There was a time, not too long ago, when Gretchen Whitmer was labeled a weak Democratic candidate for Michigan governor. So much so that in January and February some party leaders tried to clandestinely recruit a “stronger” candidate – a man – to takeover the spot as Dem gubernatorial frontrunner.
No doubt, Whitmer had meandered as a largely ineffective candidate for nearly 18 months. After declaring her candidacy in early 2017, the former state Senate Democratic Leader was assigned the “best hope” spot largely by default.
Over time, her disturbing personnel changes — including three separate campaign managers — modest fundraising, and an embarrassingly low name ID among voters, especially in southeast Michigan, caused some pundits and intraparty critics to view her as a Dem disappointment.
But in the springtime, Whitmer gained acceptance from top labor unions and key Democratic figures, and by June she had emerged as a much stronger candidate. In the final weeks before Tuesday’s primaries, her TV and social media campaign ads had paid off, leading to her a victory margin of 52 percent of the vote.
A few months back, it seemed that Republicans were quite confident that they could beat Whitmer in November. But the most recent pre-primary polls showed the GOP nominee, Attorney General Bill Schuette, trailing Whitmer by several points.
Geography will be big in November
More significantly, the primary election vote tallies suggest that geography may play an outsized role in November.
Whitmer won all 83 counties and her two perceived weaknesses on the election map — liberal Wayne and Washtenaw counties, where progressive champion Abdul El-Sayed performed well – may fade fast due to the runner-up candidate’s endorsement and the stark contrast between Whitmer and Donald Trump’s favored candidate, Schuette.
What’s more, the county-by-county map shows Whitmer with strong Democratic support in northern Michigan which, over the past four years, has become a No-Man’s-Land for the Dems. She’s not likely to win any of those counties in November but if Schuette unexpectedly has to devote time and money to some of those areas in the fall, that’s all to the good for the Dem nominee.
Overall, Whitmer, running in a three-person race, scored more than 60 percent Democratic support in about 40 counties.
In contrast, Schuette, competing among four candidates, lost in three counties and exceeded the 60 percent mark in just two counties, both of which are sparsely populated areas in the Upper Peninsula. In addition, in seven well-populated counties in southern Michigan, Schuette’s win on Tuesday was not particularly impressive. Statewide, the AG captured 51 percent of the vote.
To be clear, relying upon primary election outcomes to predict general election results is normally a risky proposition. But in the Trump era, everything has changed. The current momentum is with the Dems and the AG has to be most worried that his mentor, the Republican president, is highly unpopular among independent Michigan voters who will likely play the deciding role in November.
Even a slick politician like Schuette, after trumpeting his Trump endorsement at every GOP primary campaign event, can’t abruptly switch directions and shove Trump into a closet in the fall.
Beyond geography, several intriguing factors lie ahead in the post-primary period.
Dem, GOP primaries were apples and oranges
While Lt. Gov. Brian Calley ran a surprisingly weak primary campaign, Whitmer was up against a barrage of news stories by the state and national media in recent weeks that suggested El-Sayed may have been on the verge of making history as the nation’s first Muslim candidate for governor. What’s more, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ endorsement of El-Sayed, and a series of 11th-hour campaign appearances by the Vermont senator for the underdog, received blanket media coverage.
In the end, the Republicans and Democrats both slogged through nasty, divisive primary fights but the Dems somehow seem to have come out in better shape. The party’s Wednesday post-election unity breakfast brought forward glowing endorsements for Whitmer from the Dems’ two also-rans, El-Sayed and Shri Thanedar.
But the GOP unity event was marred by the absence of Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, who faithfully backed his lieutenant, Calley, as his chosen successor. Before the contentious primary season, Snyder had already been at odds with Schuette on numerous occasions. Now, the party has some work to do.
When the results come in on Nov. 6, this probably will shape up as the most expensive, multi-million dollar Michigan gubernatorial race in history. But it’s unclear where Schuette stands in that ongoing mix of massive campaign dollars from across the country.
The GOP is nervously playing defense from coast to coast, trying to hold onto key House and Senate seats while also dealing with a number of competitive gubernatorial contests.
‘Year of the Woman’ is real this time
Meanwhile, the “Year of the Woman” that is routinely predicted every two years by Democrats is very real in 2018. In the upcoming general election campaign, Whitmer should benefit from liberal activist groups across the nation who are still smarting from President Trump’s surprise, razor-thin margin of victory in Michigan in 2016.
Many of these energized organizations are not only seeking a “Blue Wave” of Democratic wins in November, they are especially eager to see female candidates succeed. After Tuesday’s outcome, there may be no other state in the nation that offers more hope for groups trying to elect women than Michigan.
Nearly a year ago, I predicted a Schuette win based partly on his 30 years of widespread political/campaign experience. A lot has changed since then. In September 2017, I wrote that Schuette’s PR-minded approach toward serving as AG produced a laundry list of selling points that he can use in campaign TV and radio ads and literature. While he has jumped into controversial cultural issues, which will probably play a limited role in November, he has produced a litany of press releases to enforce the message that he is all things to all people.
His AG agenda has featured: consumer protections, nabbing those involved in drug rings and violent crimes, investigations of government corruption, environmental protection measures, arrests made for Medicaid fraud, efforts to break up human trafficking rings, crackdowns on charity scams, an aggressive prosecutorial approach toward the Flint water crisis, improved enforcement of child support payments, an emphasis on preventing student bullying, and assistance to Michigan veterans.
A barrage of campaign promotions based on that recitation could rattle the Whitmer campaign. But if Schuette also clings to Trump, a perceived misogynist, and he relentlessly attempts to strategically link Whitmer with Jennifer Granholm, the first and only female Michigan governor, his campaign might go south.
Make no mistake: In 2018 gender is gigantic.