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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas

Whitmer vs. El-Sayed

May 5, 2017

A few months ago, it looked like the only thing standing in Gretchen Whitmer’s way was Dan Kildee.

Whitmer, a Democratic former state Senate minority leader, leapt into the 2018 gubernatorial sweepstakes just after the New Year, while hopefuls in both parties were still issuing (not very convincing) denials about running. Most politicos (myself included) expected Kildee to get in, as the congressman has kept a very high profile during the Flint water crisis.

But even as Kildee has continued to waver between keeping a safe U.S. House seat and taking the plunge for state CEO, a new threat is emerging to Whitmer’s nomination.

And it’s coming from a very unlikely place.

When Dr. Abdul El-Sayed announced he was running for governor back in February, even Democratic insiders had to Google him. Sure, some people knew him from his work running the Detroit Health Department under Mayor Mike Duggan or from his Crain’s “40 Under 40” profile, but that was about it. He was 32, had never run for office and didn’t appear to be very politically active.

The last part was confirmed last week on WKAR’s “Off the Record,” when El-Sayed admitted he didn’t even vote in the 2016 presidential primary. But he did tell the panel that he would have voted for Bernie Sanders, who pulled out an upset win against Hillary Clinton.

And that helps explain why there’s growing grassroots enthusiasm for the man who would become the nation’s first Muslim governor. This isn’t readily apparent to those in Lansing, many of whom have known Whitmer for decades and have assumed she’s a lock.

But a lot of activists, particularly millennials, are psyched about El-Sayed. They like that he’s an outsider who’s never run for office. While plenty of Democratic lawmakers — particularly women — took offense when El-Sayed openly scoffed on OTR at Whitmer’s 14-plus years in the Legislature, many voters don’t consider political experience to be an asset anymore. Those on the far right and far left view holding elected office as a corrupting force.

It’s true that it’s hard to get to Whitmer’s left. She’s probably best known for her pro-choice and pro-LGBT views. But those positions are a given with the Democratic base. What a lot of activists are looking for is candidates who campaign on Bernie’s platform of slamming Wall Street and getting money out of politics. Outsiders like El-Sayed are in a better position to sell that agenda.

El-Sayed is busy making moves to show he’s for real. He’s been traveling the state and said on OTR that he’s raised $500,000 already, which isn’t chump change. And he’s hired a veteran campaign manager in Max Glass, who worked for Sanders favorite U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii).

The biggest question in the Democratic gubernatorial primary has always been where Sanders voters would go. In a Kildee vs. Whitmer contest, that wasn’t readily apparent, as both are establishment figures who served as Clinton surrogates. But if Kildee sits this one out, the Dem gubernatorial primary could morph into Sanders vs. Clinton, Part II, between El-Sayed and Whitmer.

This is a scenario that causes many Whitmer backers and political insiders to roll their eyes. She’s expected to clean up with money and endorsements. She hails from a political family and has an experienced team. He’s the longest of longshots as a religious minority who nobody’s heard of.

Of course, those are all arguments that people made in the ‘16 Michigan presidential primary.

It’s way too early to predict an El-Sayed Sanders-style upset next year. We’re 15 months out and the field isn’t even set. But it would be arrogant to dismiss the idea out of hand.

If 2016’s surprises didn’t teach you to question your political assumptions, I can’t really help you.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at Follow her on Twitter here.

May 4, 2017 · Filed under Susan J. Demas

8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Chuck Fellows // May 5, 2017 at 7:45 am

    Which one has a viable plan to get what needs to be done, done?
    On education . . .
    Public financing of campaigns . . .
    Health care regulations on hospital chargemaster transparency, digital standardization . . .
    Actually funding teacher retirement commitments made in 1995 . .
    Taking Auto insurers to task for poor business practices and outrageous rates . . .
    Regulating drug prices to Canadian levels . . .
    Infrastructure funding . . .
    Public safety training . . .

    Which one will answer candidate questions?

  • 2 harvey bronstein // May 5, 2017 at 10:03 am

    Gretchen Whitmer will be the Democratic nominee. She would be foolish to pretend to be Bernie Sanders. She needs to win the general electipn and run as a moderate.

  • 3 Anagnorisis // May 5, 2017 at 4:21 pm

    Well, we know, Susan, that Americans don’t take well to Muslim ideals, and I think that is a non-starter for the country and the state. I mean to say I’m a fan of Omar Khayyam and others but the reality of Islam today is terrorism without rationale, like Trumpism tearing down without rebuilding potential. It seems doubtful to me that Americans will take to this proposition readily. You never know though, they took to Trumpism, still do. There’s no accounting for taste.

  • 4 TIP LADY // May 8, 2017 at 9:45 am

    Our interests in those who do not have atrack record for having worked together with anyonhe to accomplish anything seems to be the new American Mantra.

    The Orange One who was just elected President is a constant reminder of the error in that thinking! To compare his candidacy to that of Sanders is laughable at best! Sanders had a track record! Comparing him to Trump seems more on point.

    ~The TIP Lady

  • 5 Frank Walshingham // May 13, 2017 at 4:30 pm

    If the clown wins Deaborn he will be lucky!

  • 6 Jeffrey L Salisbury // May 14, 2017 at 12:39 pm

    Some homework for you if you’re so inclined.
    I invite you to come listen and learn.

  • 7 Herman Davis // May 14, 2017 at 1:13 pm

    A man who is 32, how many jobs has he had?
    It’s fine for millennials to embrace him, but if he never saw any reason to vote before now, while the state is gerrymandered and voting rights are suppressed then he hasn’t paid his dues . After all that Snyder has done, if we are not talking genuinely about Flint, Detroit public schools, Right to Work, Emergency Management, infrastructure or the other issues that plague the state, what you are describing is a sleepy dog and pony show , which will keep a lot of voters at home again. It’s like American Idol contestants who win the show but can’t sell a record in the real world. Democrats can expect black voters to stay home with two lifelong one percenters battling it out. We may wind up with Schuette, and some of us will go through another round of, maybe it’s just better to leave the state.

  • 8 Bill Cobbs // May 14, 2017 at 1:36 pm

    I’m curious as to why there is no mention of the African-American male in the race?



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