Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, and Tudor Dixon, her Republican challenger, on Thursday gave debate viewers a clear contrast of the choice they will have on the Nov. 8 ballot: an outsider versus an experienced politician.
Ms. Whitmer, who is seeking re-election, sought to keep her tone positive, even as she took swipes at her opponent. She reminded viewers of the violent threats she faced as she tried to lead the state through the Covid pandemic. Ms. Whitmer also stressed her belief in bipartisanship and her work with Republicans, who control both chambers of the Michigan Legislature.
“I will continue to work with anyone who wants to solve problems, not just score political points with rhetoric but actually come to the table with alternatives,” she said.
Ms. Dixon, a former steel industry executive turned conservative news commentator, held her own as she tried to harness voters’ anger over high food and gas prices and pandemic-driven stretches of crippling unemployment, school closures and business restrictions.
“This governor’s state policies are radical, dangerous and destructive,” she said. “Crime is up, jobs are down, schools are worse and the roads didn’t get fixed.”
For the first time in a Michigan governor’s race, both contenders are women.
The contest is playing out in an extraordinarily tense political environment in Michigan. Before the 2020 election, federal prosecutors accused several men of plotting to kidnap Ms. Whitmer, partly over her handling of the pandemic. Two men pleaded guilty, two men were acquitted and, in August, two others were convicted by jurors. A related trial is now underway in state court.
Ms. Whitmer, who has been leading in the polls, has sought to keep the focus on her efforts to bring jobs to Michigan and to paint Ms. Dixon as out of step with voters on abortion. Ms. Dixon, who is backed by former President Donald J. Trump and the politically powerful DeVos family, has leaned hard into attacking transgender women and criticizing Ms. Whitmer for her pandemic-era policies on businesses.
But Ms. Dixon has struggled to build out a campaign in the state, where Democrats are sharply outspending Republicans on the television airwaves.
Abortion was prominent, but viewers learned nothing new.
The first question of the night touched on the issue that has dominated the race and that may prove to be a litmus test for the state’s suburban and independent voters.
With the enforcement of a 1931 law banning abortion temporarily blocked in the state and voters set to decide in November whether to enshrine abortion rights in the state Constitution, Ms. Whitmer highlighted her track record of being an outspoken supporter of abortion rights.
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She also criticized her opponent for saying that abortion should be allowed only if it is necessary to save the life of a mother, not in cases of rape or incest. “We know that our fundamental rights are very much at risk right now,” she said.
Ms. Dixon described herself as “pro-life with exceptions for life of the mother” and said abortion rules in the state would be decided by voters or a judge. She leaned into a strategy that she and other Republicans have deployed throughout the campaign trail, seeking to paint Ms. Whitmer as “extremely radical” on the issue.
Fighting about the pandemic remains a hot topic.
Ms. Whitmer, asked if there was anything she would have done differently in her response to the pandemic, painted a stark picture of the situation that the state faced during an early wave of infections that drove a spike in deaths.
“We knew that our hospitals were filling up and that people were dying,” said Ms. Whitmer, whose early restrictions were among the most sweeping in the Midwest. “We were in desperate search of masks and ventilators. There were refrigerated trucks outside of some of our hospitals to store people’s bodies.”
Ms. Dixon accused the governor of bungling the response to Covid in nursing homes and blasted her over an audit that showed Michigan paid up to $8.5 billion in fraudulent unemployment assistance claims. She argued that Ms. Whitmer kept students “locked out of schools and wouldn’t listen to parents when they begged her to let them play.”
Ms. Whitmer told viewers that her life was being threatened — possibly an allusion to the plot to kidnap her in 2020 — as she tried to navigate the state through the pandemic.
The kids aren’t all right.
Schools, both their safety and the quality of education, have been major themes in the race.
The year Ms. Whitmer was sworn into office, Michigan public school students showed significant improvement after years of struggles. But the pandemic crippled the academic landscape across the country.
On the campaign trail, Ms. Dixon has repeatedly drawn criticism for anti-L.G.B.T.Q. language, as she has pledged to keep transgender girls out of girls’ sports and accused schools of teaching “radical sex and gender theory.” But on the debate stage, she often kept her comments more subdued, saying she would spend more money on public schools and focus students on the basics: “Get back to reading, writing and math.”
Ms. Whitmer fired back by criticizing Ms. Dixon for her ties to the powerful DeVos family, which has long worked to support charter schools and private schools.
School safety has been front-of-mind in Michigan since a deadly shooting at Oxford High School last year. Ms. Whitmer noted the gun rules she backs: “secure storage,” background checks and “red-flag” gun seizure laws. Ms. Dixon argued in favor of arming and training people inside schools to confront a gunman.
Cars, roads and gas came up again and again.
In a state that is home to both the American auto industry and a striking number of potholes, the two candidates spent a lot of time talking about cars and the surfaces they drive on.
Ms. Whitmer, who ran four years ago on a pledge to “Fix the Damn Roads,” said there had been plenty of progress, but not nearly enough time to overcome decades of rotting pavement.
“We are fixing the damn roads,” the governor said. “We are moving dirt.”
Ms. Dixon said that the governor had failed to keep her promises, and that the state’s infrastructure remained lacking.
Electric vehicles also came up often. Ms. Dixon claimed her opponent “wants you to pay more for gas to force you into electric vehicles.” Ms. Whitmer scoffed at that suggestion.
Dixon tried to portray the governor as weak on crime.
Ms. Dixon invoked the governor’s embrace of protesters after the 2020 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and reminded viewers that Ms. Whitmer once said she supported the “spirit” of efforts to defund the police.
“We will never defund the police,” said Ms. Dixon, who played up her support from law enforcement organizations.
Ms. Whitmer, a former prosecutor, countered by saying she had sought more funding for law enforcement and had worked across party lines on the issue. She also noted her own endorsements from law enforcement officials.
“They know we have made the biggest investments supporting them, and we will continue to do so, so long as I’m governor,” Ms. Whitmer said.
The governor also criticized Ms. Dixon for defending the actions of a Grand Rapids police officer who fatally shot Patrick Lyoya, a Congolese immigrant, after a traffic stop in April. That officer, Christopher Schurr, was later charged with murder and fired from the Police Department. He has denied wrongdoing and is awaiting trial.