How Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer could win the White House — this year
- Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is backing President Joe Biden’s re-election while garnering national attention of her own
- Experts say Whitmer could be a top pick to replace Biden should he bow out by the August nomination convention
- Whitmer is writing a book and raising funds for federal candidates, fueling speculation she’ll run for president at some point
LANSING — Gretchen Whitmer is 15 minutes late and nobody is complaining.
Instead, the room of Democratic activists is buzzing as Michigan’s 49th governor sits for a TV interview next door, delaying the phone bank where she is expected to remind voters of abortion rights ahead of the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade.
“I think she’s from CBS,” a woman whispers excitedly as Margaret Brennan of Face the Nation walks by after the interview, which will make national news when it airs the next day because Whitmer – in a Midwest nice way — urged President Joe Biden to talk more about abortion rights in his re-election campaign.
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Among the crowd is Susan Anderson, a super volunteer who says she gave a “small check” to Whitmer’s first campaign for state House in 2000, collected signatures for her 2018 gubernatorial campaign and has since become a force in Lansing-area politics as head of the “Blue Brigade.”
“I’m not surprised that she is getting national attention,” Anderson later told Bridge Michigan, flashing back to her first impression of Whitmer 24 years ago. “It gave me hope to have this young woman out there who really had the stuff to make it big — and to change the world.”
The fan adulation – and the resulting national news coverage – showcased Whitmer’s so far successful ability to promote her own political brand while continuing to position herself as a key ally for Biden, whose re-election campaign teamed with Whitmer’s “Fight Like Hell PAC” to organize the event.
While early polls suggest Biden may struggle in a rematch against former President Donald Trump, experts say Whitmer appears to be preparing for a presidential campaign of her own in 2028 — or perhaps sooner should health or some other issue force the 81-year-old Biden out of this year’s race.
Speculation over Whitmer’s presidential ambition spiked this month when she confirmed plans to write a book as soon as this year. She’s also formed a federal political action committee that is raising funds for congressional candidates in other states. And she’s expected to up her travel in the coming months.
“You don’t know when the next big wave is coming, exactly, but you have to position yourself to jump on and ride it — and that’s exactly what she’s doing,” said John Sellek, a Michigan-based Republican strategist who worked for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.
“In some ways, she's following the presidential preparation playbook to a tee.”
Whitmer, who Biden considered as a running mate in 2020, has acknowledged interest in a future presidential run. But she has repeatedly denied any plans to compete this year while serving as a national campaign co-chair for Biden, who is not expected to face significant opposition in the Democratic primaries.
“All I know is I've been consistent in my support of President Biden and focused on making sure that I’m leading our state through all the ups and downs over the next 10 months,” Whitmer told Bridge, referencing the sprint to November. “I'm doing everything I can to help reelect the president.”
How Whitmer could win the White House this year
Whitmer insists she has no interest in replacing Biden on the ticket this fall, but experts say the governor could be a top pick for Democrats should the president still decide — or be forced — to bow out of the race.
While primary ballots in Michigan and many other states have already been finalized, Democrats could theoretically anoint an alternative candidate at their national nominating convention, set for Chicago in August.
Democrats haven’t had a convention-based election since 1968, when President Lyndon B. Johnson opted against re-election and delegates nominated Vice President Hubert Humphrey even though he had not won a single state primary.
If Biden dropped out before Chicago, Whitmer or any other candidates would need to secure 300 delegate signatures to be considered in a floor vote at the convention, according to Democratic National Committee rules.
It’s “extraordinarily unlikely,” but “in a scenario like that, Whitmer would be on the shortlist of the shortlist” of replacement candidates, said Adrian Hemond, a Democratic strategist with the Grassroots Midwest consulting firm in Lansing.
It’s also a possible scenario for Republicans as Donald Trump, the frontrunner for the GOP nomination, approaches his 78th birthday while battling criminal charges, including a federal indictment stemming from his failed bid to overturn his 2020 election losses in Michigan and other states.
