The pandemic has given Whitmer her own moment in time, rapidly elevating the first-term governor into the national spotlight, while also placing her under new scrutiny.
Former vice president Joe Biden has listed her among his potential picks for a running mate. He had her on his podcast recently, where they mixed policy discussions with talk of Biden’s favorite snack (Fig Newtons) and the name of Whitmer’s dog (Kevin).
But Whitmer has also drawn fierce attacks from Republicans. President Trump has consistently ridiculed the governor on television, calling her “that woman.” The Republican National Committee has launched an effort to dig up damaging information on Whitmer, submitting public records requests for information that would cast her coronavirus response in a negative light.
Whitmer’s role takes on added significance as the 2020 presidential race heats up. Michigan is a crucial battleground state, won in a tight race by Trump four years ago. Winning back the Rust Belt — and the working-class whites who live there — has been central to Biden’s pitch for the presidency, and Whitmer won the governor’s race by nearly 10 points in 2018.
Since the pandemic hit the United States hard two months ago, Whitmer has been on the front lines. Detroit quickly became an epicenter of the outbreak, and Michigan has the country’s third-most cases of the virus.
As a result, Whitmer on April 10 extended a stay-at-home order through April 30, and she also added additional restrictions on travel and businesses selling products deemed nonessential.
Now, Republican lawmakers in her state are escalating their criticism of her decision to implement one of the nation’s most aggressive stay-at-home orders. Protesters are clogging the streets near the state Capitol to demand she begin opening up the state’s economy, and she is facing several lawsuits challenging orders to shutter nonessential businesses.
While some Democrats have rushed to her defense, others privately say she needs to do more to justify her decisions.
It is offering a real-time audition of how she handles a crisis and whether she can stand up to Trump’s onslaught.
“I definitely see why Trump’s afraid of her, and why former vice president Biden would be considering her,” said Michigan Senate Democratic Leader Jim Ananich. “She would make a strong addition to the ticket. She’s strong not just in Michigan, but in the Midwest.”
In response, Trump has kept up a drumbeat of criticism, initially dismissing her as “the woman in Michigan” or calling her “Gretchen ‘Half’ Whitmer” — which Whitmer gamely responded by tweeting, “Hi, my name is Gretchen Whitmer, and that governor is me.”
Trump has not discouraged protesters who have come out en masse, wearing MAGA hats, carrying signs and honking horns.
“They seem to be protesters that like me and respect this opinion,” Trump said during his Thursday media briefing. “We have large sections of the country right now that can start thinking about opening.”
On Friday, Trump tweeted that Whitmer should lift some of the restrictions meant to curb the coronavirus, writing “LIBERATE MICHIGAN.”
Two people close to the Trump campaign, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions, said Trump’s attacks were motivated by a mix of presidential pique and Whitmer’s position as a potential vice-presidential nominee who could help Biden win Michigan.
The RNC has begun a deep dive into Whitmer, a person with knowledge of the operation said on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions, along with other female candidates, filing FOIA requests and looking for records on her response to the novel coronavirus, along with other things that could damage her.
Ronna McDaniel, the RNC chair and former chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party, has complained about Whitmer’s behavior and the additional restrictions she has announced during this time, and has reported her opinions to other White House officials and the president.
The goal is to drive her approval numbers down, the people close to the Trump campaign said, and make her nationally more unpopular.
“Her recent expansion of her emergency powers and her executive order has angered a lot of citizens in the state,” McDaniel said. “She has been inconsistent with her guidelines throughout this.”
The state in some ways has become a microcosm of the national debate. Those in rural areas of Michigan have questioned statewide policies that discourage movement when they say the virus is more concentrated in urban areas like Detroit.
Republican legislative leaders have repeatedly criticized her decision to discourage residents from traveling.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey accused her on Facebook of “DESTROYING OUR HEALTH BY KILLING OUR LIVELIHOODS!”
House Speaker Lee Chatfield said her priorities were off kilter in what types of businesses were being encouraged to remain open, and those that are not.
“Non-essential in Michigan: Lawn care, construction, fishing if boating with a motor, realtors, buying seeds, home improvement equipment and gardening supplies,” he wrote on Twitter. “Essential in Michigan: Marijuana, lottery and alcohol. Let’s be safe and reasonable. Right now, we’re not!”
Ananich, the Senate Democratic Leader, said the criticism of Whitmer grew among state Republican lawmakers at the same time as Trump began raising his own criticism. Previously, he said, the top leadership among both parties had a fairly effective working relationship.
“All the sudden it went from kumbaya to, ‘It’s tyrannical,’ ” he said. “I don’t think it’s coincidence the president has called her out on twitter and Democratic nominee has mentioned her as a vice-presidential candidate.”
Whitmer has often not engaged with Republican criticism, and during her news conference on Friday she rarely mentioned Trump and, when asked, avoided any direct engagement.
“Some of the rhetoric has been pretty nasty,” Ananich said. “People are implying some tyrannical vision to lock us all down. She’s always been clear the stay-at-home order was going to work, and then we get back to normal. She’s having conversations about opening up in phases.”
While Republicans have been attempting to tag Whitmer as the Democratic version of Sarah Palin — another freshman governor who can inject an elderly nominee with youthful excitement — the coronavirus response in some ways gives Biden’s advisers a real time look at how she handles a difficult situation.
“Certainly if you want to see how people are going to respond under the pressure of a catastrophe or calamity of some kind, this is a pretty good crucible with which to test somebody,” said Chris Savage, chairman of the Washtenaw County Democrats. “And the one thing that calms me the most right now is her press conferences. She is getting facts and science out without making people freak out.”
The woman who ran on a blunt campaign mantra “Fix the damn roads” has become the governor who is attempting to adopt a basic, by-the-books response. During her Friday briefing, she went through the number of coronavirus cases – 30,023, up 760 from the day prior – and the number of deaths – 2,227, up 134 from the previous day.
“Every unnecessary trip to the gas pump can put someone’s parent, grandparent, daughter, son, at risk,” she said. “Every time someone ignores social distancing could lead to another lost life.”
“We may never know how many lives we saved, but there’s no doubt our sacrifice has meant something,” she added.
Annie Linskey contributed to this report.