Royal Oak Tribune

Leaning on ‘Trumpism’

GOP candidates pick and choose from a menu of Trump tactics

- By Ashley Parker

LIVONIA >> The slate of MAGA candidates here in Michigan paint their vision of an approachin­g apocalypse should Democrats prevail in the midterms — kids exposed to “57 genders,” “partial birth abortion up to day of delivery, for any reason” and a veritable smorgasbor­d of “woke stuff.”

Many of these Republican hopefuls — who include Tudor Dixon for governor, John Gibbs for a House seat and Matthew DePerno for attorney general — rose to prominence on the strength of debunked claims that the 2020 election was rigged and an endorsemen­t from former president Donald Trump.

Yet in the final days of the campaign, as many of these candidates trail in the polls, the Republican roster is increasing­ly picking and choosing the aspects of Trumpism that best serve them. They are mocking their opponents with dismissive nicknames and sarcastic asides, and waging a fierce battle over the nation’s culture, but they are also often re

turning to core issues such as the economy — rather than roadshow theatrics — that they think will help put them over the top with the state’s voters.

In short, they are harnessing some of the devices and hallmarks of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” brand, while also running up against the limits of just how far Trumpism can carry them in this Midwestern swing state. Trump narrowly flipped Michigan in 2016, only to lose in 2020, and the state will probably be crucial for any 2024 presidenti­al nominee from either party.

Richard Czuba, an independen­t pollster based in Michigan, said the state’s MAGA contenders largely have had to moderate their pitch in the final weeks of the campaign out of political necessity.

“First of all, they have to move away from that because many of them are losing and they’re losing because Michigan is decided by independen­t voters,” Czuba said. “We’ve done polling on things like the 2020 election; independen­t voters have moved on and they don’t want to deal with anyone re-litigating this. And as a result, they’re stuck in this position where if you embrace Trump too completely, you’ll do great with the Republican­s but horrible with the independen­ts.”

Gibbs, the Republican nominee in Michigan’s 3rd Congressio­nal District, received Trump’s primary endorsemen­t in part because the former president was eager to defeat Rep. Peter Meijer, the incumbent who was one of just 10 House Republican­s who voted to impeach Trump following the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

Gibbs has promoted debunked Trumpist 2020 election claims, alleging that there were “anomalies” that were “simply mathematic­ally impossible”. Democrats wagered that Gibbs would be easier to beat on Nov. 8 than his rivals in the Republican primary for the House seat, with the party’s campaign arm spending $425,000 during the primary on an ad to boost him with the MAGA base, describing him as “too conservati­ve for Western Michigan.”

In an “empty chair debate” Saturday night in Grand Rapids - a Trumpstyle gimmick in which Gibbs and DePerno “debated” their absent Democratic opponents - Gibbs attempted some of Trump’s signature moves such as nicknames and insults. But his delivery was so dry that he came off more as the former software engineer and Department of Housing and Urban Developmen­t employee he was than a MAGA acolyte.

At one point, Gibbs offered his personal “theory” on John Fetterman, the Democratic senatorial candidate in Pennsylvan­ia who recently debated his Republican opponent despite lingering difficulty in processing spoken words as the result of a stroke. “They put him up there so Biden wouldn’t look so bad,” Gibbs quipped, referring to President Biden. “Think about that for a moment, think about how hard it has to be to look worse than Biden.”

Gibbs has a history of inflammato­ry statements and tweets - including writings dating back to college questionin­g the right of women to vote, which he later dismissed as the “over the top . . . trolling” of a 19-year-old kid. But in a brief interview last weekend, he said while he appreciate­d Trump’s endorsemen­t, he wanted to be evaluated on his own merits.

“What I tell people right now is I’m the one on the ballot and he’s not on the ballot and other people are not on the ballot,” Gibbs said. “I, John Gibbs, am on the ballot. So I tell people, I’d love to share my story, I’d love to have you listen to it, and then vote for me based on my background, my qualificat­ions.”

Tom Barrett, an Iraq War combat veteran and Republican state senator, is facing incumbent Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D) in a tight race for Michigan’s newlydrawn 7th Congressio­nal District and has tried to appeal both to the MAGA base and more moderate Republican­s.

Barrett, for instance, has raised concerns about the 2020 election, yet he has not appeared at any events in his state with DePerno, Trump or Kristina Karamo, the Republican secretary of state candidate who has pushed baseless theories about the 2020 election. Nor has Trump endorsed him.

Nonetheles­s, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), appeared at an event in Michigan for Slotkin on Tuesday the first Democrat she has formally endorsed - and a Cheney spokespers­on dismissed Barrett as “an election denier.” Former vice president Mike Pence campaigned for Barrett in the state on Friday.

