Gretchen Whitmer, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, scaled the roof of the Local 58 electrical workers union to survey what she hopes is part of the jobs future of this onetime industrial boom town: 600 made-in-Michigan solar panels making the building energy self-sufficient.
The 46-year-old former state Senate minority leader says she's offering a progressive Democratic alternative to President Trump's 2016 populist pledge to bring back U.S. jobs. Whether Michigan voters like her message will help shape the future of the national Democratic Party.
A handful of Midwestern gubernatorial races are perhaps the most consequential of the 2018 election cycle. They'll signal whether these once reliably blue states — many which in 2016 voted Republican for the first time since the 1980s — are trending away from her party. Moreover, these new governors will also preside over the redrawing of congressional maps around the 2020 Census. "This race is critical, not just for the makeup of the state legislature, but for Congress," Whitmer told USA TODAY.
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Whitmer's making a direct appeal to the same working-class voters who put Trump in the White House because he promised to bring back the manufacturing jobs that once made Detroit a thriving middle-class metropolis. In contrast, Whitmer is touting a new era of green energy, skilled trade and water management jobs, with Michigan lakes possessing 20% of the world's fresh water.
"Democrats have to do a much better job of promoting job growth and skills," Whitmer said in an interview at a family-owned shoe repair shop on Detroit's northwest side. "It's sad because that's what the Democratic Party was founded on," she said, "making policy that gets people into good-paying jobs."
Michigan, Pennsylvania and North Carolina are among the most gerrymandered states – where Democrats were written out of power with the help of lopsided congressional maps drawn by GOP-controlled legislatures around the 2010 Census. That year, despite winning 45% of the vote, Democrats held just 12 of 38 Senate seats.
Trump won Michigan in November by a hair — a little more than 10,000 votes. The state, heavily populated by labor unions, the grassroots heart of the Democratic Party, is prone to big political shifts. It was after 12 years of Republican John Engler that voters picked Democrat Jennifer Granholm; after another eight years, they chose Republican Rick Snyder. Republican William Milliken held office for 14 years before Democrat Jim Blanchard was elected.
If Democrats can't regain power here, it's unlikely to happen in other critical Midwestern states, said Blanchard, the former governor who recently endorsed Whitmer. "This is going to be one of the key races" nationally, he said.
Blanchard thinks Whitmer can win if she does what the Democratic Party's 2016 nominee, Hillary Clinton, failed to do, namely blanketing the state and promoting what her party has done for workers, including the 2009 auto rescue package. "People took that for granted," yet "it would not have happened with a Republican Congress," said Blanchard.
Jennifer Duffy, an analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington, called Whitmer the "nominal frontrunner," even as the race has yet to truly begin. Abdul El-Sayed, a Detroit doctor and Democrat running to be the state's first Muslim-American governor, has gotten a lot of recent media attention and has also been blanketing the state.
"Democrats walk into this cycle at their lowest point. They have nowhere to go but up," said Duffy. "The path to that is probably through the Midwest," where many states have been under Republican control for at least 8 years, she said. "They're looking for change."
Michigan attorney general Bill Schuette, a Republican, recently announced his intention to run. He is also pledging to be a "jobs" governor by cutting income taxes and high auto insurance premiums. A recent poll by EPIC-MRA shows Whitmer and Schuette deadlocked. The same survey of likely Michigan general election voters found 62% of voters disapproved of President Trump, while 35% approved.
Whitmer recently replaced her campaign manager with Keenan Pontoni, who ran the campaign for Jon Ossoff, the Democrat who who narrowly lost a special election in a congressional district Republicans have controlled since 1979.