Biding her time as a team player for the Democratic Party could ultimately be beneficial for Whitmer – even if Biden ends up losing this fall, Hemond said.
“The American people, in public opinion poll after public opinion poll, have made clear that they do not want a rematch,” between Biden and Trump, he said. “And that means the governor – assuming her book comes out in a timely fashion – is going to be really well positioned to say ‘I told you so’ if Biden loses.”
Biden has trailed Trump in several early polls of swing state voters, including in Michigan, where one recent survey had the president trailing the former president by 8 percentage points. The same poll showed Whitmer 5 points ahead of Trump in her home state, which has played a key role in recent contests.
Biden is "in deep trouble in Michigan,” said Richard Czuba, who heads the Glengariff Group Inc. polling firm that conducted the survey. “At some point, I wonder if Democrats are going to realize that and do something about it.”
The speculation that Biden might drop out late and pave the way for Whitmer or some other candidate at the convention appears to be mostly just “wishful thinking” from Democrats wary of a grueling election cycle, Czuba said.
But, he noted, “Biden comes from an era where these things were decided at conventions. He was around (in 1968) when Lyndon Johnson announced in March he wasn't going to run and it threw the Democratic race wide open.”
However unlikely, “there is 100% no doubt that Whitmer is preparing” for the possibility of a convention election, said Sellek, the founder of Harbor Strategic Public Affairs in Lansing.
“I think she's clearly pursuing all angles, as if she could be running this time.”
‘Ain’t no way’
Whitmer has seen the polling suggesting she could be a better candidate to take on Trump, at least in Michigan. But she’s laughing it off for now, publicly anyway.
“I don’t even know why they asked the question,” the governor told Bridge, “because there ain’t no way.”
Democrats aren't panicking about Biden's polling because "nobody's paying attention" 10 months out from the election, said Jonathan Kinloch, a vice chair for the Michigan Democratic Party and chair of its 13th Congressional District.
Biden will win re-election once voters again see the "stark differences" to Trump, and Whitmer will be a "dynamic" contender come 2028, he predicted.
Republicans in Lansing have tried to use Whitmer’s rising political star against her, routinely dismissing her policy proposals as attempts to garner favor with national Democratic Party insiders, donors or voters.
"It's all about public relations," Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt, R-Porter Township, said Wednesday after Whitmer used her sixth annual State of the State address to propose free community college, universal preschool and unveil plans to spend $1.4 billion on affordable housing initiatives.
"She's trying to be in the waiting wings, seeing if Biden's actually going to be the nominee after the convention," Nesbitt speculated. “She seems to be loading up on these promises and then leaving the bill to the next Legislature and governor.”
Whitmer denied a recent report that she’d signed a “seven-figure” book deal, but the governor acknowledged she may still publish a book this year, which would give her another opportunity to connect with a national audience.
“Not like a memoir or anything like that – nobody got time for that – but I’ve taken notes, and if I feel like I’ve got something to share, I might do that,” she told Bridge.
The governor in June launched a federal political action committee to raise funds for other candidates. She reported $171,000 in donations in the first month and announced an initial round of endorsements in December, backing mostly Midwest members of Congress seeking re-election.
Like a book, creating a PAC is a common step for future presidential candidates, who can use the fundraising account as a vehicle to pay their own political expenses, transfer funds to another federal campaign and make connections with fellow politicians across the country, said Sellek.
Whitmer has vowed her PAC will work to help re-elect Biden, as she did last weekend with a series of events that were designed to highlight abortion rights and the threat posed by abortion opponents like Trump.
“(I’ll be) trying to organize here in Michigan and get the word out, but also trying to help the campaign take the information that we're hearing on the ground to inform the work they've got to do," Whitmer told Bridge in Lansing.
"I may do a little travel, but I got important stuff to do right here."
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