Grand Rapids —Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and her Republican challenger, Tudor Dixon, laid out to voters their positions on a range of issues in a fast-paced debate Thursday night over pandemic policies, the state’s economy, school safety, abortion rights and tax relief.
The hour-long televised debate marked the first time in state history that two female nominees for governor from the majority parties shared a debate stage together. It was contentious throughout, as Dixon critiqued Whitmer’s record as the state’s chief executive and the incumbent repeatedly said her opponent was not truthful.
The two women immediately fielded questions on their stances on abortion, almost four months after the U.S. Supreme Court upended a half-century of abortion rights at the national level and while Michigan’s 1931 abortion ban remains blocked from being enforced by judges in the Michigan Court of Claims and Oakland County Circuit Court.
Dixon, who has previously said she did not support abortion in cases of rape and incest, argued a proposal on the Nov. 8 ballot that would enshrine abortion in the state Constitution would inhibit a governor’s ability to regulate or permit abortion.
“I am pro-life with exceptions for life of the mother, but I understand this is going to be decided by the state of Michigan or a judge,” Dixon said.
Dixon accused Whitmer of supporting abortion through all nine months of pregnancy, referencing Whitmer’s past vote against a partial-birth abortion ban.
Whitmer pushed back on Dixon’s assertion, noting her lawsuit filed in April sought to preserve the status quo and current limitations on abortion, which include a partial-birth abortion ban.
“The only reason the 1931 law isn’t in effect is because of my lawsuit,” said Whitmer, referring to a state abortion ban that’s been unenforceable since 1973 while Roe was in place.
Thursday night’s debate between Whitmer and Dixon came on the same week the Republican Governors Association began airing its first ads promoting the GOP nominee and as more than 264,000 voters have already returned their absentee ballots and another 1.4 million voters have their absentee ballots in hand, according to data from the Secretary of State’s office.
The event was the first time the two women vying to be in the governor’s office next year had met.
“The rhetoric that you hear on the campaign trail is exactly what we saw here tonight,” Whitmer told reporters after the debate. “So I don’t think there were really any surprises.”
In speaking to reporters after the debate, Dixon highlighted the fact Michigan lags behind other neighboring states when it comes to recovering jobs lost during the COVID-19 pandemic under Whitmer’s watch.
“I have great hope for the state of Michigan,” Dixon told reporters. “But that’s with a new governor. Because this governor has proven time and time again that she doesn’t know how to lead a state and she certainly doesn’t know how to bring a state back from a crisis.”
Dixon, a first-time candidate, rated her debate performance as “strong” against Whitmer, a career politician.
“And I am sure that the people of Michigan will believe that as well,” Dixon told reporters.
One of the topics on which Whitmer questioned Dixon’s responses was on Proposal 3, a proposed constitutional amendment on the Nov. 8 ballot that would enshrine abortion rights into the state Constitution.
Dixon, who opposes abortion, said she would always accept the will of Michigan voters.
Whitmer fired back, criticizing Dixon’s past statements questioning the results of the 2020 presidential election.
“I think it’s really ironic when Mrs. Dixon stands here and says that she will accept the will of the people,” Whitmer said. “This is a candidate who still denies the outcome of the 2020 election. This is a candidate who will not pledge to accept the outcome of the Nov. 8 election.”
After the debate, Dixon referenced Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist’s past criticisms of Detroit’s elections. Gilchrist ran for city clerk unsuccessfully in 2017 against the incumbent clerk, Janice Winfrey.
“People question elections,” Dixon told reporters. “That’s our right as citizens of the United States.”
More:Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer says she’ll serve full 4-year term if reelected
Both candidates had good moments during the debate, but Dixon needed more as a newcomer challenging the incumbent governor, said pollster Richard Czuba of the Glengariff Group.
Dixon’s message appeared aimed at locking down her base Republican support, not independent voters, and she neglected to tie Whitmer to President Joe Biden, Czuba said.
While Dixon did well on questions related to law enforcement and student learning loss, Whitmer delivered clear messaging on abortion and gun control, Czuba said.
“In the end, nobody lost. Nobody won,” Czuba said. “And that’s a missed chance for Dixon.”
Schools, pandemic, police support
On school safety, the candidates argued over the best way to address school and gun violence.
Whitmer said she supported background checks, secure storage and red flag laws, and argued Dixon wanted more guns, less oversight and the elimination of gun-free zones.
The governor said her challenger would put the “second amendment over second graders every time — and we cannot let that happen.”
Dixon argued Whitmer could have used more federal money to harden schools over the summer, but “nothing happened.”
Last month, Michigan Department of Education training videos for teachers working with LGBTQ students surfaced that promoted keeping information from parents of suicidal students that the student was gay or transgender.
The state education department, Dixon said, “has now come out and said there are times when we can hide a dangerous situation from parents … we’ve never seen something like this before. We’re in really scary times.”
As governor, Whitmer does not control the Department of Education, which is constitutionally autonomous and controlled by the elected State Board of Education.
