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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Whitmer first ad: ‘No new taxes.’ GOP: Not for the lack of trying.

whitmer in an ad
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s first re-election TV ad touts child care investments and says she tried to keep schools open during the pandemic. It doesn’t mention details that complicate that record. (Screenshot)

LANSING — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer set the tone for her re-election campaign on Tuesday with a television ad that attempts to empathize with struggling families and tout new state spending on child care and education.

“The last few years have been tough, but we’re tougher and getting things done right now,” Whitmer concludes in the new ad, which follows a tumultuous two-year stretch for Michiganders forced to confront a global pandemic, escalating inflation and record gas prices.

Republicans across the country, including those competing to take on Whitmer, argue liberal policies have contributed to rising costs for families. And they’ve appealed to parents frustrated by pandemic school closures, making education a key pillar of their campaigns.

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With those undercurrents boiling in the GOP primary, Whitmer used her first re-election ad to appeal to voters with an anecdote, recalling her own struggle as a new mom with a full-time job, two kids and a sick mother, who died in 2002 of brain cancer. 

“That’s why we’ve made child care more affordable, made it a priority to get kids back in class while making the biggest investment in education ever – without raising taxes,” Whitmer says in the ad, which also flashes a “no new taxes” graphic across the screen. 

The tax message addresses another potential vulnerability for Whitmer, who has not raised taxes since taking office, but has certainly tried. 

In 2019, Whitmer proposed to “fix the damn roads” by raising fuel taxes 45 cents per gallon. The $2.5 billion plan would have given Michigan the highest fuel taxes in the nation but it went nowhere in the Legislature, where some members of her own party distanced themselves from the unpopular proposal. 

The Democratic governor has more recently vetoed two election-year tax cut packages by Republicans. But with the state sitting on a $5 billion to $7 billion budget surplus, Whitmer has proposed her own tax relief proposal: $500 rebate checks, expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit for working families and exempting more senior income from taxation. 

The Republican Governors Association, which is working to defeat Whitmer in the fall, bashed the new ad, arguing she is  "living in a fantasy world where one day she can try and raise taxes and the next she takes credit for Republican accomplishments.”

Whitmer has "tried to squeeze every dollar out of Michigan workers and businesses for the past four years and only failed because Republicans have been there to stop her," spokesperson Chris Gustafson said in a statement.

Michigan Republican Party spokesperson Gustavo Portela also criticized Whitmer’s claim that she made it a “priority” to get kids back in class. 

“She closed down schools, she shuttered small businesses and the reason we’re in the mess we’re in is partly because of her," Portela said.

Whitmer used emergency powers to shut down schools in March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit Michigan. 

That fall, she and the Republican-led Legislature struck a deal that sent federal pandemic aid to schools but did not mandate they re-open, instead allowing local districts to decide whether to remain virtual or resume in-person classes. 

Whitmer in January 2021 urged schools to offer an in-person option and a year later more forcefully called on holdouts to resume traditional instruction. She has acknowledged pandemic disruptions took a "massive toll" on students but argued that increased federal and state aid should help districts provide a safe learning environment. A handful of Michigan districts continued virtual learning during parts of the 2022 school year, however.

The new ad shows Whitmer is focused on “kitchen-table issues” like education and family, said Adrian Hemond, a Democratic consultant with the bipartisan Grassroots Midwest firm in Lansing. 

The governor is targeting everyday people by avoiding any appearance of being “hyper partisan” and showing that “even in extraordinary times” she’s able to execute on issues that matter, Hemond told Bridge Michigan. 

“That’s a very different story than what’s being told on the Republican side, where there is an effort to relitigate the 2020 election and weird conspiracy theories,” he said. 

Whitmer’s re-election ad also touts bipartisan spending deals she struck with the GOP-led Legislature, including a current-year budget that includes $1.4 billion to raise child care provider reimbursement rates and recruit workers, along with record K-12 funding that will grow again from $17 billion to $19.6 billion next year under a recent budget deal.

Michigan voters will decide the Republican gubernatorial nominee in an Aug. 2 primary between Tudor Dixon of Norton Shores, Garrett Soldano of Mattawan, Kevin Rinke of Bloomfield Township, Ryan Kelley of Allendale Township and Ralph Rebandt of Farmington Hills.

The GOP candidates have bashed Whitmer’s COVID–19 policies and campaigned on pledges to stop liberal “indoctrination” in Michigan schools. 

Dixon, in particular, has proposed a “Parents Right to Know Act” that would require schools to post online the name of every textbook or library book available to students, the course syllabus for every class and any "diversity, equity or inclusion" programs or consultants hired by the district.

While Republicans have struggled to raise funds, Whitmer entered the year with a $9.9 million warchest that should allow her to air many more TV ads before the Nov. 3 general election. Her new commercial is set to run on broadcast and cable in the Detroit, Grand Rapids, Flint, Lansing, and Traverse City media markets.

The new ad gives Michigan voters a glimpse of what Whitmer will campaign on during election season, said Hemond, the Democratic consultant. 

“She’s going to talk about roads, K-12 funding, jobs, economic growth, coming out of the pandemic and abortion,” Hemond said, noting the latter was not featured in the ad but “will be a big talking point” for Whitmer because “the polling for Democrats on the issue is amazing.”

Whitmer was wise to avoid a direct reference to inflation because it’s primarily a federal issue, but she is more likely to talk about it if she’s able to agree on a tax cut deal with Republicans, he predicted. “I won’t be surprised if we see some sort of gas tax relief at the pump at a state level between now and November.”

GOP pollster Steve Mitchell said the ad appears to target suburban women, an audience that will be important to Whitmer's re-election effort, and it’s "very effective in bringing in the family."

The "hit the right note" on taxes but does not address "the main issue" that voters are concerned about today: "High prices at the gas pump and in the grocery stores,” Mitchell said. Those federal issues could hurt Whitmer because many voters blame Democratic President Joe Biden for inflation, he added.

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