The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Whitmer vaults into national spotlight with double-digit reelection win

Governor’s defeat of a Trump-backed challenger in Michigan has elevated her profile in the Democratic Party

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) at an election night party in Detroit. (Nick Hagen for The Washington Post)
9 min

As Gov. Gretchen Whitmer waited to speak at a campaign event Saturday night in Detroit, the 51-year-old mother of two joined her junior staffers in turning a cartwheel backstage.

“Like physically doing cartwheels,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a fellow Michigan Democrat who also spoke at the event. “They were good! I was impressed.”

Just three days later, Whitmer impressed the political establishment, as well, vaulting into the national spotlight with a double-digit reelection win Tuesday night. The Michigan governor soundly defeated her Donald Trump-endorsed rival while helping usher in Democratic control of both the state House and Senate for the first time in 40 years.

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“It was a great night for Governor Whitmer,” Stabenow said, “and she certainly is part of our next generation of leaders, not just in the state but across the country.”

Whitmer already had a profile that transcended Michigan: She sparred with then-President Trump over the federal government’s pandemic response and earned a spot on Joe Biden’s shortlist of vice-presidential picks.

Now she is among a handful of fellow Democrats who, after the midterms, are being mentioned as potential national party stars, including Maura Healey, who is set to become the first female governor of Massachusetts and the nation’s first openly lesbian governor; Wes Moore, an Army veteran and Rhodes scholar who will be Maryland’s first Black governor; and Pennsylvania Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro, who defeated an election denier in a critical swing state.

But the specifics of Whitmer’s victory — she’s a woman who triumphed over a Make America Great Again candidate in a Midwestern battleground state, all while sweeping in Democratic candidates down the ballot — help particularly fortify her profile as one of the party’s future leaders.

“It absolutely catapults her to the top,” said Alexis Wiley, a Democratic strategist based in Detroit and former chief of staff to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. “Again, what Democrat right now ran for reelection and then helped everybody take every chamber of the legislature and every key office? It can’t be overstated that everybody rode her coattails. She pulled everybody to victory last night.”

On Nov. 9, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-Mich.) gave remarks after being reelected as governor. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Nick Hagen/The Washington Post)

In a sign of her strength, Whitmer increased her margin of victory in Macomb County — a battleground county, in the eastern part of the state, that Trump won in 2016 and 2020 — winning by 5 percent Tuesday night, compared with 3.5 percent in 2018.

“There’s no doubt that her name is going to be very much in the mix when people are talking about national leaders in the future,” said David Axelrod, who was a senior adviser to President Barack Obama. “That was an impressive win on difficult terrain, but she’s proven herself to be smart and resilient and she has a kind of non-coastal appeal.”

Axelrod, who lives in Michigan part of the year, said he has observed closely how well her brand of politics translates, broadly and in more-intimate groups. He described her as “very unvarnished” and “someone who doesn’t present like a garden-variety politician spit out of a computer.”

During the early days of the pandemic, Detroit residents bestowed upon Whitmer the affectionate nickname “Big Gretch,” photoshopping memes of her sporting “Buffs” — Cartier’s pricey buffalo-horn sunglasses — and spreading them online. Detroit rapper Gmac Cash even put out a song about her, “Big Gretch,” praising her handling of the pandemic.

In some ways, Whitmer presents as a suburban mom from the 1990s: Gritty yet optimistic. No frills and authentic, with a collection of leather jackets and bright monochrome blazers.

Her reelection fight came after she led a public charge to protect abortion rights in Michigan. In April, even before the Supreme Court officially ruled to overturn Roe v. Wade, Whitmer filed a lawsuit with the Michigan Supreme Court challenging the state’s 1931 abortion ban, which criminalizes abortions except to save the life of the woman — one of more than a dozen steps Whitmer took to help protect reproductive rights in her state.

Proposal 3, a ballot initiative to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution, passed with 56.7 percent support and appears to have helped lift Whitmer to her commanding victory. Forty-five percent of Michigan voters cited abortion as the issue that mattered most to them, while inflation came in second, with 28 percent support. Whitmer overwhelmingly won those voters who said abortion was the top concern, with 77 percent support, according to exit polls. The percentage of Michigan voters citing abortion as their top issue in their vote was also much higher than the 27 percent in national exit polling.

