Gretchen Whitmer's battleground election bid in Michigan might be a roadmap for Democrats

The first-term Michigan governor is running against Republican Tudor Dixon.

October 27, 2022, 5:07 AM

Michigan's Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is betting her bid for a second term on finding the right balance between kitchen-table issues and social issues like abortion access -- a potentially high-wire act in one of the country's marquee swing states.

Democrats there are bullish that Whitmer, who won the governorship in the 2018 blue wave, has found a potent blend in her campaign against Republican Tudor Dixon, a businesswoman, conservative commentator and veteran culture war brawler.

Whitmer has staked out a roughly 5-point lead in the FiveThirtyEight polling average, though that advantage has narrowed from a double-digit margin last month, and those in both parties say they anticipate a final result that matches a more narrowly divided electorate. The two parties have traded control of the governor's mansion since the 1970s, and neither party has had multiple candidates win successive terms.

Yet if Whitmer does emerge victorious, Democrats are eyeing her campaign as a blueprint for how to win not just in Michigan but elsewhere in the industrial Midwest, an increasingly competitive region in which the party likely must remain competitive in the next few years if it hopes to maintain power in Washington.

"I think her candidacy overall has laid down that playbook in terms of working across the aisle when you can, focusing on issues that voters care about, such as roads, and then finding those issues that are going to really sway the election, such as abortion," said Josh Hovey, a Michigan communications consultant. "I think she's done a great job just as a governor in walking that line, and now she's reinforcing all the things that she's done through her messaging."

At the start of the 2022 cycle, many race observers saw Whitmer as one of the most vulnerable incumbent governors up for reelection.

Besides the drag on Democrats nationwide -- given President Joe Biden's sagging approval ratings and economic anxiety -- Whitmer was hit with an avalanche of criticism over how she handled COVID-19 business and school closures, sparking frustrations that culminated in a mob of armed protesters swarming the state capitol in April 2020. (Later that same year, she was also the target of a foiled kidnapping plot, authorities have said.)

But Whitmer cast herself as an effective executive with a slate of economic accomplishments while emerging as a fundraising powerhouse and leader in the effort to block a 1931 state abortion ban after the Supreme Court scrapped federal protections this summer by overturning Roe v. Wade.

In a slate of ads and on the stump, Whitmer has been touting successes like bipartisan auto insurance reform, new factory jobs making semiconductor chips and construction projects across the state to repair damaged streets -- an ode to her 2018 "fix the damn roads" mantra.

And while rising prices from historic inflation are likely taking a bite out of Whitmer's potential support -- with the governor in an ad conceding, "I can't solve the inflation problem" -- supporters are hopeful that her policy wins can help offset the dour economic landscape and earn her a crucial win in a state that strategists describe as historically characterized by socially conservative, fiscally-minded Democrats.

PHOTO: Vice President Kamala Harris smiles as Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer delivers remarks after touring a FOCUS: HOPE facility, Oct. 15, 2022, in Detroit.
Vice President Kamala Harris smiles as Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer delivers remarks after touring a FOCUS: HOPE facility, Oct. 15, 2022, in Detroit.
Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

"Michigan's always going to be a meat-and-potatoes, kitchen table kind of state. That's just the way it is," said Michigan Democratic strategist Joe DiSano. "She's paying attention to the voters where they're at, which is politics 101 -- but so often people forget that."

Whitmer hasn't forgotten her messaging on abortion access either, having made it a defining part of her platform even before Roe was struck down. The governor, before the high court's decision was issued but after a draft was leaked in May, dove headfirst into legal battles to block the 1931 ban and has also been pushing for passage of an amendment in November to write abortion protections into the state constitution.

Dixon has a markedly different opinion on the issue, including opposing exceptions in a ban for rape and incest and saying that a rape victim who becomes pregnant should have the child in the hopes of "healing through that baby."

"Those voices, the babies of rape victims that have come forward, are very powerful when you hear their story and what the truth is behind that," Dixon told a local news outlet in August. "It’s very hard to not stand up for those people."

At the most recent debate between the two, on Tuesday, Dixon said that abortion rights in the state "will be decided by Proposal 3 [the proposed amendment in November] or it will be decided by a judge."

