Tudor Dixon’s campaign was supposed to be dead. About a month ago, polls showed her down by between 16–17 points. By September, her opponent, Michigan incumbent Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, had raised $32 million — 16 times more than Dixon — and had 28 times more than Dixon in the bank.
And yet, Tudor Dixon is alive. The race has significantly tightened, putting it within single digits. The RealClearPolitics average has Whitmer up by only 3.4 percentage points. What explains this extraordinary turnaround? A key part of the answer is Michigan’s educational crisis.
It’s important to understand how surprising Dixon’s recent rise really is. Democrats thought that this race would be easy, even in an otherwise tough year for their party nationally. Michigan voters have not voted out a governor running for a second term since John F. Kennedy was in the White House. And, until recently, Whitmer was widely popular. She had moderated her previous stances on COVID lockdowns, advertised frequently about the “900 bipartisan bills” she has signed, and even insinuated her opposition to tax hikes.
But education has a way of mobilizing voters, and, right now, Michigan parents are pretty fed up.
The frustration has been building for a while. Like many governors, Whitmer closed Michigan schools from March 2020 until the end of that school year. She also turned out to be one of the worst governors in America when it came to getting kids back in the classroom.
In August 2020, after three months of closures, the governor and her allies in the teachers unions opposed giving parents the option to let their kids attend school in person. She put in place orders to prevent kids from playing sports — even when they were masked and outdoors. During this period, numerous school districts remained closed, and Whitmer did nothing to stop it. In November and December of 2021, Whitmer’s health department made it illegal for high schools to offer in-person schooling.
At the second gubernatorial debate on Oct. 25, Whitmer claimed that “kids were out [of school] for three months” during the pandemic. That’s false. The reality is that Whitmer did not recommend that schools return to in-person learning until a full year after COVID hit Michigan. As a result, Michigan students were twice as likely to be “learning” from home as those in bordering Ohio or Wisconsin and three times as likely as kids in bordering Indiana. (READ MORE: The Worst Governor in America)
Dixon called out her opponent’s lies, stating: “Perhaps she wasn’t paying attention to what was actually happening. We even had schools that were closed this year. This is shocking to me that she thinks that schools were only closed for three months — or maybe she thinks she can convince you that schools were only closed for three months, but you know better because your students are the ones that are desperately behind.”
Corey DeAngelis of the New York Post deemed Whitmer’s flub a “Terry McAuliffe moment,” a reference to the 2021 Democratic Virginia gubernatorial candidate’s infamous “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach” gaffe that many believe cost him the election.
It was wholly unnecessary for Michigan students to have been kept out of school for so long. While the public school districts in Detroit, Flint, and Ann Arbor were closed into 2022, with short periods when they reopened, almost all private schools were entirely open beginning with the 2020–2021 school year (except when even private high schools were forced to close in November and December). That reality has led to a push from parents for something long banned in Michigan: student scholarships to attend private schools. But, instead of standing with parents and students, Whitmer again took the side of her teachers union allies, putting families last.
Specifically, Whitmer is defending a discriminatory policy that blocks school choice in the form of student scholarships. It’s called a “Blaine amendment.” Like many states, Michigan added one to its state constitution in 1970 in an effort funded by the teachers unions and motivated by anti-Catholic sentiment. One group supporting the amendment, the “Council Against Parochiaid,” used an explicitly anti-Catholic slogan.
This policy deserves to die. In Espinoza v. Montana, the Supreme Court struck down Blaine amendments. States do not have to provide vouchers or tax credits to private schools, Chief Justice John Roberts said, but, when they do, they cannot discriminate on the basis of religion. Yet Michigan’s constitutional amendment allows no funding for any private schools, and the state has no law on the books allowing school-aid money to truly follow the student to the school of his or her wishes. As such, the discriminatory, anti-school-choice amendment is still in place.
But COVID provided an opening for change. After Whitmer’s school closures — which she imposed unilaterally and in opposition to lawmakers — the state Legislature passed a “Student Opportunity Scholarship” program. This would have allowed parents to take most of what the state was spending on their kids and use it to pay for private school, trade school, community college, tutoring, or other educational help. Then Whitmer vetoed the bills.
Parents pushed back. Hard. Hundreds of thousands signed a citizen’s initiative that would put in place a law to allow the scholarships. A lawsuit was filed to throw out Michigan’s discriminatory Blaine amendment. And Tudor Dixon began making school choice and parental rights the centerpiece of her campaign.
Whitmer knows she’s in trouble. As she started sliding in the polls, she began moderating — and misrepresenting — her record on education. She announced a “Parents’ Council” to “bring parents into the … process.” She issued a press release on education that featured the word “parents” five times in the first few lines. And, after training videos produced by her own Department of Education drew fire for suggesting that teachers not tell parents about their children’s gender identities, Whitmer joined her opponent in blasting the department for its training videos.
Has Whitmer embraced school choice? Not by a long shot, and voters know it. Whitmer is still the teachers union candidate who favors school closures and opposes freedom for families. The National Education Association is spending a million dollars on her behalf for a reason.
Whitmer is still favored for reelection, but, if Dixon pulls off the upset, her focus on school choice and parental rights will likely have made the difference.