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5 Republicans are off the Michigan gubernatorial ballot after signature fraud

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Republicans, both in Michigan and out, would love to unseat Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer this fall. But some high-profile names were missing on the state's primary ballot when it was finalized on Friday. As Michigan Public Radio Network's Colin Jackson reports, that has some wondering if Whitmer now has the competitive advantage she needs to get reelected.

COLIN JACKSON, BYLINE: With just a couple months to go before Michigan's primary election, the Republican field is opening. Candidates who had received a large attention share got news last month that they may not have collected enough valid signatures to qualify for the ballot. During a review, election staff found evidence of widespread signature fraud among paid nominating petition circulators working across multiple campaigns.

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JONATHAN BRATER: The circulators here committed fraud. They used the names of people who either weren't registered, or they were registered, and they forged their signatures. This was not a mistake. These circulators knew they were doing this. They did this deliberately.

JACKSON: That's Michigan director of elections Jonathan Brater explaining the findings at a meeting late last month. What was then half of the Republican gubernatorial candidates were affected. Businesswoman Donna Brandenburg's lawsuit is the one that still hasn't been dismissed. But political consultant John Sellek describes the loss of former Detroit police chief James Craig as a decapitation at the top of the field.

JOHN SELLEK: He was the person that, clearly, the Democrats feared the most. He had the ability to sort of take the GOP in a new direction, in a much wider direction. And more importantly, he's the only candidate in the race for the GOP that had a footprint in the Detroit media market.

JACKSON: Sellek says it's going to be up to a new set of top-tier candidates to distinguish themselves. One way to do that would be receiving a coveted endorsement from former President Donald Trump. That came up during a debate Thursday hosted by the Detroit Regional Chamber.

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TUDOR DIXON: Michigan seems to be changing on a daily basis. I don't know if you've noticed that. But people are in the race. People are out of the race.

JACKSON: Businesswoman and former TV host Tudor Dixon says she's talked with Trump several times.

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DIXON: You know, we all feel blessed that he's been waiting and watching, and I think that he will likely get into this race. But we'll see what he does.

JACKSON: Like Trump, each of the Republican candidates are relative political newcomers. Sellek says that won't be such a bad thing when it comes down to facing Governor Whitmer.

SELLEK: She could do absolutely everything correct in her campaign for reelection by traditional standards and still lose because there's something going on that's even bigger than her decision-making over the last 3 1/2 years.

JACKSON: Sellek says President Joe Biden's low approval ratings, Whitmer's tight response to the COVID-19 pandemic and inflation are all leaving her vulnerable. Meanwhile, not having a political record to run on gives her challengers the leeway to present themselves however they feel.

SELLEK: She needs this election to be a choice, not a referendum on her.

JACKSON: Whitmer's future opponent would likely have to navigate pleasing Trump and addressing issues most pressing to voters.

SELLEK: She needs it to be a choice between her and an extension of Donald Trump and whoever represents the GOP today.

JACKSON: For Whitmer's part, the governor says she's too busy to worry about rapid changes in the GOP primary race.

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GRETCHEN WHITMER: I'm going to continue to stay focused on doing my job, and we'll let the primary voters determine what the match will be this fall.

JACKSON: It's still unclear whether the candidates left off the ballot will mount a write-in campaign for either the primary or general election. Regardless, the Republican field may have shrunk considerably, but that doesn't mean things have gotten easier for the governor's reelection campaign.

For NPR News, I'm Colin Jackson in Lansing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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