Gretchen Whitmer Is Both Loved And Hated In Michigan — And Still ‘Fighting Like Hell’

by | Nov 5, 2022 | Politics

DETROIT, Mich. — Gretchen Whitmer loves to talk about unity and common purpose. She did it in 2018, when she first ran for governor of Michigan, a Democrat promising to “fix the damn roads” and to work with Republicans on solving manageable problems. And she’s doing it now, as she runs for a second term. In a televised debate with her GOP opponent two weeks ago, she started by citing the virtues of bipartisanship and proclaiming that “we all want the same things.”But nowadays, the idea that everybody shares common values is a dubious proposition at best — across the country, as in Michigan. And Whitmer knows that better than anyone.AdvertisementState Republicans have called her and her allies in government “witches,” described her as a tyrant and sued to strip away her emergency powers. Some of their supporters have marched on and then into the Capitol building while brandishing semi-automatic rifles. A handful of militia members plotted to kidnap her, while some talked about hanging her, before the FBI arrested them. The backdrop for the plot, the protests and the name-calling was Whitmer’s public health orders during the first months of the pandemic, and the wrath they brought from former President Donald Trump, who was tweeting things like “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” At a rally in Lansing, Trump, indignant that Whitmer continued to criticize him after “our people” helped her — an apparent reference to federal law enforcement arresting the would-be kidnappers — mused of the affair: “People are entitled to say maybe it was a problem. Maybe it wasn’t.” The major public health orders lapsed long ago and Trump isn’t president anymore. But the animosity toward Whitmer has endured, and Trump’s supporters, who now control the state party, have put forward a slate of candidates who think, talk and promise to act like him. Tudor Dixon, Whitmer’s challenger, is one of them. A former actor, business manager and right-wing commentator, Dixon has accused Whitmer of backing “radical sex and gender activists” who put “pornography” in schools, of trying to defund the police rather than fight crime, and of using taxpayer dollars to subsidize Chinese communists. She routinely refers to Whitmer as “Gretchen” rather than using her title and, during a September campaign swing where Donald Trump Jr. was a guest, she used the abduction plot as the punchline of a joke about Whitmer’s COVID-19 closure orders. “For someone so worried about being kidnapped,” Dixon said, “Gretchen Whitmer sure is good at taking business hostage and holding it for ransom.”AdvertisementBehind Dixon’s rhetoric is a far-right agenda with far-reaching potential to change life in Michigan, especially if Republicans win other statewide races and keep control of the legislature. A school funding proposal backed by former Trump Cabinet member Betsy DeVos could lead to a program that puts public money into private schools. Abortion could become illegal, thanks to a 1931 prohibition that Republicans have said they will enforce. And the state’s election machinery could fall into the hands of Trump supporters determined to “stop the steal” in 2024, when Michigan’s electoral votes could plausibly determine who wins the White House.To succeed, Republicans need to get past Whitmer. And they’ve got plenty of voters cheering them on. The people here are as anxious about inflation and crime as any in America. Many are angry about the way pandemic restrictions affected their lives, or about what their kids are learning (and not learning) in school. Whitmer has to answer for all of this, just like so many other Democrats running for office this year.But Whitmer has a lot going for her, too. I have followed her career closely, going back to that 2018 campaign, when I interviewed her as she was making the rounds in suburban Detroit diners. I tracked her efforts to fix the roads and to steer the state through COVID. For the last three months, I’ve been attending campaign events, interviewing people who love her and people who hate her, and speaking directly with her in a series of short conversations.Whitmer has a flair for retail politics that even her adversaries acknowledge. She can point to bipartisan legislative accomplishments as well as evidence that her actions on COVID ultimately saved many thousands of lives. She’s also built a devoted following among voters who have come to see her as somebody who thinks and talks like they do, and will protect them fiercely when their interests, freedoms or very lives are in jeopardy.That’s especially true when it comes to reproductive rights. Dixon says abortion should be illegal in nearly all cases, including rape and incest, explaining in one interview that the experience of carrying a baby in those circumstances can create “healing.” Whitmer, who has spoken about her own experience as a rape victim having to contemplate a possible pregnancy, has pledged to block Michigan’s 1931 ban with whatever authority she has. She’s done it once already: If not for a lawsuit she filed early this year, some conservative county prosecutors might be bringing cases right now.AdvertisementWhitmer’s lead in the FiveThirtyEight polling average has shrunk from double digits to about five points, where it has stabilized. It’s anybody’s guess whether the campaign dynamics have really changed or whether polls are simply recognizing a tighter race that was there all along. It’s also impossible to know whether surveys are undercounting Republicans or if there will be a late shift in the GOP direction, which is what happened in the 2016 presidential election, when nearly every poll predicted Hillary Clinton would win Michigan — right up until she didn’t. The backlash to that election, and Trump’s presidency, helped make Whitmer governor. When Trump went on to lose his own reelection bid, leaving a trail of blood at the U.S. Capitol on his way out the door, there was some hope that his brand of politics would subside within the Repu …

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