Democrats used a rebuttal to President Trump’s State of the Union address on Tuesday night to refocus the national spotlight on the party’s policy platforms, a pivot from the impeachment narrative that has dominated the headlines of the past half-year.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivered the Democratic response to the president’s annual address to Congress from a high school in East Lansing, Mich., a critical state for Democrats in their bid to oust Trump in 2020. And in a nod to the increasingly diverse party, congressional Democratic leaders chose another female politician, Hispanic freshman Rep. Veronica Escobar, one of the two first Latinas to represent Texas, to deliver a separate Democratic response in Spanish.

Escobar didn’t use the word “impeachment,” and Whitmer used it once. Impeachment proceedings have dominated Washington since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) opened the impeachment inquiry in September.

While Escobar talked about holding Trump accountable, both women focused instead on Democratic efforts to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, reduce gun violence and improve access to health care — with Escobar delivering her speech from a community health center in her El Paso district.

“It’s pretty simple. Democrats are trying to make your health care better. Republicans in Washington are trying to take it away,” Whitmer said.

Congressional Democrats’ choice of Whitmer to reply to Trump highlights the party’s focus on the Great Lakes state heading into a contentious election season. In 2016, Democrats were aghast when Trump carried Michigan over Hillary Clinton by less than a point, also sweeping up Wisconsin and Pennsylvania to claim the White House.

Since then, Democrats have sought to ensure the party is well positioned to compete in the industrial Midwest and with swing voters across the nation. Pelosi, for example, has notably refused to fully embrace some of the more liberal policies being espoused by the 2020 Democratic hopefuls, including Medicare-for-all and free college — ideas many Hill Democratic leaders fear will blow back on the party.

The scene at President Trump's third State of the Union address

Feb. 4, 2020 | Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), center, poses for a selfie with Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.), right, ahead of President Trump’s State of the Union address. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Enter Whitmer, a 48-year-old former prosecutor and state lawmaker who won the gubernatorial race in 2018 by 10 points. That sound defeat of former GOP state attorney general Bill Schuette gave the party hope that it can, with the right message, romp through the Midwest again.

Whitmer, who brands herself as a pragmatist willing to reach across the aisle, ran on a blunt slogan focused on infrastructure: “Fix the damn roads.” Infrastructure has also been a top priority for Hill Democrats, as well. And Whitmer on Tuesday night plugged the party’s work on crumbling infrastructure.

“Blown tires and broken windshields are downright dangerous. And car repairs take money from rent, child care, or groceries,” Whitmer said. “And we — the Democrats — are doing something about it.” 

Whitmer also made a personal appeal on health care, speaking about a time that “I was holding down a new job, caring for my newborn daughter as well as my mom at the end of her brain cancer battle.” She discussed how that experience led her to work with a Republican governor and legislator “to expand health-care coverage to more than 680,000 Michiganders under the Affordable Care Act” as a state senator.

“I was up all night with a baby, and during the day, I had to fight my mom’s insurance company when they wrongly denied her coverage for chemotherapy,” she said. “It was hard. It exposed the harsh realities of our workplaces, our health-care system, and our child-care system. And it changed me.”

Democratic leaders’ choice of Escobar, 50, also was no accident. She hails from a border district that has been on the front lines of the immigration fight raging through the nation. As a part of Pelosi’s leadership circle, Escobar has used her platform to push back on Trump administration policies affecting immigrants, including family separation and a requirement that asylum seekers wait in Mexico during the application process. She also has led congressional delegations to the border.

“I remember seeing the Statue of Liberty on Ellis Island for the first time. I was in awe of Lady Liberty,” she said Tuesday night. “It is up to all of us — in the face of one of the most challenging times in history — to reflect the dignity, grace of Lady Liberty and the values of America.”

Gun policies are also front and center for Escobar. Twenty-two people in her district, many of them constituents, were shot and killed at a Walmart in El Paso in early August by a racist gunman who drove hundreds of miles from his home to hunt down people who looked to be of Mexican descent.

Escobar spoke of those still-fresh wounds Tuesday night.

“Just before he began his killing spree, he posted his views online and used hateful language like the very words used by President Trump to describe immigrants and Latinos,” Escobar said of the killer. In the past, she has blasted the president’s rhetoric, saying it leads to violence against minorities.

Escobar made a reference to the impeachment effort that has ground Washington to a halt for months. She accused Trump of violating his oath by pressuring Ukraine to investigate his adversaries, what she called “a tragic moment” in American history.

“Congress must defend our republic,” she said, later adding a favorite Pelosi phrase: “No one is above the law.”

Both Escobar and Whitmer blamed Trump for the growing income gap, with the wealthy earning more while low-income earners still struggle. Escobar said that Trump’s economic policies have “created two Americas: one where the wealthiest 1 percent benefit and one that leaves too many farmers, businesses and working families behind.”

Whitmer said that “it doesn’t matter what the president says about the stock market. What matters is that millions of people struggle to get by or don’t have enough money at the end of the month after paying for transportation, student loans, or prescription drugs.”

“Wages have stagnated, while CEO pay has skyrocketed,” she said.

Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.