In a late-June interview with The Washington Post, Whitmer’s eldest daughter, Sherry, 20, said she appreciated her mother’s focus on women’s health and reproductive rights.

“She’s using all her tools,” Sherry said. “If she wasn’t on every Sunday show, I would be mad. I would be like: ‘You have this power, and you need to use it. You need to get out there. You need to use your voice.’”

Gretchen Whitmer’s abortion fight — from the porch with her daughters

Whitmer also pushed an economic message of achievement, citing General Motors’ announcement of a $7 billion investment in four facilities in the state for electric-vehicle and battery production. And after she won the governorship in 2018, partly on a promise to “fix the damn roads,” Michigan is on track to have fixed more than 16,000 lane miles of roads and 1,200 bridges, according to her office.

“When you run on saying you’re going to fix the damn roads, then you better fix the roads,” Stabenow said. “And we’ve got more orange cones than any other state.”

GOP critics take a different view of her tenure. Jason Roe, a former executive director of the state Republican Party, said Whitmer’s image among Democrats does not match the reality of her record in Michigan.

“Through the rosy prism of Democratic sunglasses she looks the part” of an accomplished and capable national leader, he said.

“But in terms of real accomplishments, her record is thin,” Roe said, adding that “she rose to prominence because of the draconian ways she implemented stay-at-home orders” during the pandemic, earning her an elevated place among Democrats because Trump specifically targeted her as “that woman from Michigan.”

Her implementation of those orders, however, created real hardship in Michigan, Roe said, citing “the length of time our children were kept out of school, the number of businesses that were closed down.” Still, he added, to activist Democrats “those may be perceived as virtues, not vices.”

Republicans pounced on a claim Whitmer made during a debate with her Republican opponent, Tudor Dixon, when she said that “kids were out for three months” during the pandemic. Though Whitmer’s team later said she was referring only to closures required by her administration which did last for three months — subsequent closure decisions were left to school districts, many of which did keep students out of in-person school for far longer.

Republicans quickly highlighted her remark as a major talking point during the final stretch of the campaign — and a key data point for part of a larger “parental rights” movement in the state.

During the pandemic, Whitmer emerged as a boogeywoman on the right — she received hundreds of threats and was the target of a kidnap effort by three members of a right-wing paramilitary group. “It was an assassination plot, but no one talks about it that way,” Whitmer told The Post this year.

“She’s endured a lot in her four years of governor,” Axelrod said. “She just ran a really tough race in a really tough year, and she’s unflappable. And for a woman it’s tough to be strong and yet broadly accepted. And she seems to have mastered that, so I think she has a lot going for her.”

Michigan state Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D) said Whitmer’s aggressive attitude in countering attacks from the right motivated her and other female state legislators. “If Michigan shows anything, we are the litmus test for the rest of the country,” McMorrow said.

“There was a plot to kill the governor,” McMorrow said. “Now the state’s expected to be led by three women, and both chambers may also be majority women.”

McMorrow added that this election cycle, Republicans seemed intent on stoking fear, while with Whitmer leading the ticket in the state, “This very much felt like a ‘You do not mess with those women from Michigan’ election.”

“We have to be the model other states to follow if they’re hoping to rebuild Democratic state power,” McMorrow said. “Especially in the Midwest, it starts to rewrite the narrative, because for a while Democrats have been viewed as coastal elites.”

Speaking at her victory party Wednesday morning, Whitmer called on Michiganders to believe in her and themselves.

“That’s our spirit — ordinary folks who accomplished extraordinary things while facing seemingly impossible odds,” she said, according to her prepared remarks.

Now that she will have a Democratic legislature to work with, Whitmer fans are optimistic that her ascent is only hastening.

“The position she’s in right now is pretty remarkable,” Wiley said. “Considering that for the first time she’s not only governor but she’s got a House and a Senate that are Democratic, imagine what she’ll be able to do over the next four years.”

Scott Clement, Ruby Cramer, Tom Hamburger, Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Tyler Pager contributed to this report.

The 2022 Midterm Elections

Georgia runoff election: Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) won re-election in the Georgia Senate runoff, defeating Republican challenger Herschel Walker and giving Democrats a 51st seat in the Senate for the 118th Congress. Get live updates here and runoff results by county.

Divided government: Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, while Democrats will keep control of the Senate, creating a split Congress.

What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign shortly after the midterms. Here are the top 10 2024 presidential candidates for the Republicans and Democrats.