Michigan politics has taken an ugly turn since 2016, and it’s not just on the Republican side.
Our state helped elect President Donald Trump — after he kicked off his campaign by calling immigrants “rapists and murderers,” animatedly mocked a disabled reporter at a campaign rally, and admitted to sexual assault on the “grab ‘em by the pussy” “Access Hollywood” tape that came out weeks before the election.
If you’d like to believe that a plurality of 10,000 voters plunked for Trump solely because they dig lower taxes, that’s fine. But no other Republican managed to win Michigan since 1988 — and they all promised mondo tax cuts — so perhaps that take is a bit myopic.
Many Democrats have naturally been concerned about how to win back areas that went big for Trump, mainly Macomb County and the Upper Peninsula.
The public discussion has focused on how to hone the party’s economic message and how much of Bernie Sanders’ democratic socialist populism to incorporate.
But the private, knee-jerk response of some Dems after Hillary Clinton’s loss is that the party needs to run more straight white men, especially at the highest levels. This idea has currency with a faction in the unions, but there are a number of white-glove, cocktail-party circuit intellectuals who subscribe to this strategy, as well.
What’s absent from the discussion is how Barack Obama, the first African-American president who frequently joked about his “funny name,” managed to twice win landslide victories in Michigan not too long ago, including those areas some are convinced will only vote for white dudes.
As things currently stand, the Democratic gubernatorial frontrunner is former Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer (D-East Lansing), who served for more than 14 years in Lansing. Her top competition is Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, the former Detroit Health Department head who’s in the Sanders mold and would be the nation’s first Muslim governor. There’s also businessman Shri Thanedar, who immigrated from India, and former executive Bill Cobbs, who’s African-American.
Most Democratic leaders and voters are fine with the field, which, after all, is pretty representative of the party.
But for the forces utterly convinced that a woman, Muslim, immigrant or African-American absolutely cannot win the top job in Michigan next year, the mission is clear: Find the Great White Male Hope.
That quest began in earnest after U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint), who rose to national prominence after the Flint Water Crisis, announced in May that he wouldn’t run.
The problem is that big-name candidates aren’t interested and time is running short. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan insists he won’t run. No one thinks Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel wants to give up a job he’s got for life next year. And no one wants attorney Geoffrey Fieger, the party’s 1998 nominee, to run except, well, Geoffrey Fieger.
University of Michigan Regent Mark Bernstein, who’s also a big metro Detroit lawyer, seemed like the best prospect this summer. But he ultimately said no and promptly endorsed Whitmer to boot.
That leaves Andy Levin, the son of U.S. Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Southfield) who worked for Gov. Jennifer Granholm and ran an unsuccessful 2006 state Senate campaign. He’s spoken to a number of Dem groups about possibly running for governor or Congress.
The smart money is on Levin keeping his powder dry until his father retires, which could be next year. The Levin name would be almost impossible to beat in the district covering Macomb and Oakland counties. And it’s awfully late to mount a gubernatorial campaign, as he’ll need to raise serious money against some well-funded opponents (in both parties).
Besides, does Levin really want his campaign to be defined by being the last white guy left standing? He already feels pressure to emerge from the shadow of his father and uncle, former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin. There doesn’t seem to be much upside here.
And here’s the truth. Anyone who thinks a white male Democratic gubernatorial nominee will be insulated from racialized and bigoted attacks on social media or from shady SuperPACs is living in a dream world. The culture wars have kicked back into high gear, with everything from an immigrant teenager seeking an abortion to black NFL players kneeling during the national anthem becoming major political flashpoints.
Buzzfeed did a thorough investigation of the connection between the Mercers, who are big Trump donors; white nationalists; and Breitbart News, which is run by former Trump senior adviser Steve Bannon who’s looking to play hard in 2018 races. Even if these big forces don’t get involved with Michigan elections, there are plenty of copycats who will after seeing Trump’s ‘16 success here.
Now the hits might be more personal against some candidates. Right-wing forces will probably try the same gendered attacks against Whitmer that bloodied Clinton. For a sampling of the likely stealth campaign against El-Sayed, you can just check out the rants against Sharia law former GOP National Committeeman Dave Agema frequently posts on Facebook.
But this battle is coming no matter what. This isn’t the time for Democrats to run scared. It’s time for them to fight for the kind of Michigan they believe in.
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.