Former Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer is leading in polls for the Democratic primary for governor.
Even as polls show former Michigan Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer the clear frontrunner in the Democratic primary for governor, it’s worth recalling what unfolded for Dems in the presidential race in 2016.
Whitmer, with 16 years legislative experience, a certified liberal record and widespread backing from labor, could be considered her party’s logical and best choice to contest the 2018 election.
That sounds a bit like Hillary Clinton, the establishment standard bearer who was steamrolling toward the Democratic nomination for president on the eve of Michigan’s March 8 primary. Polls had her leading Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders by 20 points or more.
And then she lost the state, 50 percent to 48 percent, in what polling analysis site FiveThirtyEight called “among the greatest polling errors in primary history.”
Clinton won the nomination, but went on to lose Michigan again, by less than 11,000 votes, to Republican Donald Trump in the general election, after polls again said she would win. She lost in part, some critics say, because disillusioned Sanders voters failed to show.
Could the race for governor hold similar traps for an establishment frontrunner? And with Trump’s success in Michigan, are Democratic candidates veering too far left to win a closely divided state in November?
Former Detroit Health Department director Abdul El-Sayed is casting himself as the most progressive candidate.
GOP pollster Steve Mitchell said recent election results in Virginia ‒ where Democrats easily won the race for governor and picked up more than a dozen state delegate seats ‒ could portend well for Michigan’s Democratic nominee for governor in 2018.
“The Democrats are very, very angry and they are going to turn out in full force in 2018,” Mitchell said.
“The question then becomes, what about Republicans? Are they going to be as angry as they were in 2016 and show up in the same numbers as Democrats?”
Despite the rift between Sanders and Clinton supporters in 2016, Mitchell doesn’t foresee a repeat in 2018.
“Hillary is not on ticket and they are going to support whoever is on the ticket,” Mitchell said.
He said GOP Attorney General Bill Schuette, the Republican frontrunner for governor, would likely come after Whitmer by invoking a previous Democratic governor.
“They can compare Whitmer to Jennifer Granholm and say, ‘If you liked Michigan between 2003 and 2011, then vote for her,’” Mitchell said.
But another political analyst is not convinced Michigan Democrats are ready to sing kumbaya.
“I certainly think we could see a repeat of some of the 2016 dynamics,” said Susan Demas, publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, a Lansing-based political newsletter.
“It’s interesting, because Gretchen Whitmer has always been identifiably liberal. She’s known for her strong stands on women’s issues. Some within the party even say she’s too far left.
“But you can’t deny how much Bernie Sanders has shaken up the Democratic Party. There’s no doubt there’s some pretty deep divisions within the party.”
Michigan State University’s Matt Grossmann: Races for governor are “normally a referendum” on the presidency.
At the moment, Whitmer’s most significant rival could be former Detroit Health Department executive director Abdul El-Sayed. Running to Whitmer’s left, he appeals to many of the idealistic, young and college-educated progressives who gravitated to Sanders. That was reflected in an October survey of 500 University of Michigan students in which he polled at 32 percent, highest by far among the candidates for governor. GOP Attorney General Bill Schuette polled at 2 percent, while Whitmer got 6 percent. Fully 48 percent were undecided.
While El-Sayed was at just 4 percent in a September statewide poll by Marketing Resource Group, Demas noted that GOP Gov. Rick Snyder barely registered in early polls for the 2010 Republican primary before he went on to win the primary and election. Whitmer led all Democrats in that September poll with 27 percent.
Another poll showed Whitmer tied in a hypothetical race against Schuette.That could be a sign of strength for her, since Schuette’s higher name recognition among voters could be expected to give him an early advantage in polls.
Other declared candidates for the Democratic primary include William Cobbs, Kentiel White, Justin Giroux and Shri Thanedar.
Thanedar, an Ann Arbor businessman, has spent nearly $6 million of his own money on his campaign but has yet to make much of a dent with voters. His fortunes were surely not helped by a lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court accusing Thanedar of fraudulently inflating the value of his company.
There’s not much difference on core progressive issues between Whitmer and El-Sayed. Both favor a $15-an-hour minimum wage, immigrant rights and better access to health care. El-Sayed, unlike Whitmer, but like Sanders, has called for a single-payer health care system.
