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Five takeaways from the Michigan gubernatorial debate

<i>Getty/AP</i><br/>Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and her Republican challenger
Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and her Republican challenger

By Eric Bradner, CNN

Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said in a debate Thursday night that voters “cannot trust” her Republican challenger, Tudor Dixon, to respect the outcome of a state referendum on abortion rights, because Dixon has not accepted the outcome of the 2020 election.

Whitmer has placed her support for abortion rights at the forefront of her bid for a second term in a state where Republicans control the legislature. She has also touted her economic efforts and increased funding for schools.

Dixon, who is backed by former education secretary Betsy DeVos’ family and won the GOP nomination after an endorsement from former President Donald Trump, has criticized Whitmer’s pandemic policies. She has also leaned into cultural battles, proposing a policy that would ban transgender girls from competing in sports with the gender they identify with, as well as one modeled after the controversial measure Florida GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law earlier this year, which critics dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

Here are five takeaways from their first debate:

Sharp differences on abortion rights

The governor’s race has largely revolved around the stark differences between Whitmer and Dixon on abortion rights, and Whitmer opened the debate by pointing to her lawsuit to halt the enforcement of a 1931 law banning abortions in virtually all instances in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade earlier this year.

“The only reason that law is not in effect right now is because of my lawsuit stopping it,” Whitmer said.

Whitmer also backed a referendum that is appearing on Michigan’s ballots this year that would enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution.

Dixon responded by accusing Whitmer of opposing any limits on abortion rights. But she also downplayed her position, saying she will respect the outcome of that referendum.

“I am pro-life with exceptions for the life of the mother. But I understand that this is going to be decided by the people of the state of Michigan or by a judge,” Dixon said. “The governor doesn’t have the choice to go around a judge or a constitutional amendment.”

Whitmer highlighted Dixon’s comment in a podcast interview in which she said a 14-year-old child who is raped by a family member should not be allowed to have an abortion.

“To protect our rights, we cannot trust Ms. Dixon,” Whitmer said.

Whitmer calls Dixon an election denier

Dixon has repeatedly parroted Trump’s lies about Joe Biden’s win in the 2020 presidential election coming as a result of widespread fraud.

Whitmer sharply criticized Dixon over those comments early in Thursday night’s debate, as the Democratic governor sought to cast doubt on her Republican challenger’s claim that she would accept the results of the abortion referendum on this year’s ballot.

“This is a candidate who still denies the outcome of the 2020 election,” Whitmer said.

“For her to stand here and say she will respect the will of the people, when she has not even embraced the outcome of a last election or pledged to embrace the outcome of a future election, tells me we cannot trust what you say,” Whitmer said.

Dixon did not respond to Whitmer on the issue, or comment on whether she accepts the outcome of the 2020 election, during the debate.

Dixon says Whitmer’s Covid-19 policies went too far

Dixon was critical of Whitmer’s management of the Covid-19 pandemic, saying that school and business closures were too far-reaching and long-lasting.

“Not only did she make bad choices when she closed it down and refused to open our schools, but she hasn’t figured out how to recover,” Dixon said.

She said Whitmer kept children “locked out of schools, and wouldn’t listen to parents when they begged her to let them play.”

Whitmer, meanwhile, defended her actions amid the crisis, saying that “we made tough decisions because lives were on the line,” even as she conceded she would have done some things differently in hindsight.

Whitmer said 35,000 people in Michigan died during the pandemic. “They may not matter to some. But they matter to me, every single one of them,” Whitmer said.

“If I could go back in time with the knowledge we have now, sure, I would have made some different decisions. But we were working in the middle of a crisis and lives were on the line,” she said.

Are the roads getting fixed?

Whitmer’s memorable 2018 campaign slogan — “fix the damn roads” — was among the reasons she won the governor’s office.

On Thursday night, Dixon took aim at one way Whitmer attempted to pay for those road improvements: increasing Michigan’s 27 cents per gallon gas tax by 45 cents per gallon.

Dixon said Whitmer “didn’t fulfill her promise,” citing a report by the Michigan Transportation Asset Management Council warning that roads are continuing to deteriorate.

Whitmer touted a bonding program and measures approved by the legislature that she said amount to $4.8 billion in transportation funding. She also credited Biden and the Democratic-led Congress for its infrastructure bill, which she said “sent us billions.”

“There are orange cones and barrels all over the state because we are fixing the damn roads,” Whitmer said.

She added: “We are fixing the damn roads. We are moving dirt. We are using the right mix and materials, and they are built to last. But you don’t overcome decades of disinvestment overnight.”

Dixon, acknowledging that a shift to electric vehicles will over time reduce gas tax revenue, said Michigan will need to pursue “public-private partnerships” to fund road construction. She did not detail what those would include, but such partnerships typically involve tolls.

“We will have to find a way to fund the roads. It’s going to take public-private partnerships in the future. But it’s going to be a ways out, because the entire country is not going to go to EV vehicles overnight,” she said.

Stark differences on gun rights

Among the clearest differences in Thursday night’s debate was over gun rights, with Whitmer advocating a series of restrictions while Dixon said she opposed policies that she said would “take guns away from law-abiding citizens.”

Whitmer said she supports background checks and “red flag” laws. She also criticized Dixon for opposing gun-free zones in places like schools and for supporting permitless carry.

Dixon’s positions would lead to “more guns, less oversight, less training,” Whitmer said.

Dixon responded that Michigan should respond to gun crimes by being “tough on crime in this state.”

“This idea that you’re going to take guns away from law-abiding citizens and somehow that’s going to keep them out of the hands of criminals? That’s never going to work,” Dixon said. “When we find someone who commits a gun crime, they need to be put away.”

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