As Michigan’s potential Democratic surge in the midterm elections continues to receive national media attention, gubernatorial nominee Gretchen Whitmer has surprisingly emerged as an ideal Dem candidate leading the way toward national party gains in 2018 and beyond.
With her emphasis on basic issues such as health care, education and “fixing the damn roads,” Whitmer has become a national symbol of a Democratic approach that appeals to mainstream voters.
In other words, pragmatic politics still rules over Bernie Sanders-style “free stuff” agendas. And Whitmer, who served as a liberal state Senate Democratic Leader in Lansing from 2010-14, clearly benefits from contrary comparisons to the ultraliberal #Resistance wing of the party.
To be clear, certainly some recent polling evidence has emerged that the GOP has mounted a comeback across the country against the perceived “Blue Wave” favoring the Democrats. Most significantly, the Republicans appear to be in a fairly strong position to retain control in the U.S. Senate.
But Michigan stands front and center as political analysts of various stripes view the Midwest as the epicenter of [predicted Democratic gains in the November midterms – for congressional seats and for governorships.
The Washington Post offers a backhanded compliment toward Whitmer, of East Lansing, as the leading “milquetoast” moderate Midwest Dem candidate. Overall, the primary season saw Democratic nominees for governor in Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and Kansas each overcome challenges by less-electable contenders from the energized left wing.
GOP strategist Phil Cox was quoted as saying that Midwestern Democrats have successfully followed a cautious approach toward the midterms: “It’s a Hippocratic oath election for Democrats: Do no harm and hope to ride a wave.”
Moderate Democrats could be key
James Hohmann of the Post’s “Daily 202” feature offer this analysis, from a broad perspective, of the Midwestern Democratic candidates:
To varying degrees, all appear to be acting intentionally bland and tacking toward the middle … Democrats nominated more temperamentally and ideologically moderate candidates in this region than across the Sun Belt, which might have been ground zero for the party out of power.
… Whitmer, 47, said her focus on “the dinner-table issues” grew out of visiting all 83 counties in the state. Her pitch is less about repudiating the status quo than appealing to voter frustration and fatigue with division that doesn’t solve problems. “One of the things about showing up in every part of the state (is) it keeps you tethered to the real issues people are confronting,” Whitmer said. “… They want government to get the job done for them.”
Meanwhile, Whitmer’s GOP opponent, state Attorney General Bill Schuette, of Midland, trailing in the polls and facing a tougher general election race than he probably ever imagined, serves as the Donald Trump candidate for governor, even as recent polls show Trump’s approval rating across Michigan at below 40 percent.
Schuette follows GOP playbook
Schuette, 65, follows the Republican playbook: lower taxes and tough on crime. Yet, outgoing GOP Gov. Rick Snyder lowered state taxes dramatically and FBI statistics show that felony crimes in Michigan have dropped precipitously over the past two decades.
A staunch conservative for most of his lengthy political career, Schuette represents an ideological contrast to Whitmer. During her final year in 2014 as Senate Minority Leader, Whitmer posted a 93.3 percent liberal voting record on a wide array of votes in Lansing.
Still, rather than presenting the gubernatorial election as a traditional left vs. right contest, Schuette borrowed from the Trump approach toward hyperbole by proclaiming that Whitmer, essentially, is the “the most extreme” candidate for governor Michigan voters have ever seen.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party faithful have coalesced around Whitmer even though in the primary election season she refused to support universal health care — the extraordinarily expensive “Medicare for all” approach — favored by her main Dem opponent, Abdul El-Sayed, and Sen. Sanders. Both El-Sayed and Sanders now back Whitmer in the November election.
With two weeks to go in this campaign, in the rhetorical battle between the two parties over extremes to be avoided, Schuette still clings to Trump while Whitmer enjoys a clear path as a Democrat who avoids the new phenomenon of left-wing politics.
Photo of Whitmer: Susan J. Demas