beating Whitmer and more about having a candidate who won’t drive down turnout this fall and cost the GOP control of the Legislative Assembly.
Other candidates have too much baggage to top it off, Roe said. Kelley has the January 6 charges. Rinke was sued years ago by employees who accused him of making sexually suggestive and racist remarks. (He told The Associated Press this month that the allegations were false and that he settled to avoid more costly court battles.)
“She’s definitely our best shot at winning,” Roe said of Dixon.
Rinke, who says Dixon’s experience in the private sector pales in comparison to his own, shrugged off Trump’s endorsement on Saturday morning at a rally to get the vote outside his campaign headquarters in Troy.
“Candidates win elections, not endorsements,” Rinke said. “Boy, it’s gonna taste sweet when all these people eat crow.”
The few dozen supporters who had turned out for Rinke ate donuts and drank coffee as he spoke. But there was a noticeable absence. Matt DePerno, the Trump-endorsed Republican for Michigan attorney general, was expected to join Rinke. Someone in the crowd wondered aloud why he wasn’t there.
“You should ask Matt DePerno,” Rinke replied.
A few hours later, the question was answered. DePerno entered the shooting range alongside Dixon.