The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘If we don’t run, then we won’t achieve.’ Why a record number of women are eyeing a run for governor.

Gretchen Whitmer, Democratic candidate for Michigan governor, in Detroit on Dec. 19. (Ali Lapetina/For The Washington Post)

EAST LANSING, Mich. — At a time when nearly every aspect of politics feelssuffused by issues involving gender, the leading Democratic contender for Michigan governor makes a point of rarely mentioning hers.

"I talk about jobs," former state Senate minority leader Gretchen Whitmer says. "I talk about education. I talk about making government work for people. That's really the dinner-table issues that I hear from Michiganders in every part of our state."

Whitmer might not bring it up, but she represents what probably will be one of the 2018 elections' most significant trends: More women than ever are in the mix to potentially lead their states as governor — traditionally one of the hardest reaches for female candidates and a position now held by just half a dozen women.

This year, at least 79 women — 49 Democrats and 30 Republicans — are running for governor or seriously considering it as filing deadlines approach, according to a tally by the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University.

The numbers are more than double what they were four years ago and on track to surpass the record 34 women who ran for governor in 1994. In Ohio, there are three women running for governor in the Democratic primary and one in the Republican. In Georgia, both Democratic candidates are named Stacey.

Their candidacies are testing long-held attitudes about women and leadership. Voters tended to see women as "well suited for legislatures, where it's collaborative," said Debbie Walsh, director of the center. "It runs up against the stereotype to see women as the chief decider, the place where the buck stops."

The Trump era has seen a new burst of political activism among women, beginning the day after the inauguration, when they turned out by the tens of thousands in cities and towns across the nation, for what is thought to have been among the largest single-day political demonstration in U.S. history.

Female candidates are stepping up at every level of the ballot. Of the 15 seats that Democrats picked up in the Virginia House of Delegates, 11 were won by women — and the number could grow, depending on how the continuing dispute over another race is settled.

There is a real possibility in Michigan that Democrats may offer female nominees for every statewide elected office — something that doesn't worry Whitmer. In this environment, she said, "people look at that as an asset."

Women marched. Now what?

The 46-year-old attorney declared her candidacy nearly a year ago. Michigan Democrats were still reeling from a presidential election that saw Donald Trump put the state in the GOP column for the first time in 28 years.

In 2015, term limits forced her out of the Michigan Senate after eight years. "I really thought I would go back to the private sector, but I'm looking around at the Michigan my kids are growing up in and I know we deserve better," Whitmer said.

After seeing Trump win her state, "there is a sense that if we don't run, then we won't achieve," she said. "We won't have the communities, the states, the nation we want to live in and where we can raise our kids."

She quickly established herself as the front-runner for the nomination, lining up a raft of establishment endorsements. Among those who took a pass on the race was Rep. Daniel Kildee, a three-term lawmaker from Flint.

Polls have her running about even in a general-election matchup with Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, the likely GOP nominee in the race to replace term-limited Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.

Women racked up victories across the country. It may be only the beginning.

Yet Whitmer remains largely unknown to most Michigan voters, nearly two-thirds of whom did not recognize her name in a recent Detroit Free Press survey.

Her campaign, though ahead in Democratic primary polls, still feels like a shoestring operation. It is headquartered over her dentist husband's office in Lansing, and one recent day on the trail found Whitmer's 15-year-old daughter chalking up driver's education hours by ferrying the candidate to campaign events.

She sets aside 20 hours a week for "call time," which is a nicer way to describe raising money, an aspect of campaigning in which many female candidates lag behind their male counterparts. She used to hate it, but "I've gotten more comfortable," said Whitmer, who is being outraised by Schuette, as she hung up from collecting an additional $500. "If you don't ask for money, people don't think you are a serious candidate."

Her candidacy comes at a moment of existential crisis for Democrats in Michigan. Some worry that Whitmer is too cautious and that she has not spelled out a detailed rationale for her candidacy. Those fears, too, draw comparisons to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who lost Michigan's 2016 Democratic primary to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

To win, Whitmer will have to motivate African American voters in a way that Clinton failed to.

A recent listening session she held with several dozen grass-roots organizers in western Detroit erupted into a raucous argument over whether it is practical to push hard for liberal causes such as single-payer health care, a $15 minimum wage and racial justice. Some vented their anger over tainted drinking water in Flint and the crime that every year puts their city at or near the top of the FBI's list of the nation's most violent cities.

"We don't have a backbone. We don't have an agenda. We don't have anything that people can stand on and say at least Democrats are for these three things, and we are allowing Republicans to wipe us out," said Brenda Hill, whose 22-year-old son was killed in a 2009 shooting that remains unsolved.

"You've got to win first!" community activist Martin Tutwiler shouted from the back.

Whitmer tried to mediate with a warning: "If we don't pull this together, we won't be sitting here next cycle, because we're going to be going extinct."

Female candidates have also moved to the forefront in other statewide races there. In addition to Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who is running for reelection, candidates vying to be chosen by their party at an April convention include former Wayne State University law school dean Jocelyn Benson, thus far unopposed for Democratic nomination to be secretary of state, and lawyer Dana Nessel, who is running for attorney general.

