Gretchen Whitmer’s Biggest Electoral Test: Can She Deliver Michigan for Biden?

Gretchen Whitmer was planning to speak in Dearborn, Mich., at a feel-good event celebrating a health clinic founded by Muslim leaders.

It was the sort of profile-boosting appearance that Ms. Whitmer, the Democratic governor of the state, stocks her calendar with and that has helped her build a broad base of support in closely divided Michigan. But this was late October, in the first weeks of the Israel-Hamas war, and the governor’s response to the conflict had won her few friends.

First, she posted a statement that did not include the word “Israel,” infuriating some in the Jewish community. Then she said she was “unequivocally supportive of Israel,” which was seen as a betrayal by many Arab Americans.

As word of her Dearborn visit spread on social media, some in that largely Arab American city, usually friendly political turf for Democrats, announced plans for a protest. “WHITMER NOT WELCOME IN DEARBORN,” read one poster circulated by activists, who accused her of supporting genocide.

She called off the speech, a decision that she said recently was probably a mistake.

The episode foreshadowed the electoral turbulence her party faces this year and the difficult role she now occupies as President Biden’s chief ambassador to Michigan, a key battleground.

Arab Americans, irate over Mr. Biden’s support for Israel, are pushing Democrats to select “uncommitted” on the state’s primary ballot on Tuesday. Several recent general election polls show Mr. Biden running behind former President Donald J. Trump in Michigan, while another shows Mr. Biden leading. Prominent Democrats in Detroit and Lansing say they are worried not just about losing Arab Americans, but also about Black men and union workers and young people.

That leaves Ms. Whitmer, one of eight national co-chairs of Mr. Biden’s campaign, who is seen by many Democrats as a future contender for the presidency, facing perhaps the biggest electoral test of her career even though her name is not on the ballot. Ms. Whitmer is particularly strong with moderate voters and suburbanites, and has forged deep ties with Black leaders in Detroit. But it remains to be seen whether she can help much with those most frustrated with Mr. Biden, including voters further to the left and Arab Americans.

“She’s going to have to carry him on her back past Election Day,” said Richard Czuba, a pollster who found Mr. Biden losing by 8 percentage points in a head-to-head matchup with Mr. Trump in a survey last month of Michigan voters for The Detroit News and WDIV-TV. “She’s going to have to use her popularity to bring back those Democrats and those independents.”

If Ms. Whitmer helps deliver Michigan for Mr. Biden in November, it would further cement her status as a rising Democrat who, at 52, qualifies as youthful in the realm of national politics. And if, as many suspect, she has future presidential ambitions herself, campaigning aggressively for Mr. Biden and showing her party she can deliver a very big, very important swing state might be the best way to build that résumé.

The political alternative is stark: If Mr. Trump returns to the White House, she would be a term-limited governor under a president whose rhetoric she once blamed for inspiring a plot to kidnap her. Running for higher office in the future would not be off the table, but it would become more complicated.

Ms. Whitmer has stepped up campaign appearances for Mr. Biden in recent weeks and has sprinkled shout-outs for his policies into official speeches. Her political skills, even critics concede, are formidable.

She won her 2022 re-election race in a rout, helped Democrats flip control of the Legislature and swiftly signed progressive laws on climate change, gay rights, guns and unions. She understood the political potency of abortion rights years before other Democrats. And her strong job approval ratings — 61 percent in Mr. Czuba’s poll, along with a lead over Mr. Trump in a hypothetical Michigan matchup — have confounded Republicans who have portrayed her as an extreme liberal auditioning for higher office.

Still, there are limits to how much Ms. Whitmer can help Mr. Biden.

Osama A. Siblani, the publisher of The Arab American News, met privately with Ms. Whitmer after she called off her speech in that city. In that meeting, he told her she should have attended the event despite the planned protest. Not everyone in town had written her off.

“I told Gretchen when she was here, ‘If you want to come as Gretchen Whitmer and talk to us, anytime you’re welcome,’” Mr. Siblani said of his Dearborn community. “But now, if you are going to come in to lobby for Biden, we’re going to have to shut the door. We’re not going to be able to even talk about that.”

Long before Michigan Democrats were nervous about Mr. Biden’s electoral chances, they were unsure about Gretchen Whitmer’s.

Seven years ago, Ms. Whitmer was a former state legislator from East Lansing with little name recognition. Republicans controlled state government, and Mr. Trump had just carried Michigan in the 2016 election.

When Ms. Whitmer made an early jump into the 2018 race for governor, some in the state’s Democratic establishment wondered whether a better-known candidate — perhaps a member of Congress, perhaps someone from the more populous Detroit area — might give the party a clearer path back to relevance.

“You think, ‘It would be easier for somebody with a bigger name and a bigger area to win,’” said Mayor Mike Duggan of Detroit, an early skeptic who became a political ally. “That was my initial assumption. I think that was a lot of people’s initial assumptions.”

Some Democrats, especially women, found concerns like those insulting. They believed that the same party stalwarts whose preferred candidates kept losing statewide races wanted to cast Ms. Whitmer aside and find yet another man to lead the ticket.

“I just remember thinking, and I think she did, as well, ‘What else does she need to do to prove herself?’” said Jocelyn Benson, Michigan’s Democratic secretary of state. “She had built the strong campaign. She was building support all across the state. She was working harder than anyone else in the field. And it was really demoralizing. And memorable.”

No household-name Democrat ever entered that primary, and Ms. Whitmer finished well ahead of two candidates who ran to her political left. That November, she presented herself as a pragmatist, riding a promise to “fix the damn roads” to a decisive win.

