As far as I know, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan isn’t a gambler, but if he were, you probably wouldn’t want to bet against a horse he was backing. Yesterday, when he endorsed Gretchen Whitmer at her headquarters in his city, it was a clear indication that the Democratic nomination for governor is now hers, unless she makes some kind of cataclysmic mistake.
Though the primary is still five months away, Duggan, to an extent, was ratifying the obvious. Whitmer, a former minority leader in the state senate, has been the front-runner ever since she announced she was running 14 months ago.
While there are other declared candidates, the only serious threat to her nomination was if Congressman Dan Kildee of Flint wanted the job. But Kildee chose to stay in Congress.
Whitmer’s campaign did take some time to get going. Early on, some of her aides seemed to think she was better known statewide than she is, and she was slow to speak out on some issues. Abdul El-Sayed, the charismatic former head of the Detroit health department, impressed reporters, got tons of media attention, and seemed to be a magnet for young Bernie Sanders voters.
But he’s never come close to her in the polls. One party elder told me that while there was indeed concern as to whether a Muslim and an Arab-American could be elected, there was also concern as to whether the 33-year-old El-Sayed is ready for the job. He spent barely a year as director of the Detroit health department, and he has never worked in Lansing.
Michigan’s last two governors also had no legislative experience, and that clearly made both less effective than they might have been. That won’t be an issue with either Whitmer or either of the two leading Republican candidates, Attorney General Bill Schuette and Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley. But that’s not to say Democrats see little to choose from.
Eight years ago, Democrats were resigned to Rick Snyder being elected, and allowed themselves to think he might be a Milliken-style moderate. While they were hopeful four years ago that Mark Schauer could defeat him, beating an incumbent is always hard. But today, Democrats are totally united in wanting to defeat Schuette, the man they think is Whitmer’s likely opponent. They see him as scheming, unprincipled, and worst of all, skilled and effective.
The 64-year-old Schuette has aligned himself with Trump voters and the religious right, though based on past practice, you can expect him to move to the center for the fall campaign.
Duggan’s enthusiastic support was significant. Detroit may well be where Gretchen Whitmer wins or loses this race. Detroiters won’t vote for Schuette, but they may stay home unless they get to know Gretchen Whitmer and feel that she is invested in them.
Detroit’s mayor wasn’t sold on Whitmer at first. Democrats feared Republicans would portray her as another ineffective charismatic woman in the mold of Jennifer Granholm, with a side of Hillary Clinton thrown in. But since the Michigan State University sex scandal, polls show voters seem more willing to support women candidates.
We are seeing the early stages of what will be a long, nasty and very expensive campaign for governor, and it’s way too soon to know who is likely to win.
But for Gretchen Whitmer, yesterday was a good day indeed.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.