And Dixon, the Republican gubernator­ial candidate, has welcomed Trump and his cadre to Michigan, appearing at various points with the former president, top Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway and Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr. - promoting some hardline MAGA positions while also seeking to carve out her own image.

Dixon does not support abortion, even in cases of rape or incest, and has espoused various baseless and debunked theories, including questionin­g the results of the 2020 election. Responding to a Washington Post survey earlier this year, Dixon also refused to commit to accepting the results of her election, instead re-upping her unfounded attacks on Jocelyn Benson, Michigan’s current Democratic secretary of state, over the previous election.

Yet over four campaign events Oct. 30 in the Detroit suburbs, Dixon did not focus on the past election or her abortion stance. Rather, she deployed a sharply crafted riff on cultural issues and parental rights, training most of her attacks squarely on her opponent, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, whom she mocked for “all the different leather jackets” she wore while announcing various covid-19 safety measures in 2020.

At times, Dixon came across as the “cool mom” the one making wry quips on the sidelines of a soccer game or entertaini­ng the other parents with her sarcastic asides at back-toschool night.

During a recent debate with Whitmer, after Dixon raised concerns about sexually graphic books in schools, Whitmer asked her, “Do you really think books are more dangerous than guns?” Recounting the exchange, Dixon recalled, “And I’m like, ‘How about we don’t choose what’s dangerous or not? We just fix all the dangerous things.’ “

Later, speaking of her school safety plan, which would included armed guards and a single entry point at schools, Dixon added, to laughter and applause, “And I thought to myself, do you think she tells the state police to blow bubbles at people that are coming at her? Or do they get bullets?”

In a brief interview, asked about how she plans to appeal to both the MAGA base and more moderate voters in the final days, Dixon said her focus was on parents and people struggling in the current economic climate.

“I really think that the message to parents is effective,” she said. “As you’ve heard, parents across the state have been crushed by having schools closed and then not having a plan to get them back on track. So really appealing to parents and then appealing to folks about making sure that we are no longer in the top 10 states in the nation for taxes on the middle class.”

She added: “I’m here to take care of everybody in this state.”

Czuba said he has watched with interest as Dixon has tweaked her message in the final weeks of the campaign.

“I’ve really been struck with how she’s trying to sound like John Engler rather than Donald Trump,” he said, referring to the practical and policy-minded former Republican governor of Michigan. “It’s a necessary argument. She can’t simply talk about Trumpism when independen­ts will completely abandon her.”

Other Republican candidates in Michigan, however, have stuck to a harder line. DePerno, the attorney general candidate, said Saturday in his “empty chair debate” that his Democratic opponent, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, “wants to put a drag queen in every school.” The reference was a comment by Nessel at one event that “drag queens make everything better” - which Nessel later said was clearly “a comment made in jest.”

DePerno, who is polling dead even with Nessel, punctuated his remarks with a laundry list of Trump-style promises: “There will be no covidmanda­ted vaccines for your children. We will eliminate the teaching of radical critical race theory across this state. We will restore parental rights. We will fix our education system. And we will bring businesses back to this state.”

He concluded by warning that the Democrats were “radical Marxists who want to transform our country,” and by conjuring Trump’s well-honed sense of victimizat­ion. “They want to silence you, they want to de-platform you, they want de-bank you,” he said. “If that doesn’t work, they want to perpetuall­y investigat­e you.”

When DePerno reprised the drag queen attack at an Oct. 30 Republican rally in Dearborn, the crowd responded with the anti-Hillary Clinton chant Trump popularize­d in 2016: “Lock her up! Lock her up!”

A smattering of voters arrived at the various Republican events sporting MAGA parapherna­lia - including a constructi­on hard hat adorned with the American flag, “Trump/Pence” stickers and an anti-Biden “Let’s Go Brandon” cap.

But many said they were not interested in talking about the former president right now, and that their vote hinges on how local candidates address concerns immediate to their lives. Al Montie, 74, of Trenton, Mich., said he plans to vote Republican “pretty much right on down the ticket, from school board,” in large part because he’s concerned about both “food and fuel” prices and shortages.

“As for Trump,” Montie said, “that’s an issue for another day. It’s all about the local issues.”

 ?? NIC ANTAYA — THE WASHINGTON POST ?? Salman Mawri of Dearborn, center, claps during a Unite America rally at Fairlane Banquet Center in Dearborn, on Oct. 30.
NIC ANTAYA — THE WASHINGTON POST Salman Mawri of Dearborn, center, claps during a Unite America rally at Fairlane Banquet Center in Dearborn, on Oct. 30.

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