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Opinion It’s Whitmer vs. Dixon for Michigan governor, with wild cards galore

Republican gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon speaks at a primary election party in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Aug. 2. (Paul Sancya/AP)

Rick Pluta is senior capitol correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) will face Republican political novice Tudor Dixon in the three-month sprint to the November election. Dixon won the GOP gubernatorial primary Tuesday night in a victory boosted by support from the influential DeVos family, the state’s biggest antiabortion organization and a late-in-the-game endorsement by former president Donald Trump.

“This is going to be an epic battle between a conservative businesswoman and mother and a far-left birthing parent and career politician” was the pull quote from Dixon’s primary night speech.

Dixon and Republicans are taking aim at pandemic-related school closings and shutdown orders (which are all lifted), as well as the state of the economy (even though it’s improving), and doing their best to create a buddy tale co-starring Whitmer and President Biden (who is struggling in Michigan).

Having never held or run for office, Dixon has a thin record to attack. Not much for opposition research to work with there (although clips of her turn as a performer in a vampire TV series have been circulating on the internet). She has also held jobs in her family’s manufacturing business and as a commentator on a conservative TV channel.

A Michigan governor hasn’t lost a reelection bid since 1990, but victory is not assured in a purple state where elections can take unexpected turns.

To her advantage, Whitmer and her super PACs are also sitting on substantial sums. In an ironic twist, she got an assist from multiple sputtered-out recall petition campaigns that allowed her to blow past donation guardrails.

So Dixon needs to move quickly to the next challenge: getting her general-election campaign ramped up and taken seriously by large and small donors.

“She has just over a month to unify the Republican Party, to get through a convention and pick a lieutenant governor candidate, to raise a lot of money,” Michigan pollster Richard Czuba tells me. “More importantly, show that the race can be, I’d say, a mid-single-digit competitive race.”

That’s critical because Dixon isn’t competing just with Whitmer. She’s also competing with other Republican campaigns to capture donations and institutional support in the state.

Redistricting has created a few pickup opportunities for Michigan Democrats. For example, a Trump-backed challenger picked off Republican Rep. Peter Meijer, who was one of the few GOP yes votes on Trump’s impeachment after the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. That puts an otherwise safe Republican seat into the competitive column.

Michigan Republicans’ “red wall” could be in play in this environment. Every seat in the state legislature is on the ballot this year. For about 40 years, the Michigan Senate has been firmly in the GOP’s grip even as control of the governor’s office and the state House has changed hands. Keeping that firewall will be a top priority for Republican funders, especially if they see their gubernatorial nominee struggling for traction.

And none of the above takes into account the unpredictable impact of the abortion issue after the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade in June.

A petition campaign in Michigan has turned in roughly 750,000 signatures seeking to amend the state’s constitution with a ballot question to protect abortion rights. Those names and addresses of registered voters are public records that can be compiled into databases to be used for organizing, fundraising and network-building. It’s potentially a formidable Democratic resource regardless of the fate of the ballot question.

Also, there are multiple legal battles in Michigan over the status of abortion rights, and developments are keeping the controversy in the public eye. A dormant 1931 state law would threaten abortion providers with felony charges, including in cases of rape or incest.

A judge recently put a hold on enforcing the law, which has been challenged by some prosecutors who say decisions on whether to file charges in these cases should be up to them.

Dixon supports the law as written — with no rape or incest exceptions. Whitmer is a fervent supporter of abortion rights and has asked the Michigan Supreme Court to fast-track the case and make a determination that abortion rights are protected under a privacy clause in the state constitution.

The abortion issue is likely to remain front and center up to Election Day.

The biggest challenge any governor faces is the one that’s unexpected. Just ask former Michigan governor Rick Snyder (R), who probably thought he would be remembered for balanced budgets and the financial rescue of Detroit. Instead, he has spent the past couple of years fending off charges related to the Flint water crisis.

As with governors, gubernatorial campaigns can face similar challenges: What you expect might not be what you get.