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Post-Debate Analysis: Dixon Better Than Expected; How Did Whitmer Respond?

October 18, 2022

Article courtesy MIRS News, for SBAM’s Lansing Watchdog newsletter

Republican Tudor Dixon charged into Thursday night’s first gubernatorial debate with a little more juice than maybe most viewers expected. That was the common theme from four communications professionals who watched the WOOD-TV debate that took place in Grand Rapids.

Their opinions, after that point, differed considerably. Here’s what they had to say:

Alexis Wiley, principal of Moment Strategies and former chief of staff for Mayor Mike Duggan

The Republican may have presented better than maybe some expected, but Wiley said the Governor maintained her demeanor and never seemed rattled. Also, while Dixon was committed to her talking points, Riley said she didn’t get the feeling Dixon believed them.

“At times, I felt like there was no energy, like she stumbled as if she was trying to remember what to say as opposed to really believing the words she was saying,” Wiley said.

Watching former GOP gubernatorial candidates Bill Schuette and Rick Snyder in their debates or appearances, Wiley felt she got the sense of who both were as people. 

“I have no clue who Tudor Dixon is other than someone who can recite talking points,” she said.

Also, Wiley said the most important point of the evening was when Whitmer said Dixon would “put the Second Amendment before second graders every time.” For her, that was a defining part of the debate.

“I think Gov. Whitmer was the winner,” Wiley said. “Gov. Whitmer was able to speak with experience and sounded as if she believed what she was saying.” 

Mildred Gaddis, a broadcast journalist for the last 24 years, host of The Mildred Gaddis Show

Gaddis described the debate as “a good photograph of who these two individuals are. And they are drastically different.”

While she felt both Dixon and Whitmer spoke with clarity, she feels as if Dixon is softening her positions so as to not come across as too extreme.

That said, Gaddis said she was surprised Dixon didn’t take advantage of a few opportunities to more exploit some of the weaknesses from the Governor’s first term. 

One example was not diving deeper into the “horrible” situation the families of catastrophic car wreck victims are in under the new auto insurance law. Patients are dying sooner because the resources aren’t there to care for them.

Also, while Dixon was prepared, she uttered some phrases that raised questions. The example Gaddis used was when the Republican said, “We’ve lost a cop a day in Detroit this year.” 

“That is grossly untrue,” Gaddis said. 

Dixon — and Whitmer, frankly — would have done better to talk about discrimination in the criminal justice system. She felt both candidates “didn’t want to talk about the reality” of an issue people of color, particularly men, face.

She felt Whitmer was at her best talking about education and Dixon is going to struggle connecting with women voters for not being more pliable on abortion.

“Women resent being told that they don’t have the ability to choose for themselves what do with their bodies. Women want their rights,” Gaddis said.

Allie Walker, vice president of Truscott Rossman, former press secretary for U.S. Rep. Dave Camp

For as many barbs as were thrown Thursday night, Walker said both were “pretty good followers” of the debate rules. She felt Whitmer started and ended with a good “coming together” message, but her message in the middle of the debate didn’t align with that theme.

Democrats will likely celebrate that the Governor went hard into the political rhetoric, but “it’s not going to win over the movable middle.”

To be fair, though, both sides went straight into speaking to their base, Walker said.

Dixon seemed a little nervous to start, but maintained her focus throughout. She gave direct answers and seemed to frame things in the way people talk as opposed to giving the regular canned political answers.

“She answered the question, rather than what Whitmer did, which was to immediately pivot to talking about her record and then coming at the question from the back end,” Walker said.

She said Dixon seemed to lose steam at the end and her closing was “a bit of a jumble of all points she didn’t previously make.” The conservative statements she shared likely aren’t going to appeal to undecided voters.

Still, she didn’t come off as a “seasoned politician, in a good way,” Walker said.

“Dixon came off pretty genuine. She needed this debate to contextualize herself. She is in a place where Whitmer’s attack ads are really setting the narratives. She needed to come across as authentic and I think she did,” Walker said.

Stephanie VanKoevering , vice president of Resch Strategies, public relations specialist for 21 years

As a Republican precinct delegate in Clinton County, VanKoevering said she’s felt disenfranchised in the Donald Trump era and was reassured by the horsepower and knowledge Dixon brought to the debate. 

The Governor seemed a bit surprised by what Dixon was bringing to the table, which had her on her back foot at a few points during the debate.

“I expected more from Whitmer from the debate than what I saw,” VanKoevering said. “Whitmer had some zingers, but I felt like her comebacks were a little too practiced, like she was prepared for a debate that she didn’t get. It felt like Whitmer thought she was going to get some out-of-touch whacko who didn’t have much substance, but she didn’t.”

Whitmer may have come back with a “cheesy, Hillary-esqe” laugh to some of the points Dixon made, but in general the Governor did a pretty good job. It just wasn’t the performance VanKoevering expected. VanKoevering gave the Governor a “low B” for a grade.

VanKoevering said she felt reassured that Dixon brought facts to the table and didn’t let debate comments fly by without response. Dixon hit back.

She gave Dixon a B or a B+.

“I was pleasantly surprised. I would have given her higher marks, but Dixon started to flag by the end of it. She didn’t hide from her conservative credentials,” VanKoevering said. “I’m wondering where the middle goes. Swing voters are going to have a hard time.”

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