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Gretchen Whitmer’s final push: ‘Fundamental rights’ are at stake in Michigan

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer offers a pep talk Tuesday to volunteer canvassers in Lansing. During her last week of campaigning, Whitmer is telling voters that she believes voting and abortion rights are on the line on Nov. 8. (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)
  • Whitmer working to boost turnout in Detroit for Nov. 8 election
  • Democratic incumbent calls GOP opponent an ‘election denier’
  • In final days, governor championing abortion, voting rights

LANSING — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is touting “progress” on big issues and warning Michigan voters that “fundamental rights” are on the line as she criss-crosses the state in the final days of the election and tries to fend off a late surge by Republican challenger Tudor Dixon.

In campaign stops from Grand Rapids to Traverse City, the first-term Democrat has highlighted her fight to protect abortion rights as she campaigns with national officials from Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America and Emily's List.

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And Whitmer is championing voting rights in Detroit, where she seeks to boost turnout in the a Black-majority Democratic stronghold that helped elect her governor in 2018.

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Whitmer rallied in Detroit last weekend with former President Barack Obama, visited again Monday with Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and will return this week to rally with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttiegieg and actress Kerry Washington. 

“There’s a lot at stake in this election,” Whitmer said Tuesday after meeting with volunteer door-knockers in Lansing, going on to address a series of challenges that Dixon and other Republicans have attacked her for failing to fully resolve.

 “We've made progress when it comes to education, roads, public safety,” Whitmer said. “Our fundamental rights are on this ballot too, everything from our voting rights to our reproductive rights. So it's ‘go’ time. Time to get everyone out to vote.”

As they seek to boost voter turnout, Whitmer and Democratic allies have seized on a longshot lawsuit by GOP Secretary of State candidate Kristina Karamo that aims to restrict absentee voting in Detroit and could invalidate tens of thousands ballots already cast by mail or drop box.

Karamo is making sweeping allegations that Detroit has been “plagued with election corruption for years” so must be held to a higher standard. But Democrats argue her litigation is evidence the GOP wants to disenfranchise Detroit voters even though the Michigan Constitution guarantees every voter in the state has the right to vote by mail.

A Wayne County judge was hearing arguments case Thursday morning.

“She is a danger,” Whitmer said, blasting Karamo while also calling Dixon and Republican attorney general nominee Matthew DePerno “election deniers” because they have refused to acknowledge Democratic President Joe Biden’s 154,188-vote Michigan win in 2020.

“They are conspiracy theorists, and they are people who peddle in this and get people all worked up and stoke violent rhetoric,” Whitmer said. “...And to work to undermine an election that hasn't even happened yet? I guess it's to be expected by this group. But it's really, really dangerous.”

It's a theme Democrats across the nation are echoing as they face a difficult mid-term climate because of inflation and gas prices.

"In our bones, we know democracy is at risk," President Joe Biden said Wednesday night in a Washington speech.

With less than a week until the Nov. 8 election, the Democratic Governors Association is making similar arguments in a new statewide television ad calling Dixon a “conspiracy theorist with an extreme agenda.”

Dixon has declined to say whether she will honor the results of the upcoming midterm, suggesting Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson ran “an illegal election” two years ago.

In a Wednesday statement responding to the Democratic criticism, Dixon argued that "Whitmer is the extremist here" and said the Democratic incumbent "continues to spread lies about me because she is running from her record of failure."

Whitmer has "been a dishonest governor from the start," Dixon said. "She said she’d fix the damn roads, and she didn’t. She scoffed at the idea of raising the gas tax to do it, but it was the first thing she attempted in office. She lied and said schools were only closed down for three months, but parents know better."

‘Offensive to Detroit’

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan used his full warmup speech at last weekend’s Obama rally to tout Benson and rail on Karamo’s absentee ballot lawsuit, which is pending before Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Timothy Kenny. Other speakers also referenced the case.

The lawsuit is “offensive to Detroit voters” and Democrats are “gonna make sure people know who did this, why they did it, and what’s at stake for them,” Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, who lives in Detroit, told reporters on Tuesday

“I think the response you're going to see from voters turning out as a result of that is going to be overwhelming,” he added. 

