GRAND RAPIDS, Mich.
This state has long been known as an early indicator of emerging trends in politics — and for upending expectations.
In 2016, Michigan voters dealt Hillary Clinton two stunning upsets: first in the Democratic primary, which she narrowly lost to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), after late polls had shown her ahead by more than 20 points; then, in the general election, where Donald Trump became the first Republican presidential candidate to win Michigan since 1988.
The Wolverine State is once again worth watching this year, starting with next Tuesday’s Democratic primary for governor. The result is likely to be the clearest indicator yet of how Democrats are regrouping and how hard the party is turning to the left.
Their choice will also help show whether the party establishment or the grass-roots forces of resistance has a stronger hand in the Democrats’ efforts to navigate their way out of electoral irrelevance.
Though all three of the gubernatorial contenders come from the liberal end of the political spectrum, their sharply contrasting profiles demonstrate how crosscurrents of pragmatism and passion are tugging at Democrats this year.
Front-runner Gretchen Whitmer is a former state Senate minority leader, endorsed by organized labor, women’s groups and virtually the entire Michigan political establishment. She is cautious, disciplined and already positioning for a likely general-election match against state Attorney General Bill Schuette. Her campaign’s salty tag line is: “Fix the damn roads.”
Although Whitmer enjoys a double-digit lead in the polls, the sense on the ground is that the race could end up much closer than that.
Among other things, she is up against a robust organizing effort by insurgent Abdul El-Sayed, a 33-year-old former Detroit health director who, if he wins , would be the nation’s first Muslim American governor.
El-Sayed was endorsed last week by Sanders and campaigned across the state over the weekend with political phenom Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old democratic socialist who five weeks ago pulled off a surprise congressional primary victory in New York over the fourth-ranking member of the U.S. Democratic leadership. On Sunday, Sanders is set to hold two rallies where he will make a closing argument for El-Sayed.
Then there is the X-factor in the race: Ann Arbor entrepreneur Shri Thanedar, an Indian immigrant who is on track to spend $10 million of his own fortune vying for the governorship. Most of that has gone into television advertising, where he and Whitmer are vastly outspending El-Sayed.
Both Thanedar and El-Sayed are running to the left of Whitmer — promising, for instance, to create a single-payer health-care system in the state. She says such a proposal is “not realistic.”
More than a thousand people showed up Saturday morning for an El-Sayed rally with Ocasio-Cortez in Grand Rapids, located in the traditionally conservative southwest part of the state. Sitting amid a sea of fading “Bernie” T-shirts in a high school auditorium were Nancy Murphy, 68, and Nancy Ayers, 58, both of whom voted for Clinton in the 2016 primary.
“I’d like to vote for him, but on the other hand, I also want a Democratic candidate to win,” Murphy said. “I want the blue wave to happen. We need the blue wave to happen.”
Ayers said she has misgivings about Whitmer, whom she finds “pretentious” and “not connected to people.”
“That’s the struggle,” Ayers added, “just like the presidential thing.”
Afterward, both said they were impressed by the energy they felt at the rally and were inclined to give El-Sayed their votes.
One crucial unknown is how engaged Michigan’s African American voters are in the race. Black turnout in 2016 was more than 12 percent lower than it had been four years earlier, when President Barack Obama was running for reelection. It was the sharpest drop among African American voters anywhere in the country and may well have accounted for Clinton losing the state.
El-Sayed and Ocasio-Cortez appeared together in Ypsilanti at Brown Chapel AME Church, one of the oldest African American houses of worship in the state.
“Our swing voter is not red to blue, it is not-voter to voter,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
An enthusiastic crowd had jammed the sweltering church to hear them, but there were few black faces among them.
However the primary comes out, Democrats say they must quickly close ranks behind the winner if they are to have any chance of taking back the governorship in the fall. The state party has already booked a restaurant in Detroit for a day-after unity luncheon — because if there is any lesson Michigan Democrats should have learned from 2016, it is that nothing should ever be taken for granted.