As Michigan Democrats are still licking their wounds over a disastrous election night, Debbie Dingell has been everywhere.
The freshman congresswoman, who just won re-election to her safe Ann Arbor/Dearborn seat with 64 percent of the vote, is being hailed as an oracle.
After seeing her constituents swoon for Bernie Sanders this winter (she does represent the University of Michigan, after all), Dingell warned the Hillary Clinton camp that Michigan wasn’t in the bag for the March 8 primary. And even after a last-minute push from all three Clintons –– Hillary, Bill and Chelsea –– Sanders still won the state, defying all the polls and oddsmakers like Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.
Throughout the general election phase, Dingell told anyone who would listen that Donald Trump could win Michigan. Her Downriver constituents were enthralled with the Republican billionaire, while plenty of U-M students were still carrying a torch for Bernie. There’s a reason why the only seat the Dems picked up in the state House was in her congressional district –– the open 23rd, soon to be occupied by Darrin Camilleri. Dingell ran her own coordinated campaign, which no doubt factored into his 323-vote win.
It’s also no secret that Dingell chafed with the Michigan Clinton campaign starting in 2015 (the Wikileaks hack laid some private emails bare for the world to see).
Trump did end up carrying the state by roughly 10,000 votes (a result that’s not expected to change, even with Green Party nominee Jill Stein’s recount).
Now with a narrow loss, it’s easy to lay blame on a single factor or group, because any one of them could tip the result: a poor Clinton ground game, FBI Director James Comey’s letters, bitter Bernie voters who voted third party, suburban white women who stuck with the GOP, uninspired African-American voters who stayed home, etc.
But there’s no doubt that Dingell’s argument that Democrats ignored white working-class voters has gained the most traction.
Now national reporters have been dispatched in droves to embark on brief anthropological safaris of the decaying Rust Belt. Those of us who live here, of course, know the reality is far more complicated than these beautifully tragic portrayals of blue-collar life designed to illustrate the cruel indifference of liberal coastal elites (most of which are written by coastal elites).
Dingell, on the other hand, is keeping it real and urging Democrats to refocus on a clear economic message that resonates with more voters. Days after the election, she wrote a hard-nosed op-ed for the Washington Post that touted her own political savvy, but was also pretty self-aware. Here’s the lead:
“I was the crazy one. I predicted that Hillary Clinton was in trouble in Michigan during the Democratic primary. I observed that Donald Trump could win the Republican nomination for president. And at Rotary clubs, local chambers of commerce, union halls and mosques, I noted that we could see a Trump presidency. ‘That’s Debbie, it’s hyperbole, she is nuts.’”
Dingell, who’s married to the former Dean of the House known as “The Truck,” is known for being extremely blunt in her own right, which doesn’t always make her popular. Not surprisingly, however, it’s made her a must-book guest on national news shows.
The question is what Dingell decides to do now. The easiest path is to remain in Congress.
She represents a safely blue district and could theoretically serve in Congress for decades (if she stays until 2033, it would be a whole century of Dingells occupying that seat). The only threats could come from redistricting (Michigan is on track to lose another seat in 2021) or in a primary. Dingell has been skilled at building relationships with Republicans and keeping her district’s left flank satisfied, so she’s insulated herself as much as is possible.
But there’s been a growing drumbeat from Dems who think she should run in the open governor’s race in 2018. The problem is that the Democratic field would almost certainly be crowded. Former state senator-turned-interim Ingham County Prosecutor Gretchen Whitmer is expected to announce she’s running soon. Look for Dingell’s colleague, U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) to jump in after the New Year.
Other dark horse candidates include Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, Westland Mayor Bill Wild and U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade. And it’s always worth keeping an eye on Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who’s up for re-election next year and has repeatedly eschewed the possibility of a gubernatorial run. But he’s the rare Democrat who has the resources to make a late entry and scramble the field.
The role best suited for Dingell seems to be playing king (or queen) maker.
And it’s not just because of her 2016 electoral clairvoyance. She’s been a fixture in Democratic politics for decades, both in Michigan and Washington, as a longtime fundraiser, Democratic National committeewoman and chair of the Wayne State Board of Governors. Those who have snidely dismissed Dingell for riding her husband’s coattails don’t know her.
Any Democratic gubernatorial hopeful would be lucky to receive Dingell’s blessing. And anyone with an ounce of political know-how will aggressively court her. Let the games begin.
Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here