Gretchen Whitmer’s election candidacy in Michigan could be a roadmap for Democrats

Michigan’s Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer is betting her bid for a second term on finding the right balance between kitchen table issues and social issues such as access to abortion – a potentially thorny act in one of the the country’s flagship swing states.

Democrats there are optimistic that Whitmer, who won the governorship in the 2018 Blue Wave, found a potent mix in her campaign against Republican Tudor Dixon, a businesswoman, conservative commentator and veteran culture war fighter.

Whitmer took a lead of about 5 points in the FiveThirtyEight Poll Average, although that advantage narrowed from a double-digit margin last month, and those from both parties say they anticipate an end result that matches a more narrowly divided electorate. The two parties have traded control of the governor’s mansion since the 1970s, and neither party has seen multiple candidates win successive terms.

Still, if Whitmer emerges victorious, Democrats see her campaign as a model for winning not just in Michigan but elsewhere in the industrial Midwest, an increasingly competitive region in which the party will likely need to remain competitive in coming years. he hopes to maintain power in Washington.

“I think his candidacy overall has established that playbook in terms of working across the aisle when you can, focusing on the issues that voters care about, like roads, and then finding the issues. that are really going to influence the election, like abortion,” said Josh Hovey, a Michigan communications consultant. “I think she’s done a great job as governor walking that line, and now she’s reinforcing all the things she’s done through her posts.”

At the start of the 2022 cycle, many race watchers viewed Whitmer as one of the most vulnerable incumbent governors awaiting re-election.

Besides the drag on Democrats nationwide — given declining approval ratings and President Joe Biden’s economic anxiety — Whitmer has been hit with an avalanche of criticism over how she has handled the COVID-19 business and school closures, sparking frustrations that culminated in crowds of armed protesters. invading the state capitol in April 2020. (Later that same year, she was also the target of a foiled kidnapping plot, authorities said.)

But Whitmer presented herself as an effective leader with a list of economic accomplishments while becoming a fundraising powerhouse and leader in the effort to block a 1931 state abortion ban after the Court Supreme removed federal protections this summer. by overturning Roe v. Wade.

In a list of announcements and on the stump, Whitmer touted hits like Bipartisan auto insurance reformnew factory jobs semiconductor chip manufacturing and construction projects across the state to repair damaged streets — an ode to his 2018 mantra “fix the damned roads.”

And while rising prices due to historic inflation are likely to reduce Whitmer’s potential support – with Governor in an ad conceding, ‘I can’t fix the inflation problem’ – supporters hope his political victories can help offset the austere economic landscape and earn him a crucial victory in a state that strategists describe as historically characterized by policies socially conservative and tax-conscious Democrats.

Vice President Kamala Harris smiles as Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer delivers remarks after touring a FOCUS: HOPE facility, Oct. 15, 2022, in Detroit.

Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

“Michigan will always be a meat-and-potatoes, kitchen-table type state. That’s how it is,” said Michigan Democratic strategist Joe DiSano. “She pays attention to voters where they are, which is Politics 101 – but so often people forget about her.”

Whitmer hasn’t forgotten her messages about abortion access either, having made it a defining part of her platform even before Roe was hit. The Governor, before the High Court ruling was delivered but after a draft leaked in May, plunged headlong into legal battles to block the 1931 ban and also lobbied for the passing an amendment in November to enshrine abortion protections in the state constitution.

Dixon takes a markedly different view on the matter, including opposing exceptions to the rape and incest ban and saying that a rape victim who becomes pregnant should have the child in hopes of “cure through this baby.”

“These voices, the babies of the rape victims who have come forward, are very powerful when you hear their story and what the truth behind it is,” Dixon told local media in August. “It’s very difficult not to defend these people.”

During the final debate between the two on Tuesday, Dixon said abortion rights in the state “will be decided by Proposition 3 [the proposed amendment in November] or it will be decided by a judge.”

“I think one thing that sets Michigan and Governor Whitmer apart is that she came out … and really defined abortion access as something that was essential to her,” said Sen. Mallory McMorrow, democrat. “I think it’s the perfect combination of doing everything to move the state in the right direction, but we also have this looming threat of one of the most extreme seated abortion bans on the books.”

Others in her party say Whitmer has been able to strike that balance with a message discipline that may seem obvious but is difficult to execute and nothing short of imperative when appealing to the many blue-collar voters. state and a Democratic base driven by their views on social justice.

“If you watch certain TV shows, you think all people are talking about is Kanye West and athlete sex and things like that,” Senate Democratic Leader Jim Ananich said. “I think the Governor realizes that the more we focus on people’s lives and what affects them and what interests them and the less we care about what others tell us we should care about, the better we’ll get through this.”

Beyond what she’s able to brag about, Whitmer has avoided sustaining lasting damage from attacks on strict lockdowns in the age of the pandemic. and personal outings that has plagued lawmakers in places like California and Nevada.

To curb rising COVID-19 cases in March 2020, Whitmer quickly closed schools and businesses and eventually closed classrooms for the following year, ultimately sparking outcry from parents. Republicans are still grumbling about the move, though officials on both sides say they see no permanent damage to Whitmer’s approval rating.

Democratic and nonpartisan watchers who spoke with ABC News attribute his emergence from the pandemic with his reputation largely intact in part to reading where the public was on the restrictions and because they ended more than a year ago. year.

“At one point she was very popular in terms of the things she did and the decision she made regarding COVID,” said Bernie Porn, a Michigan-based pollster. “But then, over the course of a year, people got frustrated and fed up with the closures. And then she stopped the closures, changed her positions on the closures, all the while saying it was necessary at the time. And so I think voters understand that.”

To be sure, Whitmer is no shoo-in.

Democratic and Republican strategists predict the race will narrow down the home stretch, with the GOP banking on a tough domestic environment for Democrats being a heavy anchor around Whitmer’s neck.

Indeed, the polling average has tightened, leading Dixon’s campaign to boast in a statement that “Tudor has the momentum and Whitmer is struggling.” Whitmer’s campaign, meanwhile, bragged that the governor “traveled across the state to meet with voters about his vision to keep Michigan moving forward as Tudor Dixon coaches the state in back”.

Michigan Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer speaks at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, September 14, 2022. Michigan gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon attends a rally of the ‘Former President Donald Trump in Warren, Michigan on October 1, 2022. 2022.

PA | Reuters

Neither party leaves anything to chance, with the Republican Governors Association earmarking $3.7 million in ads and other support between Oct. 12 and Election Day. The Democratic Governors Association, meanwhile, has injected a total of $28 million in ads and other aid into Michigan, and former President Barack Obama is visiting Detroit this weekend.

“Michigan is traditionally a purple state that turns red under the right circumstances,” former Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis said. “It depends on the problems that exist, the candidates that are present and the national mood. And right now, I think the problems are on our side, I think the national mood is on our side.”

Still, if Whitmer wins, Democrats in the industrial Midwest could take notice.

The party lost working-class white voters in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, culminating in Donald Trump’s 2016 teardown of the “blue wall” and the destruction of the Electoral College backstop. Democrats in the presidential elections.

These four states share similar demographics, with the percentage of college graduates hovering around 30% and the percentage of the white population ranging between 79% and 86%, according to the census.

That leaves Democrats looking for a playbook to shore up their footing in the region and wondering if Whitmer is showing them how.

“I would go with her 100%,” said Ananich, the state Senate Democratic leader. “She should write a book about winning back the industrial Midwest because I think she’s going to win by good numbers two times in a row. I think she could take this brand anywhere she wants.”

ABC News’ Paulina Tam contributed to this report.