This week, the Lansing bubble seemed to burst.
Yes, U.S. Rep.Dan Kildee’s completely unsurprising decision not to run for the Democratic nomination for governor seems to have done the impossible. Politicos and reporters appeared to wake up to the fact that no, former state Sen. Gretchen Whitmer doesn’t have this thing all sewn up, despite the fact that they’ve known her for decades.
And why would she? It’s 15 months before the primary for an open seat, for crying out loud.
Now personally, I would have liked to see an insider epiphany over something significant, like the realization that child poverty is a thing and we should maybe do more. But baby steps.
Anyway, the uncertainty of the 2018 Democratic race for governor has been clear for awhile if you spent time talking with folks outside the Capitol.
A lot of Dems were waiting for Kildee, especially those in labor or living in areas quickly slipping away from Democrats, like the U.P. and Macomb County. But there was a growing sense that he would stay in Congress, playing the role of aggressive foil to President Trump — which is what he ultimately decided to do after Republicans rammed their draconian repeal of Obamacare through the U.S. House. Now a lot of his supporters — and he has some fervent ones — are left looking for an alternative.
Whitmer has a strong fan base and her events across the state have drawn some impressive crowds. She’s expected to report a good fundraising haul. But as I noted last week, the anti-establishment Bernie Sanders voters are starting to gravitate toward former Detroit Health Department head Abdul El-Sayed.
There’s also no shortage of more establishment types who harbor deep concerns about Whitmer, which is why there was a lot of chatter about a “dream ticket” of Kildee-Whitmer or even about her running as attorney general instead. Of course her gender is a factor and of course it’s unfair. You can’t have a conversation about Whitmer without pointed comparisons to former Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Hillary Clinton.
But if Clinton had won Michigan last year, some of the sexism would have been muted. Her epic collapse north of M-10 and inability to turn out enough voters in southeast Michigan has made plenty of Dems jittery and wonder how Whitmer wins any votes that Clinton couldn’t. Time will tell if she can better connect with these voters than Clinton, who managed to lose Michigan twice.
Whitmer, a former Senate minority leader, has played up her 14-plus years in the Legislature as an asset. But it’s true she doesn’t have much of a record to show for it, as she served in the minority the whole time. Now Republicans had long identified her as a rising star and didn’t want to move her bills. And in her last four years, Gov. Rick Snyder was able to get most of what he wanted without Democrats’ support, so he didn’t trifle with them much. Still, wonky types wonder about how effective Whitmer would truly be at governing.
All of that is pretty premature, but there’s the political reality that the Senate caucus that she led has nearly gone extinct. When Whitmer was running for leader in 2010, the caucus shrank from 16 members to 12, putting them in a superminority where they couldn’t even procedurally block bills. During her leadership in ‘14, Democrats managed to lose another seat, a feat that seemed nearly impossible.
Whitmer has had the luxury of running in blue seats in the Lansing area and only faced some minor electoral battles at the beginning of her career (which is one reason why insiders bought into her ‘18 inevitability). Plenty of Democrats, however, would like to see her test her mettle in a tough gubernatorial primary, with the idea that the winner would emerge as a stronger candidate.
So Kildee’s announcement this week did what it was designed to do. It shook loose new Democratic possibilities for governor, notably University of Michigan Regent Mark Bernstein, who could put his 1-800-CALL-SAM legal family fortune to good use (and tantalizingly free up Democratic money for races up and down the ballot).
Can Bernstein win any votes that Whitmer can’t? Will there be other big names jumping in? That’s not clear.
But what has crystallized this week is that this race is far from over.
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.