Ken Rogulski / / Associated Press

Over seven hundred were in attendance while hundreds more waited to get in to hear the Republicans running for Michigan governor during their first debate on Thursday night.

Eight of the ten candidates attended the event held at Crystal Gardens Banquet Center in Genoa Township. The only person not in attendance was perceived front runner James Craig, the former Detroit Police Chief.

The one-hour, 45-minute debate was organized and moderated by the Livingston County Republican Party and the Lansing-based MIRS news outlet, drawing 700 people who paid $75 each as part of the local GOP’s annual Lincoln Day Dinner Fundraiser.

All of the candidates staunchly oppose abortion before the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling is potentially overturned while disagreeing on exceptions and whether former President Donald Trump won the state’s 2020 election.

Trump, who lost to Joe Biden by 154,000 votes and has pushed bogus claims of mass fraud, has not yet endorsed a candidate in August’s GOP primary.

Four of eight candidates on stage — former conservative news host Tudor Dixon, real estate broker Ryan Kelley, pastor Ralph Rebandt and chiropractor Garrett Soldano — falsely said Trump carried Michigan. Two, State Police Capt. Michael Brown and financial adviser Michael Markey, said he did not. Perry Johnson and Kevin Rinke, businessmen who have spent millions of their own money to campaign, did not say either way. Rinke refused to answer, while Johnson said he needs to see more data.

The candidates also differed over abortion, which, if the U.S. Supreme Court overrules Roe, would be nearly totally banned under a 1931 state law that remains on the books. It would allow one exception, to protect the pregnant woman’s life.

Dixon, Johnson, Kelley, Rebandt and Johnson opposed exceptions for rape and incest. Brown, Markey and Rinke supported them.

Two candidates in the crowded field of political newcomers, top contender Craig and longshot Donna Brandenburg, did not attend the event that some said lacked fireworks and featured a lot of criticism of Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer.

Craig’s campaign says he had a prior speaking commitment at the Mechanical Contractors Association’s annual meeting, according to his campaign.

Both MIRS and the Livingston County GOP said Craig committed to the debate before pulling out. Livingston County GOP Chair Meghan Reckling said Craig "100 percent" committed to the debate, was "one of the first" and had been confirmed for weeks.
Most of the candidates said the COVID-19 vaccine has helped seniors and those with underlying medical conditions avoid death, though Kelley and Rebandt said it is not helping to combat the coronavirus. Brown said he did not know.

Some backed repealing Michigan’s individual income tax. Others got behind significant cuts in state funding for public universities. Many called for Whitmer to be criminally investigated for nursing home orders she issued early in the pandemic and criticized her for closing schools. All said they would sign legislation to forbid instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade, backing a Florida measure that opponents have dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

Another debate, which was sanctioned by the Michigan Republican Party, is planned for June 2nd at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s policy conference on Mackinac Island.

The winner of the August 2nd primary will advance to challenge Whitmer in November.
Three top GOP candidates, including Craig, are facing challenges to their petition signatures that, if successful, could keep them off the ballot.

AP Photo left to right: North Shores commentator Tudor Dixon, Metro Detroit businessman Kevin Rinke, Allendale real estate broker Ryan Kelley, Oakland County businessman Perry Johnson, MSP Captain Michael Brown, Oakland County Pastor Ralph Rebandt, Mattawan chiropractor Garrett Soldano and Grand Haven financial advisor Michael Markey.