But Whitmer’s chief operating officer, Tricia Foster, sent a letter to state school superintendent Michael Rice encouraging him to “continue bringing parents’ perspectives into the work you do” and focus on reading, writing and math.
Thursday’s debate also got testy when the candidates sparred over Whitmer’s decision to shutter thousands of businesses during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020 and keep restrictions in place through mid-2021.
Whitmer defended her actions during the pandemic, arguing they saved thousands of lives. The lives that were lost mattered, Whitmer said, and urgent action was needed to limit the toll from the virus.
“If I could go back in time with the knowledge we have now, sure, I would have made some different decisions,” Whitmer said. “But we were working in the middle of a crisis and lives were on the line.”
Dixon argued Whitmer’s response was devastating to the state especially when it came to policies affecting nursing homes, unemployment payments, school policy and business closures.
Republicans clashed with Whitmer throughout the pandemic over her handling of many aspects, but especially her decisions related to long-term care facilities. Whitmer closed off visitations to many nursing homes early in the pandemic and focused on caring for the elderly with the virus in isolated areas of current nursing homes. Lawmakers called for those individuals to be kept in separate facilities to avoid COVID-19 spread.
In March, Attorney General Dana Nessel said further investigation into how the state tracked COVID-19 deaths in long-term care facilities was “unwarranted” after an Office of Auditor General report found that the state’s criteria for long-term care deaths had excluded about 2,386 COVID-19 deaths.
The report, Nessel wrote, did not support allegations that the state health department intentionally underreported or misrepresented the number of COVID-19 deaths.
Dixon accused Whitmer of supporting the defund the police movement and referenced her 2019 veto of money for secondary road patrols in a rash of vetoes in the annual budget. Dixon touted her own endorsement by the Police Officers Association of Michigan.
“We’re going to make sure not only they’re supported but they have the tools they need, they have the technology they need, and they have the mental health help they need,” Dixon said.
Whitmer pushed back on Dixon, arguing she had earned the support of police over her four years in office. She touted other bipartisan budgets delivering money to law enforcement for training, recruitment and payments into their pension funds.
“My opponent is long on rhetoric and short on facts,” Whitmer said.
In June 2020, Whitmer said she supported the “spirit” of efforts to defund the police in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, a statement that her office later clarified did not indicate support for eliminating funding for law enforcement but a reprioritization of resources for issues such as mental health interventions.
“It must be so embarrassing for the governor that it’s actually on tape that she said she supports the spirit of defund the police,” Dixon said.
Auto insurance change
When asked questions about inflation, Dixon criticized Whitmer over her vetoes of tax relief proposals and a gas tax pause sent to her by the Republican-led Legislature. She noted the governor also supported the shutdown of Line 5 — a decision that could increase some propane and fuel prices in the state.
“She doesn’t care about money in your pocket; she likes the political benefit,” Dixon said.
Whitmer defended her work over the past four years, noting she and the Republican-majority Legislature had made childcare and tuition across the state more affordable. She argued the tax relief packages sent to her by the Legislature wouldn’t take effect until 2023, when immediate action was needed.
“I don’t play those games,” Whitmer said. “I veto those games.”
Whitmer reiterated her commitment to a retirement tax repeal and an increase in the earned income tax credit.
“A governor cannot fix global inflation, but what we can do is help keep more money in your pocket,” she said.
The candidates also sparred over the 2019 no-fault auto insurance reform, whose key provisions limiting medical attendant pay for past crash survivors are currently paused pending a Michigan Supreme Court opinion.
The bipartisan legislation was signed into law by Whitmer, but the governor has expressed support for policies that restored service rates for those injured prior to the law taking effect.
“I’m eager to work with the Legislature,” Whitmer said. “The Republican leaders haven’t come to the table yet, but I’ll be a willing partner when they’re ready to do that.”
Dixon criticized the governor’s response, after months of Whitmer touting $400 rebates that was, in part, possible because of the cuts to service rates for those survivors.
“She knew that these victims were looking for compensation, but she still gave this out to try to buy your vote,” Dixon said.
Heading into the debate, multiple public polls have shown Dixon, a Norton Shores businesswoman and conservative commentator, trailing Whitmer by double digits.
More:Tudor Dixon’s campaign for governor faces pivotal week: ‘We’ll prove them all wrong’
A Sept. 26-29 poll from The Detroit News and WDIV-TV had Dixon behind Whitmer by 17 percentage points, 32.2% to 49.5%. The survey of 600 likely voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. However, 12.3% of participants in the poll were undecided, meaning if they break toward Dixon in the remaining weeks, the election could be significantly closer.
Whitmer and Dixon will meet for their second and final debate at 7 p.m. on Oct. 25 at Oakland University. WXYZ-TV (Channel 7) will carry that one-hour debate live. The Fox affiliates in Grand Rapids (WXMI) and Lansing (WSYM) also will broadcast the next debate.