LANSING — When U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to deliver the Democratic Party’s official response to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union Address, she offered only two pieces of advice.
First, Pelosi recommended Whitmer speak from a location she feels comfortable, the governor recounted Tuesday morning, explaining her choice of East Lansing High School, which her teenage daughters Sherry and Sydney attend.
“The other was to ensure that we’re not solely focused on the president, but really focused on a vision for America,” Whitmer said ahead the State of the Union. “It was really that broad.”
The first-term Democrat huddled with Michigan political reporters earlier Tuesday in Lansing, describing her preparation and plans for a televised speech that will thrust her into the national spotlight.
Along with Pelosi, Whitmer also sought advice from other Democrats who delivered the party’s State of the Union response to Trump in recent years, including former former Georgia state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams and U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III of Massachusetts.
As of Tuesday morning, Whitmer had already written her speech and shared a copy of prepared remarks with Pelosi. But Whitmer said she is prepared to make modifications if warranted by Trump’s speech.
“I am responding to someone who is unpredictable, to put it lightly,” Whitmer said. “This is probably the most stressful time of his presidency.”
Trump will deliver his fourth annual State of the State address at 9 p.m. amid the turbulent backdrop of an impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate. The Republican majority is expected to acquit Trump on allegations of abuse of power for conditioning Ukraine aide on an investigation into a political rival and obstructing the subsequent congressional investigation.
Whitmer said she plans to reference impeachment “very quickly” but will not spend much time on the controversial topic.
Instead, Whitmer said she will focus on solutions to issues she’s highlighted here in Michigan, including crumbling roads, protecting health care care and pathways to good jobs.
“This is really about ensuring that the American people understand what Democrats stand for, because I believe the American people deserve better,” she said. “They deserve action.”
Republicans are criticizing Whitmer ahead of the speech in an apparent attempt to undercut her message.
A new online ad from the Republican Governors Association accuses Whitmer of “broken promises” and “broken roads.” It includes footage of Trump at his recent Battle Creek rally, where the president suggested Whitmer is “not fixing those potholes.”
Whitmer, an East Lansing Democrat, ran on a pledge to “fix the damn roads” but last year was unable to convince lawmakers to back her plan to raise fuel taxes by 45 cents per gallon, which would have given Michigan the highest rates in the nation.
As announced last week in her own State of the State Address, Whitmer is now preparing to use bonds to borrow $3.5 billion to fix Michigan highways over the next five years.
While her message will be televised across the country, Whitmer plans to deliver her speech in front of an invitation-only crowd of between 200 and 300 supporters in East Lansing, where she and her family lived before relocating to the governor’s residence in Lansing upon taking office.
Spectators will include public school teachers, students and parents, she said.
“They won’t be hooting and hollering, but I wanted to address our teachers and our students and our parents — people that area thinking about the future in this country,” the governor told reporters. “People who know that bullying people on Twitter doesn’t build bridges.”
Whitmer is the first Michigan official to deliver a State of the Union response since 1984, when then-U.S. Sen. Carl Levin of Detroit was among a group of Democratic lawmakers who responded to President Ronald Reagan.
In picking Whitmer to deliver the speech, national party leaders reinforced Michigan’s importance in the presidential election, said Democratic strategist T.J. Bucholz.
Trump won Michigan by 10,704 votes in 2016.
“Trump has to have Michigan to win, and if he doesn’t he’ll lose the presidency,” Bucholz said. “So I think you’re going to see Republicans and Democrats doubling down on Michigan, and Gov. Whitmer is in the center of the hurricane.”
Whitmer is not well known by voters nationally, but among party leaders, she’s seen as “sort of a change agent post-2016,” Bucholz said.
The speech is a chance for Whitmer to build her national stature, but the high-profile speaking slot also carries political risk.
Then-Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was seen as a rising GOP star when he delivered the address in 2009 but was criticized for a wooden and “amateurish” delivery. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida was mocked when he awkwardly paused his speech to reach for a water bottle and take a sip.
“I’m going to stay hydrated — but not too hydrated,” Whitmer joked.
Whitmer made waves in 2018 when she decisively won a state that had narrowly elected Trump two years earlier. She ran on issues like fixing roads, cleaning up drinking water and protecting health care, defeating more progressive candidates in the primary before topping Trump-endorsed Attorney General Bill Schuette in the general election.
While presidential hopefuls are battling over the heart and soul of the Democratic Party, pundits and party officials have argued that Whitmer’s campaign could be a blueprint for candidates seeking to retake states like Michigan and Wisconsin that Trump flipped four years ago.
As a governor in the industrial Midwest, Whitmer is well positioned to talk about issues like manufacturing, infrastructure and education that could be critical in the November election, Bucholz said.
“She’s not a Bernie Democrat,” he said, referring to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is running for president.
“She’s not hyper-liberal. She’s more of a moderate, and I think that’s more where the national party would like us to go for 2020.”
Whitmer is fielding calls from Democratic presidential candidates seeking her endorsement. And she’s been floated as a potential vice presidential candidate to run alongside the party’s eventual nominee, a possibility she has downplayed.
“I’m going to take anyone’s call if it comes, but …I’m not interested in going to Washington D.C.,” Whitmer told reporters, explaining she ran for office in Michigan so she could stay close to her family and constituents.
Whitmer encouraged any presidential candidate who gets to the point of selecting a running mate to “look very closely at my good friend” Abrams, the Georgia Democrat who narrowly lost her campaign for governor there in 2018.
While Whitmer said she’s not interested in being vice president, “she’s already on those lists,” Bucholz said. Regardless, increasing her national profile helps Whitmer “in a potential re-election and certainly helps her raise money,” he said.