El-Sayed has also vowed to take no corporate PAC contributions. Whitmer’s campaign took $51,000 from the Whitmer Leadership Fund PAC, which listed contributions over a period of years of $15,000 from the Michigan Trial Lawyers Association PAC, $5,000 from CMS Energy PAC and $5,000 from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan PAC.
One Democratic activist and hard-core Sanders backer issued a warning to the party if it nominates Whitmer.
“There are progressives who are not going to vote for a corporatist candidate,” said Liano Sharon, an organizer for the pro-Sanders group Michigan for Revolution. He said he’s leaning toward El-Sayed. He’s also a member of the State Central Committee of the Michigan Democratic Party.
“What you have with Whitmer is somebody who is beholden to the large donors, trying to thread the needle between the the large donor and the active liberal base of the party,” he said, referring to Whitmer’s acceptance of PAC funds.
Sharon said he’s heard from like-minded progressives they will simply sit out the 2018 general election should Whitmer win the primary.
“I absolutely think that could happen. There a lot of progressives who say, look at what point is the establishment going to stop treating us like they can rely on us to vote for the candidate we don’t want? They have a gun to your head.”
It remains to be seen how many share Sharon’s view. But his grievances echo those within a national party roiled by charges from former Democratic Party boss Donna Brazile that the Democratic National Committee gave the Clinton campaign improper control over certain party decisions before the primary was over.
On the other hand, Ann Arbor resident and Sanders supporter Abby Dart told Bridge she has absolutely no qualms about backing Whitmer. Dart was a Sanders delegate and member of the platform committee at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
“I think she’s always been on the side of working people,” Dart said. “The idea that this race is like a Hillary-Bernie rehash is like a lazy, superficial analysis. I think if Bernie came to town, and he and Gretchen sat down together, he would be incredibly impressed.”
Other potential big-name candidates have declined to run. U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee decided to remain in Congress. University of Michigan Regent and prominent Michigan attorney Mark Bernstein opted out, then threw his support to Whitmer. Prominent attorney Geoffrey Fieger – and 1998 Democratic candidate for governor – remains on the sidelines.
According to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, Whitmer raised $768,459 over the last three months for a total of $2.3 million for the campaign. Her campaign reported more than 13,000 individual contributions and had $1.5 million in cash as of Oct. 20.
She received $40,000 over the last three months from the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and $27,200 from members of the Cotton family, founders of Meridian Health. But she has also secured more than twice as many individual donations as El-Sayed.
El-Sayed raised $612,472 over the last three months, with his campaign raising a total of $1.6 million thus far. It reported more than 6,000 individual contributions and had about $900,000 on hand on Oct. 20.
According to the Associated Press, more than 80 percent of Whitmer's contributions came from Michigan donors, while about two-thirds of El-Sayed's donations were from outside the state.
Annie Ellison, spokesperson for Whitmer, pushed back on any notion she is an establishment candidate.
“Gretchen Whitmer has been on the front lines of the progressive movement, fighting back against attacks on women's health, education, and worker's rights. In 2012, she introduced a plan to give every Michigan student a debt-free college education long before Bernie Sanders was talking about it on the campaign trail, and she paid for it by closing business tax loopholes,” Ellison said.
“Whitmer is the true grassroots progressive in the race.”
El-Sayed spokesman Adam Joseph citing initiatives El-Sayed undertook as head of the Detroit Health Department, including providing eyeglasses to thousands of students, screening 360 schools for lead in the water and undertaking a program to reduce infant mortality.
As the candidates skirmished, state Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon dismissed reports of lingering tension within the party in the aftermath of 2016.
“I think this is just really overblown,” Dillon said.
“There is a very small group of folks who want to continue to relive the 2016 election. Their voice gets magnified by the media, which is understandable.”
Another analyst said that while some fissures may remain in the Democratic Party, other dynamics will likely shape the outcome of the gubernatorial race.
“Overwhelmingly, the party out of the presidency benefits the most in the mid-term elections,” said Matt Grossman, director of Michigan State University’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research.
“The party out of the presidency has won the last 18 of 21 (gubernatorial) elections in Michigan.”
In fact, Grossman wrote an analysis early last year titled, “Want a Democratic governor? Root for a Republican president.”