LANSING — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has emerged as a top contender to be Joe Biden’s running mate, in part, because of her handling of the coronavirus pandemic in Michigan and her criticism of President Donald Trump’s federal response.
But Whitmer would have less time to fight COVID-19 at home if she joins Biden on the national campaign trail, even if that is largely virtual this year given the ongoing public health threat. That could mean new and added responsibilities for Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, who would succeed Whitmer if she became vice president.
Over the next three months, Whitmer would “be spending most of her time running for vice president if she was selected, so that will mean a lot of state business gets done by other people in the interim,” said Matt Grossman, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University.
“That’s not completely out of the ordinary but perhaps has more implications now.”
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Speculation that the Democratic Biden might select Whitmer as his running mate gained new steam in the past few days following news reports the first-term governor had flown to Delaware on Aug 2 for an in-person meeting with the former vice president.
With Biden expected to announce his pick this week ahead of the Democratic National Convention, CNN’s Chris Cillizza on Monday ranked Whitmer as the third-most likely choice for the Democratic vice presidential nomination.
He slotted the Lansing Democrat behind only Sen. Kamala Harris of California and former U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, both of whom are women of color.
“I have been loudly skeptical that, in this climate, Biden picks a white woman as his VP,” Cilllizza wrote. “I am still in that camp, but if he does, it appears Whitmer will be the choice.”
Vice presidential nominees almost never resign their current office unless or until they win election, so Whitmer would likely remain Michigan governor even if she steps back from her daily duties to campaign across the country, in person or virtually.
Vice President Mike Pence was governor of Indiana when Trump selected him in 2016, and he finished his term before taking office with Trump in 2020. Likewise, Sarah Palin stayed on as governor of Alaska after John McCain named her his running mate in 2008.
If selected, Whitmer would be the first Michigander to win a major party’s vice presidential nomination.
Gerald R. Ford served as vice president only after Spiro Agnew resigned the post in 1973, and he became president when Richard Nixon resigned the following year.
Whitmer would likely only resign as governor if she was on the ticket and Biden defeated Trump in November. And even then, she may retain the state post until early 2021, when she and Biden would be inaugurated.
Under a succession plan mandated by the Michigan Constitution, that would make Gilchrist the 50th governor of Michigan. He’d become the first African-American governor in Michigan history and the only current Black governor in the country.
Whitmer supporters contend that dynamic could blunt some criticism from Black voters who are hoping to see Biden pick a woman of color, a possibility he has hinted at for months after promising to select a female running mate.
Biden needs Black voters, and picking a white woman could send a “ripple in the Black community if he did not,” said Jonathan Kinloch, chairman of the 13th Congressional District Democratic Party in Detroit.
Still, “Garlin Gilchrist would be an excellent governor,” he said. “There would definitely be excitement here in the state to have the first Black governor and [Whitmer] would have played a very huge role in making that happen.”
Gilchrist, 37, is a former software engineer and political activist who had never held elected office before becoming lieutenant governor. He’d be taking over the state with two years in the No. 2 role.
“People who haven’t previously held elected offices can have more trouble when in office, both with the electoral side and with the governing side,” said Grossman of MSU. “ But coming into an administration that’s already built might be a little easier than doing it from complete scratch.”
The succession scenario would mark the latest step in a rapid ascension for Gilchrist, who lost in his bid to become Detroit clerk in November 2017 before Whitmer selected him as her running mate in August 2018.
Two years later, there’s speculation he could soon succeed Whitmer as governor.
“It’s true,” Gilchrist told Bridge in June, chuckling at the possibility while praising Whitmer for being “responsive to the people of Michigan” despite the national attention, speculation and Twitter attacks from Trump and his allies.
“If I’ve learned anything in the last three years of my personal and public life it’s that anything can happen, but what you can control is how you spend your time and energy, and what outcomes you choose to focus on,” Gilchrist said. “... If something happens in that regard for Gretchen Whitmer, I’m certainly humbly ready to serve the people of Michigan.”
If Gilchrist became governor, he’d serve out Whitmer’s current term which lasts through 2022 — and likely without a lieutenant governor of his own.
The Michigan Constitution does not include a mechanism to replace a lieutenant governor who is promoted mid-term, according to a 1968 legal opinion by then-Attorney General Frank Kelley.
Kelley considered the question when then-Gov. George Romney was preparing to resign and serve as U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Richard Nixon.
Lt. Gov. William Milliken became governor when Romney resigned in January 1969, and he would go on to win re-election in 1970. While the constitutional office was technically vacant for nearly two years, the Michigan Senate spearheaded special legislation to appoint Senate president Thomas Schweigert to serve as “acting lieutenant governor” in 1969.
If Gilchrist is promoted to governor, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson would be second in command and act as governor if and when Gilchrist left the state. Under the Michigan Constitution, Attorney General Dana Nessel would be elevated to third in command.
How Whitmer would balance campaigning with governing amid a pandemic that has killed more than 6,200 Michiganders is “the $64,000 question” and could influence Biden’s decision, said Bill Ballenger, a longtime Michigan political observer.
If she spent too much time campaigning, Republicans could attack her — and the Biden ticket, for abandoning the state in a “moment of peril,” he said.
“The real question is if she plays it as it goes to see what the progression of the disease is like and how much of a hands-on governor she has to be this fall. It’s uncharted territory. We’ve never had this before and there’s no way of knowing how this would be handled.”
Whitmer remains relatively popular in Michigan. In a late July poll of 600 likely voters by EPIC-MRA of Lansing, 57 percent of voters said they think she is doing a good job, and 42 percent polled gave her a negative job rating.
Still, it’s unclear if Whitmer would give Biden much of a boost in Michigan, a state Trump narrowly won in 2016. Biden is already polling well here — he led Trump 51-40 percent in the recent EPIC-MRA survey — and the research on home-state vice presidential effects is not very strong, Grossman said.
“If you think COVID is the issue of the moment, then [Whitmer] would be a pick that helps highlight that and draws a firm contrast with the president,” he said.
“The traditional role of a vice presidential nominee is to attack the other party’s presidential nominee. I think she’s shown herself to be pretty good at that.”
Whitmer has criticized Trump’s COVID response repeatedly, but Republicans also say she also has much to answer for on her coronavirus policy on nursing homes, which account for a third of the state’s deaths.
Governor for two years, Whitmer lacks some of the foreign policy and executive experience of other vice presidential possibilities.