Political observers saw Thursday night’s debate between Democratic incumbent Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Republican opponent Tudor Dixon as closely related, but of limited significance to the overall election.
John Sellek, Republican consultant and CEO of Harbor Strategic Public Affairs, watched as Dixon won via “a thousand cuts” and stubbornly attacked Whitmer on his record. From the end of the first subject of the evening, abortion, the two candidates had accused the other of lying.
“Dixon took the fight to Whitmer and I’m not sure Team Whitmer was fully prepared for it,” Sellek said in an email. “I think his plan was to stay above the fight and speak in the same positive tone as his ad campaign, which caused Whitmer to stumble over a lot of words and not land effective counterattacks.”
On protecting schools from violence, Dixon claimed that Whitmer “wants to make sure your kids are in a duck sit down area where there can be no guns and there’s no protection from them. ” and alleged that his opponent “will take away all your weapons”.
This was after Whitmer said Dixon was “too dangerous and too out of touch to be entrusted with protecting our children. She’ll put the Second Amendment in front of sophomores every time.
Glengariff Group pollster Richard Czuba saw Whitmer’s strongest moment as she defended her response to the COVID-19 pandemic. He maintained that it was “the only time in this debate from either candidate that we have seen any real emotion…. I thought it reminded voters of the weight of leadership that had been on Whitmer’s shoulders during COVID.
He saw the debate as a draw.
“Studies have shown that our actions have saved thousands of lives,” Whitmer said during the debate. “Now 35,000 people in our state have died from COVID. They may not matter to some, but they matter to me – every one of them. If I could go back in time with the knowledge we have now, of course I would have made different decisions. But we were working in the midst of a crisis and lives were at stake.”
Czuba saw a lack of focus on inflation and no mention of Whitmer’s relationship with President Joe Biden as missed opportunities for Dixon.
Aaron Kall, the debate director at the University of Michigan, saw a strong showing from both candidates with no major gaffes — but no punches either.
“Nothing ultimately helped tonight to drastically change the tenor of the race,” Kall said. “I think they’re pretty good to live another day, but you know they would need to do something major to change direction.”
First Michigan gubernatorial debate between Gretchen Whitmer and Tudor Dixon
Dixon, who has suffered from a severe financial deficit and faces a massive advertising campaign against her, took the opportunity to introduce herself and her priorities to a wider audience.
The biggest problem with Dixon’s campaign, said Democratic strategist Adrian Hemond, was that it wasn’t airing on any Detroit metro television stations. The area is home to half of the state’s residents and a swathe of independent voters where Dixon needs to make up crucial ground, he said.
“If you’re a conservative Republican who’s just starting to pay attention and you’ve seen this, this sounds like a good candidate for governor,” Hemond said. “I don’t know if this performance did much for the independents. There were no real trap moments or anything new that was brought up.
Hemond thought Dixon had succeeded in appealing more to Republican voters, but other than his focus on children’s learning loss during the pandemic, there wasn’t much that would appeal to moderates.
“I think most of his performances were aimed at the Republican base. And I think that’s good for her,” he said. “From the polls we’ve seen, she pretty clearly needs to shore up her base, for her own prospects, but especially for voters.
Hemond also felt that Whitmer could have brought more energy to his defense of abortion access, given its importance to so many voters in this election.
Michigan has had 35,456 confirmed deaths from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic and 3,463 additional probable deaths, according to state health department data.
With over 1.5 million postal votes requested, and more than 150,000 already returnedBetween now and Election Day on November 8, candidates will remain in a crucial period.
The candidates will debate for a second and final time on October 25 in Metro Detroit.
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