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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas

Kildee Bows out and Shakes up the Governor’s Race

May 12, 2017

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 a while 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.

May 11, 2017 · Filed under Susan J. Demas

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Anagnorisis // May 12, 2017 at 4:17 pm

    All of us are “outside the capitol” Susan, but for the hardcore center and peripheral moneyed classes. What is presumably wanted is a name candidate with credentials to match. We haven’t seen one of those in at least decades, maybe scores of years. Rick Snyder of course is a washed up fish on the sand with flies buzzing around. The only reason for the Trump election is that he does not stand for politics as usual, yet now he does in abstract terms. This is ancient Rome all over again. Listen to Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie songs, Native American chants and lore, Negro blues, for the real story of America. We won’t hear that from politicians.

  • 2 harvey bronstein // May 12, 2017 at 5:03 pm

    I will say it again. Gretchen Whitmer will face Bill Schutte in November, 2018. She will win. I have predicted that Kildee would not run all along. 2018 will be a very good Democrat year. Brian Calley will lose to Schutte in the primary.

  • 3 Herman Davis // May 14, 2017 at 1:27 pm

    I read the whole thing, searching for something I never found. An issue. If the election turns out like the article, this will be a sleepy issue-less race. The state is gerrymandered, thousands are disconnected from water, Nestle gets hundreds of millions in corporate welfare, several cities are under receivership, the tax revenue sharing still isn’t fair, if we are not talking genuinely about Flint, infrastructure or the other issues a lot of Democratic voters at home again as second generation lifelong one percenters battle it out and we may end up with another Republican. I bet the Republicans are sending donations to El Sayed, just think a $100 investment will come back 10 to 1 if the GOP can promote him as the fear factor trigger for their fundraising machine. That will leave Whitmer to go against Schuette and without any grassroots support and vigor, she may find herself beat like Hillary did. Hope the Democrats are smarter in other states.


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