John James, Tudor Dixon: Michigan GOP seeks Whitmer challenger among new, familiar faces

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Mar. 24—LANSING — Two-time U.S. Senate candidate John James, conservative radio host Tudor Dixon and Metro Detroit businessman Kevin Rinke have emerged as potential challengers to Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer as Republicans' 2022 recruitment efforts quietly press on in Michigan.

Since other well-known GOP figures, such as Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller and Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, have indicated they won't run next year, much of the focus has been on James. The 39-year-old military veteran from Farmington Hills campaigned unsuccessfully for the Senate in the last two statewide elections but has outperformed expectations, displayed fundraising prowess and gained a statewide following.

Representatives of the Republican Governors Association have met with James, Dixon and Rinke in recent weeks, according to multiple sources with direct knowledge of the meetings. Association spokesman Chris Gustafson declined to confirm the discussions in a statement.

"Gretchen Whitmer's broken promises, deadly nursing home policy and failed leadership have placed her on path to being a one-term governor," Gustafson said. "Come next November, Michiganders will have a strong Republican candidate to defeat Whitmer and get Michigan back to work again."

Whitmer defeated then-Attorney General Bill Schuette by 9 percentage points in 2018, ending an eight-year hold on the office by Republicans. Her response to the COVID-19 pandemic has put her in the national spotlight, and she has more than $3 million available in her campaign fundraising account.

A majority of likely Michigan voters, 58%, said they approved of Whitmer's job performance, according to a Feb. 3-6 poll commissioned by The Detroit News. But a plurality of 41% said they planned to vote for someone else for governor in 2022 with 39% saying they would support Whitmer for reelection and a crucial 20% saying their answer depended on the candidates, according to the survey of 600 registered voters with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Michigan gubernatorial candidates often launch their campaigns in the first six months of the year before the election year to help solidify support and begin raising the millions of dollars that a successful campaign can require.

When Whitmer ran in the 2018 election, she formed her fundraising committee on Jan. 3, 2017. Former U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer, who challenged then-Gov. Rick Snyder in 2014, started his committee on May 28, 2013.

Usually, by this point, potential candidates for governor are assembling teams and beginning to seek endorsements, said Greg McNeilly, a Republican political consultant from Grand Rapids. He labeled the 2022 GOP race "slow to mature."

"Michigan Republicans are a little bit behind," McNeilly said. "They have time to make it up. A lot of that will have to do with the quality of the candidates to enter the field."

Eyes on James

As of Tuesday, three lesser-known Republicans had formed campaign committees to potentially run for governor next year: Austin Chenge of Grand Rapids, Ryan Kelley of Allendale and Bob Scott of Howell.

Scott's website says he is vice president of the Evangelical Alliance Ministerial Association. Chenge previously served in the Army and has already visited all 83 counties as part of his campaign. Kelley is a real estate agent and a right-wing activist who's been a prominent figure at protests against COVID-19 restrictions.

James, having run statewide in 2018 and 2020, is likely the most well-known Republican name contemplating a run for governor.

In November, he lost to U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, by 2 percentage points, outperforming fellow Republican Donald Trump, who lost by 3 points in Michigan to Democrat Joe Biden in the presidential race. In Kent County, the state's fourth-largest county and a longtime Republican stronghold, James did even better compared with Trump, who lost by 6 points there. James won the county by less than 1 point.

But questions remain about whether James would run in a third straight election cycle and about how voters would react to seeing his name on ballots again. Some Republicans want him to run for the U.S. House, which they see as an easier path to victory.

In recent weeks, James has made multiple appearances on Fox News and hosted WJR-AM's "The Frank Beckmann Show." During an episode of the radio show last week, James said he had invited Whitmer to be a guest and take questions. Her office declined, he said.

Michigan needs a governor who is "willing to unify," James said.

"When they're going to run campaign commercials over the next year and a half because their polling tells them to talk about being a governor for everyone, then they should be willing to talk to everyone," he said.

Whitmer's office didn't respond to a request for comment.

'To be determined'

Other possible candidates could wait to hear from James before deciding on whether to run themselves, but the former Senate candidate's decision could still be months away.

"There's a couple of marquee names, including James, that need to make their intentions well known," McNeilly said.

Rinke of Bloomfield Township is another potential candidate on Michigan Republicans' radar. The Rinke name is well known in Michigan's most populated region, Southeast Michigan, because of the auto dealerships the family ran there. Kevin Rinke's story fits with the outsider-type of candidate some in the GOP are looking for.

Michigan's last Republican governor, Rick Snyder, had not held political office before launching his campaign in 2009.

In a Tuesday interview, Rinke said he's "not satisfied with the direction of our state right now."

"I believe that Michigan and its citizens deserve a really capable, strong leader," he said. "Someone needs to assume that role because I don't believe our current governor is the capable, strong leader.

"Where that ends up? Who the candidate will be? To be determined."

'Might just be me'

If James decides against running, the race would likely focus on others who are currently less well known statewide, McNeilly added, comparing the possibility to 2018, when Whitmer won the Democratic nomination after previously serving as the state Senate minority leader.

Dixon of Norton Shores is another name gaining attention. Dixon worked most of her life in manufacturing, hosts a daily radio show called "America's Voice Live" and is a mother of four children.

"Gov. Whitmer's cruel, endless lockdown orders have crushed our economy, our schools and our way of life," Dixon said. "Her most important promise, to fix the damn roads without a massive tax increase, turned out to be a damn lie.

"Michigan needs to mount a comeback with a new governor, and that might just be me."

Dixon spoke at a Saturday demonstration against the arrest of a 55-year-old Holland restaurant owner who operated in defiance of a court-ordered closure and the state's COVID-19 restrictions. She also appeared at the Conservative Political Action Committee convention in Florida in February.

Money race doesn't wait

Past Republican candidates or officeholders who are being floated as potential candidates include former Detroit U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider, former U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop of Rochester, former U.S. House candidate Lena Epstein of Oakland County and Schuette, the former attorney general who lost to Whitmer in 2018.

Former state House Speaker Tom Leonard of DeWitt is expected to run for attorney general, but he's also viewed as a potential gubernatorial candidate. Leonard lost to Attorney General Dana Nessel by 3 percentage points in 2018, the closest margin for a losing GOP candidate at the top of the ticket that year.

The redrawing of legislative district lines at the end of the year and the question of how vulnerable Republicans view Whitmer could affect the type of candidates who eventually jump into the race.

Because of the controversy surrounding the governor's COVID-19 response, the election, at this point, is shaping up to be a referendum on Whitmer, said John Sellek, a Republican public relations consultant.

"That means the GOP has more time to coalesce around a candidate," Sellek said. "Starting with a candidate who is already a rock star in the GOP is a benefit worth waiting for, but the money race waits for no one."

The primary election where Michigan Republicans will choose their gubernatorial nominee is Aug. 2, 2022, nearly 500 days away.