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Barack Obama rallies for Gretchen Whitmer, seeks to boost turnout in Detroit

Former President Barack Obama rallied for Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and other Democrats at Renaissance High School in Detroit on Saturday. Turnout in the city is vital for Democrat in what's become an increasingly tight race. (Bridge photo by Brayan Gutierrez)
  • Obama rallies for Gretchen Whitmer, other Democrats in Detroit
  • Polls show close race with GOP challenger Tudor Dixon
  • Poor turnout in Detroit court hurt Whitmer’s chances for re-election

DETROIT — Inflation, gas prices and violent crime are difficult problems, but Republicans aren’t serious about solving them, former President Barack Obama argued Saturday in a rally to boost support for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and other Michigan Democrats.

Instead, most Republicans are “obsessed” with “owning the libs” or “getting Donald Trump’s approval,” Obama said before a capacity crowd of about 3,500 people at Detroit Renaissance High School, suggesting the GOP is only “interested in making you angry and then finding someone to blame.” 

But “I can tell you what Gretchen Whitmer is obsessed with,” Obama continued. “She’s focused on the fundamentals: Good jobs, lower costs, better schools and fixing the damn roads.”

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With the Nov. 8 election just days away, and polls suggesting Whitmer is locked in a tight battle with GOP challenger Tudor Dixon, Obama made clear he was in Michigan’s biggest city for a singular purpose: “I'm here to ask you to vote.”

Detroit, home to Michigan’s largest concentration of Black voters, remains a major Democratic stronghold. But decades of population loss and sluggish voter turnout rates have diminished its electoral impact. 

Whitmer lost Detroit in the 2018 primary, but local voters delivered for her in the general election with 41 percent turnout, which was up from 31 percent in 2014 but far from the 53 percent Obama pulled in 2008. 

Whitmer carried Detroit by 173,590 votes en route to her 406,659-vote statewide win over Bill Schuette, the former attorney general. 

Detroit Clerk Janice Winfrey has predicted 35 percent voter turnout this year, which would be 6 percentage points lower than 2018 and hurt Whitmer's chances for re-election. As of last week, absentee ballot returns in Michigan were up 79 percent compared to 2018 — the last election before voters chose to expand no-reason absentee voting — but only 49 percent in Detroit.

“I understand why people are anxious” and may be “worried about the course of the country” Obama told Detroit voters, acknowledging the pocketbook draining effect of inflation, which he attributed to global factors like the Russia-Ukraine war and supply chain issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I'm here to tell you that tuning out is not an option,” Obama said. “We don't have time to mope. The only way to make this economy fairer is if we work for it, all of us. The only way to save our democracy is if we work together for it, all of us.” 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addresses some 3,500 people on Saturday at Detroit Renaissance High School in Detroit. She's up for re-election on Nov. 8. (Bridge photo by Brayan Gutierrez)

Whitmer shared the stage with Obama after walking out earlier to “Gretch Did,” a new ode from Detroit rapper Gmac Cash released Saturday with an accompanying music video paid for by Put Michigan First, a heavy spending group operated by the Democratic Governors Association. 

In her own speech, Whitmer touted new state spending on public education and road repairs as evidence she is fighting for Michigan families. Whitmer is borrowing money to fund state road repairs after the Legislature rejected her 2019 proposal to hike fuel taxes.

The first-term Democrat also noted her effort to protect abortion rights by securing a court injunction prohibiting prosecutors from enforcing a 1931 ban after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade. 

"If you don't think the right to choose is an economic issue, you don't have a uterus,” Whitmer said to loud applause. 

“There's too much at stake to take anything for granted, any person for granted, to take any community for granted or to take any hope for granted,” the governor continued. “So please, do something every day between now and this election.”

Republicans called the Obama visit a sign that Whitmer is “desperate” after seeing her double-digit polling lead over Dixon shrink to 3.3  percentage points, according to the latest Real Clear Politics average. 

“After a third failed term of the Obama-Biden agenda, Barack Obama isn’t the golden ticket Michigan Democrats think he is,” Republican National Committee spokesperson Preya Samsundar said in a statement. 

“All Michigan families will see is more crime, more economic uncertainty, and more financial pain if they elect a rubber stamp like Gretchen Whitmer.”

Dixon was bringing in her own weekend help for the stretch run of the campaign: Former Democratic U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who is now an independent, was expected to join the GOP gubernatorial hopeful at seven separate events Saturday and Sunday.

The Democratic rally in Detroit featured a series of get-out-the-vote speeches from officials including U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, Reps. Brenda Lawrence and Rashida Tlaib, and Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein and high court candidate Kyra Harris Bolden of Southfield, who would be the first Black woman to sit on the state's highest court.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Attorney General Dana Nessel said Democrats "saved democracy" in 2020 by fighting attempts to overturn the state's presidential election, which Joe Biden won by 154,188 votes over Trump.. 

"Democracy is on the ballot," Benson said, calling Republican challenger Kristina Karamo and GOP attorney general nominee Matthew DePerno “election deniers” who are part of a national strategy to undermine elections and “make sure we don’t have high turnout again.”

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan used his own rally speech almost exclusively to lambaste Karamo, the GOP Secretary of State candidate who this week filed a lawsuit that aims to invalidate Detroit absentee ballots because of the city's signature verification process. 

Karamo wants to "cancel the votes of the city of Detroit" but not other parts of the state where Republicans will likely perform better, Duggan told the crowd. "Let's make Kristina Karamo really mad. Get out, vote early, bring your friends."

Erica Muhammad, a local voter who previously taught in Detroit schools, said she attended the Saturday rally because she misses the diversity Obama brought to the White House.

Muhammad told Bridge Michigan she does not blame Democrats for the sluggish economy and supports Whitmer because of her strong support for public education. 

She called abortion the most important issue for her this fall, and said she fears a potential state ban under Republican leadership would force women back into dangerous positions where they may have to consider "the hanger" rather than professional medical care.

Muhammad criticized Republican gubernatorial hopeful Tudor Dixon for opposing legal abortion even for women who become pregnant because of rape. 

"You're walking down the street and something happens to you, and then you have no choice? That makes no sense," Muhammad said. 

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