"I think one thing that sets Michigan and Gov. Whitmer apart is she came out … and really staked out abortion access as something that was critically important to her," said state Sen. Mallory McMorrow, a Democrat. "I think it's the perfect combination of doing all the things to move the state in the right direction, but also we do have this looming threat of one of the most extreme sitting abortion bans on the books."

Others in her party say Whitmer has been able to strike that balance with a message discipline that may seem obvious but is difficult to execute and nothing short of imperative when appealing to the state's bountiful blue-collar voters and a Democratic base animated by their views on social justice.

"If you watch some of the TV shows, you think all that people are talking about are Kanye West, the gender of athletes and things like that," said state Senate Democratic Leader Jim Ananich. "I think the governor realizes that the more we focus on people's lives and what affects them and what they care about and the less we worry about what other people tell us we should care about, the better off we're going to be."

Beyond what she's able to tout, Whitmer has avoided taking on lasting damage from attacks over strict pandemic-era closures and personal outings that plagued lawmakers in places like California and Nevada.

​To curb the rise in COVID-19 cases in March 2020, Whitmer swiftly shuttered schools and businesses and ultimately closed classrooms for the next year, eventually drawing outcry from parents. Republicans still grumble over the move, though operatives from both parties say they don't see any permanent damage to Whitmer's approval rating over it.

Democratic and nonpartisan observers who spoke with ABC News chalk up her emergence from the pandemic with her reputation largely intact in part to reading where the public was on the restrictions and because they ended over a year ago.

"At one point, she was very popular in terms of the things that she had done and the decision she made about COVID," said Bernie Porn, a Michigan-based pollster. "But then over the course of a year, people got frustrated and fed up with closures. And then she stopped the closures, changed her positions on the level of closures, although saying it was necessary at the time. And so I think the voters are understanding of that."

To be sure, Whitmer is not a shoo-in.

Democratic and Republican strategists alike anticipate the race will tighten in the home stretch, with the GOP banking on a rough national environment for Democrats being a heavy anchor around Whitmer's neck.

Indeed, the polling average has tightened, leading Dixon's campaign to tout in a statement that "Tudor has the momentum and Whitmer is in trouble." Whitmer's campaign, meanwhile boasted that the governor "has traveled across the state to meet with voters about her vision to keep moving Michigan forward, while Tudor Dixon would drag the state backward."

PHOTO:Democratic Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks in Detroit, Sept. 14, 2022. Tudor Dixon, candidate for Governor of Michigan, attends a rally by former President Donald Trump in Warren, Mich., Oct. 1, 2022.
Democratic Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Sept. 14, 2022. Tudor Dixon, candidate for Governor of Michigan, attends a rally by former President Donald Trump in Warren, Mich., Oct. 1, 2022.
AP | Reuters

Neither party is leaving anything to chance, with the Republican Governors Association reserving $3.7 million in ads and other support between Oct. 12 and Election Day. The Democratic Governors Association, meanwhile, has pumped $28 million in total in ads and other boosts into Michigan, and former President Barack Obama is heading to Detroit this weekend.

"Michigan is traditionally a purple state that goes red under the right circumstances," former Michigan GOP Chair Saul Anuzis said. "It's a function of the issues that are out there, the candidates that are that are out there and the national mood. And right now, I think the issues are on our side, I think the national mood is on our side."

Still, if Whitmer wins, Democrats across the industrial Midwest could be taking notes.

The party has shed white, working-class voters in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, culminating in Donald Trump's 2016 smashing of the "blue wall" and the shredding of Democrats' Electoral College safety net during presidential races.

Those four states share similar demographics, with the percentage of college graduates in each hovering around 30% and the percentage of the white population ranging between 79% and 86%, according to the census.

That's left Democrats seeking a playbook to reinforce their foothold in the region and wondering if Whitmer is showing them how.

"I would 100% follow her," said Ananich, the state Senate Democratic leader. "She should write a book about how to win back the industrial Midwest because I think she's going to win with good numbers twice in a row. I think she could take this brand anywhere she wanted to."

ABC News' Paulina Tam contributed to this report.

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