Democrat Gretchen Whitmer vowed to build "bridges over walls" as Michigan's next governor, declaring victory Tuesday night after a nearly two-year campaign to succeed term-limited Gov. Rick Snyder.
Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette called Whitmer, of East Lansing, to concede the race after early returns showed Whitmer in the lead and the Associated Press and other news outlets declared her the winner. Whitmer's victory puts Democrats back in control of the Michigan governor's office for the first time in eight years.
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Democrat Jocelyn Benson beat Republican Mary Treder Lang to become Secretary of State, meanwhile, while Democrat Dana Nessel had a slim lead against Republican Tom Leonard in the race for attorney general early Wednesday morning.
Three ballot measures — to legalize marijuana, appoint a nonpartisan commission to draw political districts and ease voter registration — also were approved by wide margins.
Whitmer, 47, is a former state legislator who served her final term as Senate minority leader. She served as interim Ingham County prosecutor in 2016 after the resignation of the county’s elected prosecutor, Stuart Dunnings III, in a prostitution scandal.
"I guess we’re going to have to fix the damn roads now, right?" said Whitmer, celebrating with Democrats at MotorCity Casino Hotel's Sound Board in Detroit, referencing what became her signature campaign slogan.
"Now is the time for us to come together," she said. "Now, more than ever, we need people of both sides of the aisle to work together in Lansing."
"And yes, that's how we fix the damn roads."
Schuette, 65, of Midland, has served in elected politics for more than 30 years — as a state legislator, in Congress and, since 2011, as attorney general. He also served as a judge on the Michigan Court of Appeals and as director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture under former Republican Gov. John Engler.
"It was a tough year, a tough political environment," Schuette told reporters in Lansing, where he gathered with Republican candidates, after his concession speech. "Look across the country. There are a lot of bumps out there, right? Some close races, some races that didn't go the Republican way, midterm elections — all those things come into play."
Both candidates emerged with commanding victories in the August primaries. Some analysts described the ensuing general election campaign as a referendum on traditional conservative and liberal priorities.
But Schuette, who won the endorsement of President Trump, found it tough to break through after August, trailing Whitmer in the polls — sometimes by double digits — amid reports that Republican groups were redirecting ad support. Whitmer outraised him during the last quarterly campaign finance period, $4 million to $2.4 million, state records show.
Schuette centered his campaign around what he called his “paycheck agenda,” with lowering Michigan’s personal income tax rate from 4.25 percent to 3.9 percent among his top priorities. He also called for expanding K-12 literacy programs and fixing the roads, though he never said specifically how he would pay for either, especially while also reducing the state’s main general fund revenue stream.
Whitmer’s campaign mantra, “Fix the damn roads,” meanwhile, became a battle cry among supporters who saw Michigan’s failing infrastructure as among the most pressing state needs.
The Democrat also called for investing in universal preschool; offering scholarships to help high school graduates attend college without debt; supporting innovation in the automotive, health care and agriculture sectors; and ensuring Michiganders have access to safe, clean drinking water.
She offered some details on how her administration would pay for those priorities, though it’s unclear whether the state can afford them without raising taxes.
A campaign turned nasty
After sailing through the primary, Whitmer and Schuette quickly turned to attacking one another on their records while in office.
Schuette criticized Whitmer’s handling of the prosecution of convicted sex offender and sports doctor Larry Nassar while she served as interim Ingham County prosecutor in 2016, while Whitmer and Democrats pointed out that Schuette joined lawsuits as Attorney General to block parts of the Affordable Care Act when he told voters he wanted to protect coverage for pre-existing conditions.
Republicans went after Whitmer’s legislative record to claim she was an ineffective policymaker. Schuette compared her policies to those of Michigan’s last Democratic governor, Jennifer Granholm, who was in office during the Great Recession; he even referred to Whitmer as “Jennifer” during a debate on live TV.
Democrats went after Schuette for his handling of the Flint water crisis. Whitmer attacked Schuette for his co-sponsoring of a bill while he was in the state Legislature to grant pharmaceutical companies immunity from being sued, which could affect how the state responds to the opioid crisis.
And groups not connected to either gubernatorial campaign flooded Michigan airwaves with tens of millions of dollars in advertising, making it one of the most expensive governor’s races in state history.
Both Whitmer and Schuette were aided by help from the White House. Former President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, stumped with Whitmer at recent campaign rallies.
But Schuette, who hitched himself to President Donald Trump’s wagon throughout the primary campaign, barely mentioned the president’s name after August — likely in an appeal to independent or swing voters for whom Trump is unpopular.
And Trump himself did not visit Michigan to rally for Schuette or Republicans running for Congress, despite flipping the state red in 2016 and publicly endorsing Schuette at a rally in April in Macomb County.
Nor did Snyder, as the incumbent Republican governor, endorse Schuette. Snyder released a statement Tuesday night highlighting Michigan's economic gains during his tenure and called for civility and unity to continue the state's progress.
“I look forward to working with governor-elect Whitmer and her team to ensure a smooth transition into the Executive Office," his statement read. "My team is committed to doing everything we can to help position this new administration to hit the ground running and continue serving Michiganders.
Pundits projected female candidates would have a strong year, owing to Trump’s unpopularity with women and the #MeToo movement that has brought national public attention to sexual assault and harassment.
Whitmer’s campaign nearly hit a snag earlier this year, when Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan attempted to recruit another Democratic candidate to enter the gubernatorial contest. (Duggan later endorsed Whitmer.)
Bridge reporters Jim Malewitz and Chastity Pratt Dawsey contributed to this report.
Previous Gretchen Whitmer stories:
- Gretchen Whitmer column: Michigan needs a get-it-done governor
- Gretchen Whitmer promises fixed roads. Can she find the money to deliver?
- Gretchen Whitmer says she accomplished more than her record shows.
- Gretchen Whitmer: I’ll pay to fix Michigan by ‘closing loopholes’
- As governor, Whitmer would create a ‘Detroit-specific strategy’ for K-12 education
- Gretchen Whitmer’s plan for Michigan: $3B of promises and wishful thinking
- Gretchen Whitmer column: Grow Michigan by offering debt-free community college
- Truth Squad: Questioning Gretchen Whitmer’s gun control record in Michigan