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Michigan candidate tests whether Democrats can reclaim Midwest from Trump and GOP

Gretchen Whitmer
Jose Juarez | AP
Gretchen Whitmer

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.

Jobs platform

Whitmer is betting that, after eight years of Snyder's administration, Michiganders will want someone with experience in government. In addition to the Flint water crisis,which left as many as 8,000 children dealing with the lifelong effects of lead poisoning, Whitmer cites a "big business tax break" financed in part by taxing pensions and other retirement income, proposed cuts to education to pay for income tax refunds (which Snyder later dropped) and a scaling back of the earned income tax credit for low-income workers.

Snyder is a former business executive and venture capitalist. "In Michigan, we've seen what happens when you have an 'outsider' come in who doesn't know much about state government and is making decisions on the budget like it's a balance sheet and not a statement of your values," Whitmer said. "Government is not a business, and when you make decisions based on the bottom line you get a city that has poisoned water," she said.

Snyder's office says, under the new tax structure, more than a half a million jobs have been created statewide since he took office, with Detroit's unemployment rate at a 17-year low and new investments from Amazon, among others. The uptick has allowed for some tax credits to be reinstated, including increasing a property credit and the number of people who qualify for it. "If that's the record she wants to run 'against' I wish her the best of luck," said Anna Heaton, a Snyder spokeswoman.

A big part of Whitmer's focus is channeling talent toward vocational jobs,

After descending a metal ladder at the union hall in her Keds tennis shoes and jean jacket, the mother of two and former Ingham County prosecutor listened as Kanaan Pinkard, a 2nd year journeyman apprentice, vented about how a job requiring sophisticated math is sometimes considered on par with "working at McDonald's."

"Everyone shouldn't go to college. It's not for everybody," Whitmer told Pinkard. "So many people are incurring massive debt where they can't buy a house or start a family" that "they're starting out upside down."

It's been decades since Michigan was a major destination for good-paying, middle-class jobs that don't require a college degree. While Trump has promised to "bring back" the manufacturing jobs that defined the state's post-World War II prosperity, Whitmer is advocating to look to the future to make Michigan a green energy manufacturing and technology corridor.

Michigan needs to fill 15,000 jobs in skilled trades that don't require a college degree — with annual wages of $51,000 — every year until 2024, and by that time, professional trades will account for 500,000 of the state's jobs. Snyder created a "21st Century Education Commission" to address the state's skills gap and programs including one that partners community colleges with local employers to encourage better workforce training. Whitmer thinks a budget that prioritizes education, including retraining opportunities and encouraging public and private partnerships, is what's needed.

In the state Senate, Whitmer advocated a Michigan 2020 plan, which would have paid college costs for all students in exchange for collecting 5% more in taxes from businesses by closing loopholes. It never became law.

She also negotiated bipartisan agreements, including a minimum wage increase with a cost-of-living adjustment to $9.25 an hour in 2018 and expanded health care to 630,000 additional working individuals.

Whitmer's challenge

Whitmer led a protest of more than 12,000 people in 2012, causing a dramatic scene in which the governor and Republicans locked the doors of the Capitol in order to pass "right to work" legislation which prohibits new contracts from requiring union dues as a condition of employment.

So far, six statewide unions have endorsed her, including carpenters, plumbers and pipefitters, construction trades and the United Food and Commercial Workers. She's also making better schools a campaign pillar.

Yet a visit to nearby Macomb County, just north of Detroit, demonstrates the challenges Whitmer faces in a state where union membership is diving after Michigan became a right-to-work state and some members are voting differently than their leadership. Macomb is where the pollster Stan Greenberg coined the term "Reagan Democrats" because of the proclivity of these voters to swing their votes between parties.

So far, she's visited 40 of 83 counties, yet many of the regulars at Imperial Lanes Bowling Alley hadn't heard of her.

John Izzo, a registered Democrat who voted for Obama twice, then backed Trump, is one of them. He says he's a "big, big supporter" of his union, the United Auto Workers, and improving schools is his top concern. As attorney general, Schuette requested the immediate dismissal of a lawsuit challenging the right-to-work law and defended the state in another lawsuit challenging it. He also supported a bill exempting prevailing wage be paid on school building projects.

Yet Schuette also led the prosecution of the Flint water crisis, and for Izzo, Schuette is his choice. "He's a man of honesty," said Izzo, a jovial retiree who took pauses from his bowling game to chat and share pictures of him as Santa Claus at Christmas time. "He seems to me a good Christian person," he said.

Whitmer must also calculate how hard to run against Trump. Ron Zichi is a 57-year-old, self-employed carpenter from East China says he's voted for both parties. He's angry because he feels Trump is being unfairly "obstructed."

"He gets beat up for everything he does," said Zichi. And he still prefers candidates without government experience. "I want more outsiders to come in. That's absolutely what I would vote for."

Further, Whitmer is expecting to be significantly outspent by Republicans in a state where the GOP has deep-pocketed donor base, including the family of Betsy DeVos, Trump's Education secretary.

Yet Whitmer also has a powerful asset: enthusiasm among lifelong Democratic voters, like Audrey Stock, who say they're more motivated than ever to cast their ballots in a midterm election.

"I'm going to do everything I can to get him out," Stock, a 66-year-old retiree from Utica, said of Trump. She refuses to call him president, she said. "I'm highly motivated. I'm taking names and numbers of people who voted for him," she said.