With the first of the two Detroit debates for Democratic presidential contenders just minutes away, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, via some of the nation’s largest media outlets, is handing out advice to the 20 candidates who will appear on the Fox Theater stage.

And it seems that Whitmer is subtly suggesting that the contenders descending on Middle America stick to the middle ground — avoid far-out, far-left proposals, and don’t become caught up in the Washington Beltway’s obsession with President Trump’s most outrageous tweets.  Stick to “the fundamentals” is Whitmer’s overarching message.

“In my (2018) campaign I hardly ever talked about what’s happening in Washington D.C. I talked about how we’re going to fix the damn roads, how we clean up drinking water, and ensure people get access to the skills they need to get good paying jobs,” Whitmer told CBS News.

Stay focused on the things that really matter. People in Michigan don’t care about the president’s Twitter feed. We care about feeding our families.”


On CNN this morning, the governor similarly warned that “We have to stay focused on what we can get done.”

Tonight is the battle between the moderates

That assertion sounds a lot like the most moderate member of the crowded Democratic field, former Maryland congressman John Delaney, whose calling card has been: We can’t spend all of our time pursuing impossible dreams. That is mostly a reference to extraordinarily expensive and far-reaching big-government plans such as a Medicare For All health care system and a New Green Deal to revolutionize the nation’s energy and environmental policies.

During the unofficial start of the 2020 presidential campaign in the spring, about a half -dozen prominent Dem presidential candidates quickly and nervously latched onto Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Medicare For All plan – which had been relegated to ultraliberal status just a few years ago – as they tried to coddle the Democratic Party’s new left-wing.

Tonight’s Debate Part I offers an unmistakable challenge as Democratic Party rules will quickly force the whittling of the field. Delaney and other long-shot moderates – Congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio, Montana Gov. Steven Bullock, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and, to a lesser extent, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former congressman Beto O’Rourke of Texas — are stacked up against each other and trying to stay alive. Meanwhile, ultraliberal Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are the featured combatants on the stage tonight.

The conventional wisdom says that only one moderate Democrat in the field will survive in the coming months to challenge former vice president Joe Biden’s apparent stranglehold on the Dems’ centrists and independents.

In the meantime, Michigan Republicans relish the unfolding of this early stage of the presidential campaign as mainstream Democratic candidates face intense pressure to comply with issues-based litmus tests by the party’s emergent left wing.

In today’s Detroit News, Dennis Lennox, a northern Michigan political pundit and GOP consultant, argues in a guest column that the leftward evolution of the Democratic Party over the past decade has transformed Michigan politics.

Lennox points out that the premier Michigan Democrats of the early 2000s included “Traditionalist Yooper” Bart Stupak of the Upper Peninsula, pro-life Dale Kildee of Flint, Catholic Andy Dillon, and decidedly pro-Second Amendment congressman John Dingell.

Lennox furthers his case that the Democrats’ big tent has shrunken substantially:

The ‘woke’ Democrats with their identity politics and culture wars have (inadvertently) aligned these (white, low-income) voters with President Donald Trump. Case in point: Only one state legislator from north of Clare is a Democrat. Bay and Saginaw counties, once Democratic bastions, were won by Trump in the 2016 presidential election.

To be a Democrat today means putting the interests of illegal immigrants ahead of Americans who have spent their life working hard and playing by the rules. American greatness must be condemned as a relic of racism and cultural imperialism. It also means renouncing the party’s heretofore commitment to U.S. manufacturing because the hard-left demands resistance to Trump …

In advance of the 2-day presidential debates, as the national media has parachuted into Michigan and the Detroit area, reporters have found some 2016 Trump voters who appear fed up with his xenophobic/racist/misogynist rhetoric – on Twitter and elsewhere. The president’s biggest re-election weakness appears to be Republican women in the Detroit area’s most affluent suburbs.  Yet, the overall support for or against Trump in Macomb – a bellwether county and an extraordinary force in Trump’s narrow 2016 win – remains uncertain.

Key Macomb voters still up for grabs

National media outlets have found that it’s extraordinarily difficult to gauge how Macomb County’s mercurial voters will cast their ballot in the 2020 primary and general election.

Ken Shelton, who has worked for GM for 41 years, is facing retirement after the Warren GM transmission plant in Macomb will be abruptly closing on Thursday. Shelton voted Democratic most of his adult life before backing Trump in 2016, but hasn’t been pleased with what he’s seen.

Yet, Shelton is not ready to come back to the fold. He called the new breed of liberal Democrats “scary,” and said they might motivate him to overlook his misgivings about Trump “as long as they keep preaching gun control and socialism.”

Another blue collar worker from Warren who is flourishing under the current economy, Grant Gaither, emphasized that he doesn’t agree with everything Trump says. But “I’ll take progress over a few shitty words that are said here and there,” Gaither said. “The guy says stupid things, but as long as things are going good, I could give two shits.”

The conundrum faced by leading Democratic strategists in a Rustbelt, Midwest state like Michigan is how to attract traditional white, working class families while Trump lays down a prickly track record of acting in an unpresidential manner.

Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty urges the Dem presidential wannabes to “take a page from the playbook” of Whitmer, who was the most moderate Michigan gubernatorial candidate last year even as her campaign had struggled for months.

Whitmer told Tumulty in recent days that the presidential candidates should avoid shallow yes/no questions or a thin reed of clarity by engaging in “show of hands” responses in presidential debates.

Infrastructure, education and clean water earned her election in 2018, she said: “These are our true fundamentals that, I think, resonate not just with Democrats but with voters across the state.

“They want solutions, not positions.”


Whitmer photo: Susan Demas, Michigan Advance