The following column appeared in Dome Magazine.
If you were to poll Lansing insiders, most would probably say that Gretchen Whitmer will be the Democrats’ next nominee for governor.
In 2010, she made history as the first woman elected to lead a state Senate caucus. Whitmer took on the unenviable role as leader of the loyal opposition in a government completely controlled by Republicans. Her fiery floor speeches blasting Right to Work as “sexist” and railing against “Vaginagate,” when two female lawmakers were barred from speaking on an abortion bill, earned her coverage from cable news.
In total, Whitmer served 14 years in the Legislature (all in the minority), so she’s a known quantity with the Capitol press corps. Her roots in Lansing go back much further, even though she spent some of her childhood in Grand Rapids. Whitmer’s late mother, Sherry, served as an assistant attorney general under Frank Kelley, and her father, Dick, was a Commerce Department director under Gov. William Milliken.
Since she was termed out of the Senate in 2014, Whitmer has kept a high profile. She’s back to practicing law at Dickinson Wright, one of the most well-known firms in the state, and has started teaching at the University of Michigan’s Ford School.
In 2014, Whitmer disappointed many by declining to run for governor, four years after bowing out of the attorney general race. She cited the needs of her two young daughters both times.
So what’s different about 2018? Her girls will both be in high school. And allies say Whitmer is all in for governor.
But first, she’ll almost certainly have to battle through a Democratic primary –– and that’s where things get tricky.
As the race stands today, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is Democrats’ choice for governor, winning 20 percent in an Inside Michigan Politics/Target Insyght poll this month. Of course, Duggan has strenuously insisted he’s not interested, but many Democratic donors and voters hope he’ll change his mind. The mayor has earned glowing PR for turning around the disastrous city, and Detroit is the perfect home base for a Democratic nominee.
If Duggan doesn’t run, Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel could make a play for southeast Michigan voters. But Hackel, a distant fourth in the poll with 9 percent, will probably pay a big price for cozying up to GOP Gov. Rick Snyder.
Whitmer placed second with 16 percent, buoyed by young voters and those in west Michigan. Surprisingly, she didn’t do particularly well with women, despite her advocacy, and there was no decisive gender gap in the poll. That might change, however, if the Washington, D.C.-based EMILY’s List endorses Whitmer, as it did Jennifer Granholm in her tough 2002 primary.
Still, the sleeping tiger in the race may be U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, who was third with 12 percent. There’s little doubt that he’s running in 2018. Normally, it would be a big leap for a congressman from Flint to play statewide.
But Kildee has taken the lead on two big national and international issues: The Flint water crisis and getting U.S. veteran Amir Hekmati released from Iran. Now he’s a staple on cable news and in Michigan news outlets. And many Democrats think it would be poetic justice for a Flint Democrat to succeed Snyder, who they blame for the state’s ineptitude and callousness in the face of a health catastrophe.
In practical terms, the earned media will be invaluable in raising Kildee’s name ID. And he would probably also be boosted by several labor groups, which are critical in a Democratic primary.
So who would win a head-to-head matchup between Whitmer and Kildee? It’s too early to say, of course.
But sometimes events overwhelm a race. And in that case, Kildee could shock the Lansing crowd and lock the 2018 nomination down.
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.