Nessel created a provocative video that went viral as new sexual abuse scandals were making the headlines on a near-daily basis in November. She asked into the camera: "When you're choosing Michigan's next attorney general, ask yourself this: Who can you trust most not to show you their penis in a professional setting? Is it the candidate who doesn't have a penis? I'd say so."

Four years before there was such a movement, Whitmer had her own #MeToo moment. Arguing against a bill that would prevent insurance companies from making coverage of abortion a standard benefit on their policies, the Senate Democratic leader stood on the floor of the chamber and revealed something she had never told even her father — that she had been raped when she was a freshman at Michigan State University.

"The thought and the memory of that still haunts me. If this were law then and I had become pregnant I would not be able to have coverage because of this," she told her colleagues. "How extreme, how extreme does this measure need to be?"

Her argument did not change a single vote, and the bill became law. But Whitmer said she heard from thousands of other women expressing support for her decision to make her story public.

Sexual harassment debate advances an issue — and confuses it

But the politics of sexual misconduct may be tricky for Whitmer. Her Democratic opponents say that when Whitmer was working as an Ingham County prosecutor for six months in 2016, she was not aggressive enough in pursuing charges against former Michigan State doctor Larry Nassar for sexually abusing patients, including female gymnasts.

Whitmer insists the investigation was handled properly. Schuette, the attorney general who may well be Whitmer's GOP opponent in November, prosecuted the state case. Nassar has also been sentenced to 60 years on federal child pornography charges.

But wealthy businessman Shri Thanedar, one of her three Democratic opponents, said Whitmer is vulnerable on the issue in the current climate, adding: "She should do a favor to the Democratic Party by withdrawing from the governor's race because the Democrats cannot afford to lose the governorship in 2018."

"There are really some big questions about whether she was willing to take a politically difficult stand that would have put a predator behind bars," added physician Abdul El-Sayed, another Democratic contender.

Meanwhile, the battle lines are also being drawn for the fall election. Schuette rarely says Whitmer's name but regularly blasts the state's last Democratic governor. Jennifer Granholm's popularity plummeted as she presided over the economic crisis that began a decade ago and hit Michigan as hard as any state in the country.

"We can't go back to the Gran­holm era, which was a failed era," Schuette said in an interview.

Whitmer often hears their names linked. "Lots of women candidates get compared to one another because there's so few women in office and positions in corporate America," she said.

At a fundraiser in Grand Rapids, she compared herself instead to former governor John Engler, a Republican, who like Whitmer led his party in the state Senate before running to be the state's top official.

"Governor Granholm had all the right values but didn't have the right background," Whitmer said.

The small number of female governors currently in office reflects the additional hurdles faced by women seeking a state's executive office, advocates for more female representation said.

"When a woman is running to be the CEO of her state, our research shows that voters need more evidence to believe that she is prepared to do the job than it takes for them to believe that of a man," said Barbara Lee, a liberal philanthropist whose family foundation promotes women in politics. "People have become more comfortable with a woman at the table. They're still not as comfortable having a woman in charge."

Former Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, noted that although she had run for other offices, "there was nowhere near the kind of spotlight and critique and constant coverage you get when you are running for governor. It was a constant revalidation of your credentials."

Sebelius recalled a 2002 debate in which she was onstage with a half-dozen male candidates. Though she was one of only two who had experience in statewide office, an Associated Press report chose to focus on Sebelius's open-toe shoes and the color of her nail polish.

The former Kansas governor said she is heartened by the number of women she sees running for the job in 2018 — including in her own state, where veteran state Sen. Laura Kelly jumped into the Democratic primary in mid-December and immediately became the favorite.

Increasingly, female candidates are citing their gender as an asset.

"I don't back down," Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.), the first woman to chair the House Budget Committee, said in announcing her gubernatorial candidacy in August. "Maybe it's because I grew up in a family where we had nothing, or maybe it's because I was a single mom working the night shift as a nurse. It's just how I'm wired."

If female candidates are seeing new opportunity to reach for the top job in 2018, Whitmer said, they have other women to thank for it.

"In this cycle, the most surprising thing is how sustained the energy is, and the enthusiasm," Whitmer said. "I was always a little concerned that maybe we'd get numbed to everything that's happening, the enthusiasm would wane, and it hasn't for a second. A lot of it is being organized by and sustained by women."

Whether these efforts will translate into victories this year remains to be seen.

On a recent visit to a training center run by the Michigan Council of Carpenters and Millrights in Ferndale, union member Missy Kooiker told Whitmer that she knows a thing or two about breaking gender barriers. The first time Kooiker showed up at a meeting of her carpenters union local, one of the other members greeted her by saying, "Hi, Sunshine. Are you lost?"

Yet last fall, despite her union's endorsement for another barrier-busting woman at the top of the ballot, Kooiker veered — and voted for Trump. This time around, she said, neither party can yet count on her vote: "I think I'm untrusting of the government as a whole."