An Extremist GOP Opponent Means Michigan's Governor Whitmer May Win Despite Rank Hypocrisy
Ranked Choice Voting would fix the perverse incentives in the primary process that is generating uncompetitive Republican candidates
Tudor Dixon, Michigan’s Republican gubernatorial candidate, has narrowed the polling lead that Governor Gretchen Whitmer enjoyed in the run up to the November elections. But the odds are that Whitmer will still win. That, to put it mildly, is stunning given that inflation is raging on a Democratic president’s watch, Michigan’s post-Covid job recovery is abysmal and Whitmer has displayed rank hypocrisy on Covid the likes of which brought down the government of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
But if Whitmer seems to be paying little political price, it’s because Dixon is a hard-right candidate who can’t attract mainstream voters. That the GOP failed to pick a more competitive candidate is in large part due to perverse incentives in the conventional primary process that deserve to be addressed.
It’s true that Michigan voters have not booted out an incumbent governor in 32 years. But Whitmer has some pretty big baggage that should have made the election closer.
The nonpartisan Cato Institute’s biennial governor’s 2022 fiscal report card gave Whitmer her second consecutive “F”, thanks to her tax-and-spend policies. Her 2018 campaign promised not to raise gas taxes. Yet that is among the first things she tried to do, backing off only after a public outcry. She pledged to eliminate a highly unpopular tax that her Republican predecessor imposed on senior pensions—only to forget about it until she was up for re-election. Ditto for fixing the “damn roads”—long a top concern for residents, ahead even of crime and education.
And then there was her conduct during COVID. Whitmer did a good job directing resources to frontline responders, but put in place among the nation’s most arbitrary shelter-in-place executive orders. As neighboring states relaxed restrictions on non-essential businesses, she classified even more businesses as non-essential. Big-box stores couldn’t sell paint—that was “non-essential”—but lottery tickets whose taxes fund K-12 were allowed. Travel to vacation homes was banned; families who didn’t share the same dwelling (like partners who don’t live together) were barred from seeing each other; and large gatherings prohibited. Violators faced $1,000 fines and even jail time.
Yet twice in two months, Whitmer was caught violating her own rules. Last year, when indoor gatherings of over six were still prohibited, she was photographed at a restaurant with 13 people. Her excuse was that they were all vaccinated—but of course that wouldn’t work for ordinary Michiganders. She didn’t have that excuse when she jetted off—unvaccinated—to Florida to visit her ailing father even while discouraging everyone else from traveling to that state.
Still, Whitmer continues to not just lead but enjoy a massive cash advantage over Dixon. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson was ejected from office in July for similar hypocrisy. Granted, he was more of a serial offender, but the contrast nonetheless suggests that America’s political system may be losing its capacity to impose even basic accountability on its politicians. Indeed, Whitmer is coasting partly because Dixon sanctioned far worse abuses by her own party’s president. Nor is Dixon alone.
In the primary season, the GOP systematically weeded out Republicans who stood up to President Trump’s many transgressions while advancing his supporters. Indeed, only two of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach him for his role in the attempted insurrection have survived politically. Grand Rapids’ Rep. Peter Meijer in Michigan was among the casualties, losing to election denier John Gibbs.
Dixon wasn’t the most extreme contender for the gubernatorial nomination; that honor goes to Ryan Kelley, who faces criminal charges for his alleged participation in the Capitol riot. But she too endorsed the “Big Lie” to obtain Trump’s last-minute endorsement. As GOP strategist Dennis Lennox admitted, Dixon’s primary campaign was designed for the "MAGA, Brietbart hard-right base of the Republican Party.” She is a culture warrior who rails against transgender rights and the fear of public schools indoctrinating kids against America. She opposes abortion even in instances of rape and incest, arguing that the bond between the child and raped mother can be “healing.”
These positions work in a primary but are precisely why Dixon has not been able to seize what even the The New York Times saw as a “promising opportunity” for Republicans. A January EPIC-MRA poll found that Whitmer’s negative rating exceeded her positive by seven points. Only 42% of respondents wanted her reelected compared to 49% who wanted to see her replaced or preferred to “give someone else a chance.”
Nor is the problematic primary system that generates such hardline candidates limited to the Great Lakes State. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has become deeply pessimistic about Republican chances of regaining the Senate and blames “candidate quality”.
One reform to better match candidates with voters’ desires has been gaining traction: “ranked choice voting” (RCV). Alaska employed it and the upshot is that Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a moderate who was among seven Republican senators who voted to convict Trump in his second impeachment trial, was the top vote getter and has moved on to the general election. Her Trump-endorsed rival is a distant second, followed by a Democrat and then another Republican. She is favored to win the general. As conservative columnist Henry Olsen observed, she would not have survived in a conventional primary that pushes an “artificial forced choice between extremes.”
Here’s how Alaska’s system works: Unlike in conventional primaries where each party nominates one candidate for the general election, Alaska allows the top four candidates—whether Republican, Democratic or any other—to go forward. All eligible voters, regardless of party, can vote in the primary and the names of all qualified candidates—Democratic, Republican, or otherwise—appear next to each other on the ballot.
Then, in the general election, RCV kicks in. Voters rank the candidates, one to four. The candidate with the lowest number of first-choice votes is eliminated, and the second choice of his or her voters is counted as their first choice and assigned to the relevant candidate. This elimination-and-addition process is repeated until one candidate tallies 50%-plus. A mere plurality won’t do; a majority is needed.
This shifts the incentives toward moderation. Why? Because all candidates compete for all voters in the primary election, not just in the general. And in the general, it’s hard to earn a majority by just throwing red meat at the base. Candidates who want to be the second choice of their losing rival’s voters must appeal to them too—and therefore widen and not narrow their message.
Alaska is not alone. Voters there had to approve the new system, but the Virginia GOP, which selects its gubernatorial candidate at a party convention, embraced RCV of its own accord last year. The upshot was a slate of statewide candidates, including for governor, who swept the 2021 elections after a string of losses over the years. The Michigan GOP uses a convention process for state races other than the governor’s. So at least for those races, it could embrace RCV right away.
There are other ways to fix the incentives in the primary process and Republicans—and Michigan—should be exploring them all. For now, the great irony not just in Michigan but nationally is that the GOP is generating extremists to “own the libs.” Yet these candidates lack the appeal to impose even a modicum of accountability on their opponents. That Dixon is not more competitive is evidence of that.
Cato is non-partisan? On what planet?
RCV would not have helped this year in Michigan. Other GOP candidates for governor were even more hard-right than Tudor Dixon. There was no one even remotely similar to Rick Snyder, a moderate Republican businessman who came out of nowhere to win the 2010 election and serve for two terms. While Donald Trump is active politically, there will be very few independent GOP candidates in the style of Snyder or Arnold Schwarzenegger in California. Alaska is an exception, not a rule, I am afraid.