Whitmer is wise to focus late efforts on Detroit because it is "not getting a ton of political love" from other candidates since there are not many competitive congressional or legislative races in the city, said Adrian Hemond, a Democratic strategist with Grassroots Midwest. 

"Not just this year, but any even-numbered election year. Democrats need decent turnout in Detroit to win statewide elections," he said. 

Whitmer lost Detroit in the 2018 Democratic primary, but won the city by 173,590 votes in the general election. The 41 percent voter turnout four years ago was up from 31 percent in the 2014 gubernatorial election, but still trailed the statewide rate of 58 percent. 

By comparison, 53 percent of Detroit voters cast ballots in the 2008 presidential election, a high water turnout mark for the city that Obama dominated with 97 percent of the vote. 

Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey has predicted 28 percent to 33 percent voter turnout this year, which would be at least 8 percentage points lower than 2018 and hurt Whitmer's chances for re-election. 

As of Tuesday, 47,932 Detroiters had already voted by absentee ballot, while another 35,009 had requested and received ballots but not yet returned them. 

Statewide, absentee ballot returns are up 60 percent from 2018 — the last election before voters chose to expand no-reason absentee voting — but are up only 51 percent in Detroit.

“Detroit's the biggest city in the state, so it's an important city not just in elections, but to our economy, to our health and welfare in Michigan,” Whitmer said Tuesday. 

“And that's why we are working in every community to turnout the vote, but certainly getting Detroit voters to exercise their right and to use their vote.”

Democrats face a unique voter motivation challenge in Detroit because the state's new independent redistricting commission left the city with fewer competitive races, and Detroit is also poised to see diminished representation in Lansing, Hemond said. 

"There's some amount of apathy around this — not just because it's a midterm election, but also because of the job that the redistricting commission did on the city of Detroit," Hemond said.

He said Karamo's lawsuit "seems like an unforced error" by Republicans because it is "virtually guaranteed to fire people up" in Detroit by “trying to take away their ability to vote.”

‘Big unknowns’

Voting rights and abortion rights are on the ballot in Michigan — where voters will decide Proposal 2 and Proposal 3, respectively — but Whitmer is also using the final days of her campaign to remind voters of her personal commitment to each issue. 

Whitmer successfully sued to block enforcement of a 1931 law that would have banned abortions by criminalizing physicians. The Democratic incumbent has vowed to “fight like hell” for legal abortion access if elected governor.

Polls show what had been waning enthusiasm among Democratic voters shot up after the U.S. Supreme Court in June reversed Roe v. Wade, a 1973 decision that had established a nationwide right to legal abortion, which can now again be decided by individual states. 

But public opinion surveys suggest Republican voters were already highly motivated to vote because of issues like inflation and gas prices, which have both increased with a Democratic president in the White House. 

It’s not yet clear if abortion will inspire Democrats – particularly young people and women – to show up in large enough numbers to bat back what the GOP contends will be a “red wave.”

“I think one of the big unknowns in this moment is how many people are inspired to vote because all of a sudden rights they thought would always be there are hanging by a thread,” Whitmer said Tuesday. 

While abortion seemed to close the motivation gap for Democrats this summer, the issue may have lost some "urgency" among voters bombarded by daily headlines about high gas prices and inflation, said John Sellek, a Republican consultant with Harbor Strategic Public Affairs. 

"By most accounts, Whitmer has done almost everything she needed to do to try to survive this bad Democrat year," Sellek said. "It's possible that she will have achieved that and still lose, and that'll be because the national political environment just pulled too many people away from the Democratic Party."

But Whitmer remains where she has been through this race: Up in the polls, by an average of 3.4 percentage points as of Thursday, according to a data compiled by RealClear Politics. 

The governor's closing strategy should be obvious, according to Hemond, the Democratic strategist: "Don't screw up." 

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Whitmer has polled at roughly 51 percent support for months, and "that's good enough to win," he said. 

"The race is gonna tighten some. We're a purple state. Most Republicans are going to come home for Tudor. Just don't screw up, and if you can hold steady where you've been for the last year, you win." 

Whitmer echoed that sentiment earlier this week in a pep speech for Democratic canvassers.

“Let’s win this damn thing,” she said. “We’re so close.”

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