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Michigan governor candidates ‘can’t read Trump’s mind,’ but many think he will endorse them

The Trump love was abundant at Saturday's GOP convention, as gubernatorial candidates woo the former president for his stamp of approval.

President Donald Trump’s endorsed candidates for Michigan attorney general and secretary of state rose to the top this weekend – both Matt DePerno and Kristina Karamo won the state party’s endorsement.

Now, the Republican candidates running for governor in Michigan want Trump’s blessing. And most think they can get it.

A record 10 Republicans are vying for the chance to face incumbent Democrat Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in November. Those candidates lining up for the GOP nomination include Tudor Dixon, Perry Johnson, Michael Markey Jr., Michael Brown, James Craig, Kevin Rinke, Garrett Soldano, Ryan Kelley, Donna Brandenburg and Ralph Rebandt.

RELATED: Trump still supreme among Michigan Republicans. Can his picks win in November?

Voters will narrow the field to a single Republican candidate for governor during the Aug. 2 primary election.

Here’s what the candidates had to say about seeking the former president’s blessing during the Saturday, April 23, GOP endorsement convention held in Grand Rapids.

  • Perry Johnson: “Well, I love Trump. So obviously I really do think he’ll give me the endorsement. But I can’t see into Trump’s mind … If you are able to read President Trump’s mind, I think you should get paid an extra bonus. Because if you have the ability to see inside his mind, then you should go on TV. But the reality of life is, I go by what I think is right for the state.”
  • Tudor Dixon: “Yes, (I’m seeking Trump’s endorsement). You look at the people here that are all for the president. He’s the leader of the Republican Party. What he does and what he recommends means a lot to people.”
  • Ryan Kelley: “I do believe I have a strong opportunity to get the Trump endorsement as well … There’s conversations happening.”
  • Ralph Rebandt: “We are seeking that endorsement. I would love to say I believe that, of everybody I look at, that I’m the most likely candidate ... I really believe that’s true.”
  • Michael Brown: “I’m the original Trump supporter in this race. So I’d welcome his endorsement. If you check the donation records, I’m the only candidate that has donated to Trump from 2015 to 2019, you can check those records yourself, that’s a fact … We’ll see with that big of a field if he’s going to endorse anyone, because there’s a lot of candidates out there.”

Soldano also previously said he is pushing for Trump’s endorsement. Craig previously said he would accept an endorsement from the former president as well, but does not want to be defined by Trump.

Experts and candidates alike have pointed to Johnson and Dixon as having the best potential for a Trump endorsement, so far.

Johnson didn’t jump into the race until a few months ago, pouring $2.5 million of his own money into his campaign and endorsing DePerno and Karamo after Trump did. Rinke has also loaned his campaign $2 million of his own dollars, saying $8 million more could be on the way.

RELATED: Self-funded millionaires, small-dollar donors shape Republican race to challenge Whitmer

Wealthy candidates who can pay for campaigns on their own have a leg up, as the 10 candidates try to differentiate themselves, said John Truscott, former spokesperson for Gov. John Engler and current CEO at public relations firm Truscott-Rossman.

“This is going to be a very expensive race. Governor Whitmer has a ton of money in the bank and she’s a very good campaigner,” Truscott said. “And I just don’t know how, with 10 candidates in it, how anybody can break through.”

While Dixon does not have Johnson or Rinke’s money, she was the only candidate Trump mentioned by name when he rallied for DePerno and Karamo in Michigan earlier this month.

“Now we have a candidate for governor who is very popular, who is a fantastic, brilliant candidate, Tudor Dixon,” Trump said. “Thank you, Tudor. Thank you. I hear you’re doing well, too.”

Others think Johnson is on the fast track to Trump’s endorsement – including Markey, one of the other candidates. Markey said Trump’s endorsement of Johnson is a “foregone conclusion.”

Johnson and Dixon were among the most active at Saturday’s convention, shaking hands and chatting with Republicans from across Michigan. Kelley, Rebandt, Brown, Rinke and Markey were also in attendance. James Craig was at the convention early Saturday, but had to leave early, per his campaign.

“If I didn’t talk to every person, I’m going to be shocked,” Johnson said, who stuck around for at least 13 hours. “I got an opportunity to talk to literally thousands of people.”

Johnson made similar pitches to many of the delegates – saying he wants to ensure “quality elections” in Michigan, talking up how great Michigan is and saying Whitmer should have fixed the roads during the COVID lockdown.

“Think about how nice it is to be able to go to Michigan and be able to get to a baseball game, basketball game, football game, hockey game in 30 minutes,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t take two hours like it does in some of those other cities. And by golly, I think we have the greatest state you could want.”

RELATED: Election integrity, parental rights among the top campaign issues for Michigan GOP ahead of 2022 election

Race remains wide open

In a March poll of 1,072 voters in Michigan, Craig had the most support with 34%. Johnson was next with 16%, Soldano had 15%, Kelley had 7% and no other candidate had more than 3%.

Craig has been the frontrunner for most of the election season, but experts say he is losing endorsements, staff and momentum to Johnson and the others.

With 10 candidates on the ballot, it might only take 30% of the vote to win the primary, said John Sellek, CEO of Harbor Strategic Public Affairs, a Republican public relations firm.

All the candidates are outsiders. No “kingpin-style Republican” like a member of Congress or statewide elected official wanted in, Sellek said, which opens up the race.

“Most of those people are essentially activists,” Sellek said of the candidates.

Because of that, Sellek does not see many – if any – conceding before August’s primary. Some of the candidates see this is a springboard for having more power and influence in Michigan, he said.

“They’re not judging themselves based on, ‘Do I have 30%? Do I have $1.5 million cash on hand?’” Sellek said. “They’re like, ‘I’m in the game and this is fun. And I get to wield some influence and I might actually have a base of support to do something fun with after this is over.’”

Trump likes winners, Sellek said, and he does not want to pick a candidate who is going to lose – that’s bad for his reputation.

Trump was so eager to congratulate DePerno and Karamo for winning the state party’s endorsement on Saturday, he sent his statement nearly four hours before DePerno’s win was tabulated and made official.

“We don’t know … if Trump’s endorsement will be enough to take somebody from nowhere to the top,” Sellek said. “I think that’s why he’s been more careful. He’s thinking about not only his future for running in 2024, but just holding onto his influence that he has.”

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