Tudor Dixon's campaign for governor faces pivotal week: 'We'll prove them all wrong'

Rochester Hills — Republican Tudor Dixon is vowing to prove naysayers wrong four weeks before Election Day, saying TV ads promoting her are on the way and polling showing her trailing Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer isn't capturing the strength of GOP support in Michigan.

Dixon held a town hall meeting inside an Emagine movie theater Friday night with the theme "Ask Me Anything." About an hour into the event, a man questioned her about where ads supporting her had been, exaggerating that he sees "600 Whitmer commercials a day."

"We will get our ads out," replied Dixon, before raising doubts about polling in the battleground state.

"But just so you feel a little bit better about this," the first-time candidate added. "I know there are a lot of people out there who are not saying they’re voting Republican because they’re so intimidated by this nasty rhetoric that they’re hearing."

Dixon discussed her strategy for the final month of the race for Michigan's top office during a wide-ranging interview with The Detroit News after the town hall Friday night. The mother of four and political commentator from Muskegon County's Norton Shores launched her campaign in May 2021.

Her new comments came ahead of a crucial week for her bid, which has struggled to raise enough money to fund its own commercials: TV ads backing Dixon from the Republican Governors Association are expected to begin airing Wednesday, and the first debate of the race is set for Thursday in Grand Rapids.

"This certainly could be the week that things change in our direction in a positive way," said Dixon of the coming days. "We’ll see how the debate goes. But we are definitely looking forward to it.”

A Sept. 26-29 poll from The Detroit News and WDIV-TV showed Dixon trailing Whitmer, the Democratic incumbent, 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.

Dixon voiced optimism on Friday.

Asked about Lansing-based interest groups that often endorse Republicans but are not siding with her in this year's governor's race, Dixon said they had been reading media stories about her being behind Whitmer.

“This has been an effective scare campaign for people to go, ‘Oh well, I don’t know if she can do it,'" Dixon said. "We’ll prove them all wrong.”

But Tom Shields, a longtime Republican political consultant in Michigan, said the path ahead for Dixon is a challenging one.

"Without the funds, it makes Tudor Dixon's task a lot more difficult," Shields said. "I hate to say impossible … but unless something breaks her way, she's going to have a tough time overcoming what the lead is."

Business groups pass on Dixon

Whitmer, a former state lawmaker from East Lansing, won her first term as governor in November 2018, beating Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette by 9 percentage points.

The Democrat's reelection campaign has focused heavily on her efforts to land large economic development projects, to work across the aisle with the GOP-controlled state Legislature and to protect abortion rights.

The Michigan Manufacturers Association, which supported Schuette in 2018, endorsed Whitmer's reelection in September. Whitmer also has won the endorsement of the Detroit Regional Chamber, while the Michigan Chamber of Commerce — a business group traditionally aligned with Republicans — has yet to endorse anyone for governor.

Dixon didn't mention the manufacturers association or any other group by name on Friday, but she said her belief that there should be more transparency in Michigan's budget process had "absolutely" played a role in some organizations not choosing to back her campaign.

“The message I got back was these places don’t like the transparency so they’re not going to endorse you," she said. "I don’t care if that’s why I don’t get an endorsement.

"This is not our money. This is not the state’s money. This is the people’s money.”

A September investigation by The News found Michigan's new $76 billion budget included a $1 billion spending spree orchestrated largely behind closed doors by legislative leaders with taxpayer money being directed to benefit the plans of private developers, campaign donors and political interest groups.

Whitmer's office has noted her budget proposal's details were released publicly earlier this year and she wants a budget process that is “open, transparent and scrutinized to ensure that Michiganders are getting the best bang for their buck."

Dixon has faced her own criticism from Democrats for not releasing her most recent tax return, a step that has become a tradition for Michigan's gubernatorial candidates as a way to promote transparency about their personal finances. Whitmer has posted her tax return annually on a state website.

"We're looking at that," Dixon told The News.

During the town hall on Friday, Dixon said the Republican Party was the party of the "working class" and one attendee encouraged her to run as a member of the working class.

Dixon said her husband, Aaron, would have to be on board with releasing their tax return and he is "very private."

The path ahead

Dixon, who won the Republican nomination on Aug. 2, faces a difficult task this fall, attempting to unseat a well-known and well-funded incumbent.

Whitmer's reelection campaign and the Democratic Governors Association had already aired about $14 million in ads as of Sept. 20, according to one ad-tracking analysis. Dixon's allies had funded about $1 million in ads in the general election race at that time. Many of the Democratic ads have criticized Dixon's opposition to abortion, including in cases involving rape and incest.

Dixon's campaign has not had the money to fund its own commercials to respond to the Democratic attacks or introduce her to voters. As of Aug. 22, Whitmer reported having $14 million available in her campaign fundraising account, 26 times the total disclosed by Dixon, $523,930.

Dixon told her supporters in Rochester Hills Friday that she doesn't need as much money as Whitmer to win the race.

"We know we’re up against that," Dixon said in an interview. "That’s why we’re doing as much as we can with the funds that we have.”

Shields, a senior adviser to the consulting firm Marketing Resource Group, said coming into the year, the odds of victory seemed to be in the GOP's favor because of frustration over Whitmer's handling of COVID-19, inflation and rising gas prices.

Things "went sideways," in part, because of the U.S. Supreme Court's June 24 decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which pushed the debate over abortion to center stage, Shields said.

The issue of preserving abortion rights has allowed Michigan Democrats to go on offense in a year when they would have usually been playing defense, Shields said.

But Shields said scenarios remain that could make the Michigan race closer, including gas prices continuing to rise. The statewide average price of unleaded gasoline was $4.36 on Sunday, up 50 cents from a month ago, according to AAA Michigan.

"When you're at this point, you can't look for the home run ball," Shields said. "You've got to start hitting a lot of doubles and singles, and maybe a triple here or there."

Ryan Foster, a Southfield Democrat who unsuccessfully ran for the state Senate in the August primary, attended Dixon's town hall on Friday. Foster criticized the Democratic Party for not nominating more Black candidates this fall, and he said Dixon still has a chance to win.

"The numbers aren’t there in Detroit," Foster said of Whitmer and the state's largest city, a Democratic stronghold. “It’s going to be closer than you think.”

Dixon on abortion

Democrats have spent millions of dollars criticizing Dixon's opposition to abortion this fall as a proposal to enshrine abortion rights into the state Constitution, Proposal 3, is also on the ballot.

"You should know Dixon backs a law to criminalize abortion and put nurses in jail just for doing their job," said one ad from Put Michigan First, which is backed by the Democratic Governors Association.

The rush of commercials has helped turn voters against Dixon, polling has indicated. Asked about their opinions of Dixon in the September survey, 44.7% of poll participants had an unfavorable opinion of her while 17.3% had a favorable view, 24.1% had no opinion, and 13.1% hadn't heard of her.

Dixon, who's been endorsed by the anti-abortion group Right to Life of Michigan, told the crowd at her town hall Friday that abortion policy had been decided by a judge, referring to a Court of Claims judge who ruled in September that the state's 1931 law banning abortion was unconstitutional.

"That has already been decided in the state of Michigan," Dixon said. "The fact that she is running on this is ridiculous."

In an interview, Dixon disagreed with the idea that elements of Proposal 3 might have to be clarified by the state's next governor.

Asked if she would vow not to take any action on abortion during her term, Dixon didn't answer with a yes or a no.

"If that passes, I’d say I would follow the law," she said of the proposed constitutional amendment.