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Behind Tudor Dixon's rise in the messy GOP primary for governor in Michigan

Behind Tudor Dixon's rise in the messy GOP primary for governor in Michigan

Tudor Dixon went from single-digits to prohibitive favorite


TAYLOR, Mich. — Tudor Dixon's campaign for governor was left for dead.

As recently as May, the former conservative commentator and actor had been polling near the bottom of a crowded Republican primary field and struggling to raise money. But unlike her character in the low-budget 2011 horror movie "Buddy BeBop vs. the Living Dead," who was eaten alive by zombies, Dixon has experienced a resurrection seldom seen in major races.

Dixon, 45, benefitted from chaos-inducing stumbles by her rivals, two of whom were disqualified after collecting allegedly fraudulent petition signatures, and from big money from the DeVos family, veritable kingmakers in Michigan politics.

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And then, late Friday, former President Donald Trump issued Dixon a long-telegraphed endorsement ahead of Tuesday’s primary, acknowledging how far she has come while also taking some credit for her rise by recalling kind words he had for her at a Michigan rally months ago.

“When I met Tudor Dixon, she was not well known, but I could tell she had something very special,” Trump said.

Dixon’s fortunes took off after the DeVos family got on board in late May. The family, which includes past GOP nominee for governor Dick DeVos and his wife Betsy, who led Trump’s Education Department, has helped bankroll a pro-Dixon super PAC. As the group’s $2 million ad blitz took hold, Dixon zoomed to modest but consistent leads in the polls.

Andy Surabian, a national GOP strategist close to Trump’s political team, told NBC News the shake-up in the race and the DeVos family backing were game-changers for Dixon’s candidacy.

“Tudor has very much been the grassroots candidate throughout this entire race,” said Surabian, who has followed the race but is not working with any of the candidates. “She wasn’t viewed as a top-tier candidate for most of the race and the establishment mocked her campaign, but her raw natural talent won out and now she’s the front-runner.”

The closing days of the primary have been no less a gauntlet, though. The GOP candidates who are trailing Dixon, as well as Democrats who are invested in protecting their incumbent, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, have engaged in all-out efforts to stop her from winning the nomination.

Dixon, who took target practice in front of news cameras Saturday at a shooting range in Taylor, south of Detroit, said Trump called her with the endorsement news Friday evening as she was leaving a county fair.

“I knew it would be a lot of work,” she said of her campaign while chatting with reporters. “Even at the very beginning, when I first started to meet with some people who had been in the Michigan political arena, they said, ‘You can never do this, it’s so hard.’ And I said, 'You know what? I am a really persistent person.’"

But, she added: "We’ll see on Tuesday.”

Michigan, an electoral battleground, could be key to a Trump comeback if he runs again in 2024. Whoever is governor that year will be in position to certify election results, and each of the GOP candidates for governor, including Dixon, have promoted unfounded conspiracies about the 2020 election in Michigan, echoing Trump’s voter fraud lies. Meanwhile, Whitmer, who made it deep into President Joe Biden’s search for a running mate in 2020, has long been a target of Trump’s ire.

Recent polls have shown Kevin Rinke, a self-funding former car dealer whose name is familiar to Detroit-area voters, as Dixon’s closest competition. Garrett Soldano, a chiropractor who gained a grassroots following on the right by protesting Whitmer’s Covid policies, is also polling in double digits. So is Ryan Kelley, a real estate broker who has pleaded not guilty to federal charges that he was part of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters aiming to stop the certification of the 2020 election.

Dixon’s opponents have tried to use the DeVos endorsement against her, framing the family as villainous insiders who have been insufficiently loyal to Trump. Betsy DeVos resigned from Trump’s Cabinet after the deadly Jan. 6 riot. More recently, she said she was among those who discussed invoking the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office.

At debates, Soldano characterized Dixon as beholden to career politicians and the establishment. Rinke has put more than $1 million behind a TV ad that brands DeVos as a RINO, or "Republican in name only," while accusing Dixon of being propped up by “Never Trumpers.”

And in a letter sent Thursday, nine Trump-endorsed Michigan candidates pleaded with the former president not to side with the “establishment DeVos family.” The missive was widely seen as an attempt to prevent Trump from endorsing Dixon.

“There is a war going on for the soul of the GOP in Michigan with Trump-endorsed candidates on one side and the establishment DeVos family on the other,” they wrote in the letter, obtained by NBC News and first reported by The Detroit News. “We strongly urge President Trump not to work with Betsy DeVos in Michigan.”