Before running for governor, Ms. Whitmer was one of those politicians known to pretty much everyone inside the State Capitol and to relatively few people outside it. She started in the building as an intern, later worked as a Democratic caucus staffer, and returned, still in her 20s, as representative for a district that included East Lansing, home to Michigan State University, where she went to college and law school.

Ms. Whitmer, who once aspired to be a sportscaster, made friends early in the Legislature with her sharp wit and fluency in Big Ten football. But Michigan Democrats’ political fortunes were tanking, destining her to a legislative career in the minority. As the Democratic Senate leader, she helped muster votes to pass some policies that split Republicans, including Medicaid expansion, but was best known as a voice crying out in the political wilderness, delivering passionate speeches against bills she knew would pass.

Her approach drew grudging respect from some Republicans.

“Is she willing to work with the other side? Absolutely she is,” said Randy Richardville, who was the Republican leader in the Senate. “But she’s not going to compromise her own set of beliefs so that she can do that.”

Others found Ms. Whitmer’s approach off-putting and brazenly ambitious.

“She is a politician — in big letters — she is a politician,” said Rick Jones, a Republican who overlapped with her in the Legislature, “and she knows how to play the game.”

As Covid blazed through Michigan in early 2020, Ms. Whitmer called out President Trump for what she saw as a flawed federal response.

Mr. Trump fired back, labeling her “the woman in Michigan” and “Gretchen ‘Half’ Whitmer.” He told Vice President Mike Pence to stop taking her calls.

But as variations of “the woman in Michigan” started turning up on T-shirts, Ms. Whitmer, who was suddenly drawing national attention, embraced the label.

Months later, she was among those interviewing to be Mr. Biden’s running mate.

“Donald Trump made her a star,” said Adrian Hemond, a former Democratic legislative staffer in Michigan who now runs a political consulting firm.

As her profile was rising, Ms. Whitmer was also facing new criticisms.

Conservatives blasted the state’s decision to move people with Covid out of hospitals and into nursing homes. As lockdowns dragged on and other Midwestern states relaxed restrictions, Ms. Whitmer frustrated some residents by moving more slowly.

Then, shortly before Election Day in 2020, prosecutors announced charges against more than a dozen men accused in connection with a plot to kidnap her and possibly kill her. The scheme, prosecutors said, was motivated in part by anger over Covid lockdowns.

Ms. Whitmer blamed Mr. Trump’s rhetoric for the plot, while Mr. Trump downplayed the threat. In a series of trials, jurors convicted five men and acquitted five others, while four more pleaded guilty.

In an interview, Ms. Whitmer said she did not follow the trials closely.

“I have to reserve my head space for the job,” she said, adding, “I, to some extent, kind of built a little internal barrier.”

Ms. Whitmer and Michigan Democrats spent the last year at the height of their powers.

For the first time since the 1980s, the party held simultaneous control of the governor’s office and Legislature, leading to a stream of new laws that had eluded Democrats for a generation.

But liberal anxiety is mounting. Their slim House majority slipped into an even split after resignations. And nervous whispers about Mr. Biden have grown into outright alarm.

“This is not a blue wall state going into this cycle,” said Jim Sype, a Whitmer supporter and union official.

Abdullah H. Hammoud, the mayor of Dearborn, wrote this month that “President Biden is proving many of our worst fears about our government true” with his approach to Gaza.

Bishop Edgar L. Vann II, who leads a Detroit church, said he saw the president’s standing worsening, and believed “he has become specifically weak among African American men.”

Many Democrats said Ms. Whitmer was a potential bridge for Mr. Biden, who narrowly carried Michigan in 2020.

The contrast between the two politicians was striking this month when Mr. Biden took the short flight of stairs down Air Force One to greet Ms. Whitmer, nearly 30 years his junior, on a tarmac outside Detroit. One complication with deploying Ms. Whitmer is that, to some worried Democrats, she is a conspicuous reminder of what the president is not: relatively young, relatively popular, relatively new to the national scene.

Biden campaign officials declined interview requests and said that Ms. Whitmer was one of several prominent Michigan Democrats working on the president’s behalf.

As concerns about Mr. Biden’s age and poll numbers have mounted, some Democrats have voiced hope that another politician — perhaps Ms. Whitmer or another governor like Gavin Newsom of California, J.B. Pritzker of Illinois or Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania — might somehow replace the president on this year’s ballot, a scenario the party has widely dismissed.

While some Michigan Democrats said in interviews that they thought Ms. Whitmer would have been a stronger nominee than Mr. Biden, most avoided the topic. All said Ms. Whitmer had been loyal, in public and private, to the president.

“The Democrats and those that are on the extreme liberal side are looking for something new,” said Mary Waters, a Detroit City Council member who said she thought Ms. Whitmer would fare better on this year’s ballot.

Over the years, Ms. Whitmer has taken a smile-and-dodge approach when asked about presidential ambitions, which is pretty much what everyone does when they want to keep the door open for a future run.

But she sounded more forceful in denying those ambitions in the interview this month in her office in the Capitol.

Do you ever want to be president? “No.”

Would you ever run for president? “Hard to imagine the circumstances.”

Why do you think your name keeps coming up in those conversations? “Because people like you keep putting it in articles.”

So then, the most important question: Do you think Mr. Biden will win Michigan this year?

“I believe so,” Ms. Whitmer responded. “But I don’t think that anyone should take it for granted. I certainly don’t. And we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.

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