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The Michigan GOP primary for governor is all about abortion

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

For months, a group of Michigan Republicans has been jockeying for the chance to face Governor Gretchen Whitmer in November's general election. From widespread scandal to the FBI arrest of a candidate, the race has seen a lot. And it all ends Tuesday with the state's primary election. Colin Jackson of the Michigan Public Radio Network has more.

COLIN JACKSON, BYLINE: In January, it was chiropractor Garrett Soldano who became the first Republican to file in the governor's race. Six months later, he's among five fighting to the end. He says he trusts the strategy that got him this far.

GARRETT SOLDANO: We just continue to let our grassroots army do what they do best. And that's getting out there, and you have voter contacts.

JACKSON: There were once 10 candidates, and everyone was new to running for office. That political inexperience may have added to a major shakeup of the field in late May. Election staff say five candidates, including some big spenders, didn't collect enough valid signatures to make the ballot. Then Republican candidate Donna Brandenburg shared her anger at a May meeting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONNA BRANDENBURG: I find this process to be an arbitrary goat rodeo. It's a shame.

JACKSON: Reports found a group of paid petitioners working across campaigns had faked thousands of signatures on the candidate's nominating paperwork. Businesswoman Tudor Dixon saw her poll numbers climb following the scandal. She has also racked up endorsements from well-known names in Republican politics, like the family of former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

TUDOR DIXON: You know, we've always planned to go around the state and meet people and gain support, gain supporters, and gain the resources to go out there and get our message broadcast louder. And that's what we've been doing. And I think that's what's behind it - hard work.

JACKSON: But businessman Kevin Rinke isn't so convinced. He's referred to Dixon as Governor Whitmer in sheep's clothing.

KEVIN RINKE: She'll say or do anything for position. I'm a guy that's running to do the right things for the people of Michigan. This is public service for me.

JACKSON: Largely self-funded, Rinke pitches himself as an outsider who will slash the personal income tax rate, raise literacy and focus on election integrity.

RINKE: We can move Michigan forward by putting the people first, Democrats as well as Republicans.

JACKSON: Rinke and Dixon have both seen relatively strong poll numbers lately. But recent polling also suggests a chunk of Republican voters are still undecided. Pam Dawson watched a Republican debate Wednesday night and says that could be due to the large field.

PAM DAWSON: They're all strong, you know, in a lot of different ways. And I think they're trying to be a little bit more cautious. They want to make sure that they're going to get the one that's going to beat Whitmer.

JACKSON: For Dawson, that's either Soldano or real estate agent Ryan Kelley. The latter saw name recognition spike after the FBI arrested him in June for misdemeanor charges associated with the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Kelley has pleaded not guilty. Despite Kelley's allegiance to the former president, Trump has not made an endorsement in this race. The candidates Soldano, Dixon, Rinke, Kelley and Pastor Ralph Rebandt have all taken similar stances, like wanting to lower taxes and opposing abortion. But pollster Richard Czuba says their ability to attract independent voters will be key to winning the general election against Governor Whitmer. He says two issues will likely dominate.

RICHARD CZUBA: We have to watch how is abortion impacting the vote versus how is inflation impacting the vote? And we don't know the answer to that yet.

JACKSON: The Democratic Governors Association has already started running attack ads in the GOP primary. Michigan Republican Party spokesperson Gustavo Portela accuses Democrats of meddling.

GUSTAVO PORTELA: They're afraid of the message, and they're afraid of the fact that people are going to have a choice this fall.

JACKSON: Whoever wins the Republican nomination may have to get used to the pressure. Recent campaign finance reports show Governor Whitmer has millions to spend. For NPR News, I'm Colin Jackson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Colin Jackson