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Gaming Out Whitmer vs. Trump and DeSantis

The record of the Democratic governor of Michigan stacks up impressively against potential 2024 contenders.
February 2, 2023
Gaming Out Whitmer vs. Trump and DeSantis
(Composite by Hannah Yoest / Photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

Gretchen Whitmer has said flat out that she will not run for president in 2024. Democrats should hope the Michigan governor changes her mind.

First, let’s get this out of the way: Her denials about running in 2024 are, at this point, politically obligatory. Imagine the backlash if she were to say, “Yes, I can’t wait to primary the current Democratic president who surpassed all expectations in his first term. My announcement is coming soon. Send money now.” Probably not great! Besides, she’s not a party insurgent. Biden vetted her to be his vice president in 2020, and she would have accepted the invitation to be his running mate had he offered. She’s podcast buds with Hillary Clinton. In her recent State of the State address, she offered an homage to her state’s retiring Democratic senior senator, Debbie Stabenow, by quoting an old motto of hers: “Michigan makes stuff and grows stuff.” She’s a team player.

Whitmer is plausible as a 2024 presidential contender only in the circumstance that would allow any other Democrat on the party’s surprisingly deep bench to become competitive for the nod: in the absence of Biden. The Democratic nomination belongs to the president unless he goes full Sherman or his health dictates an intervention. At 80, Biden is already older than any previous president was, even at the end of their time in office. If re-elected, he would be 82 when starting his second term. His age means we have entered the zone of genuine actuarial considerations. Circumstances could change quickly going into 2024, which means it’s a practical necessity to game out some of the various scenarios that could emerge.

Strangely, many Democratic strategists appear to balk at the question of a backup for Biden. Asking what other candidate could conceivably beat former President Trump or Ron DeSantis in a 2024 matchup draws shrugs, sighs, and an upward glance in a soft appeal to heaven.

Instead of looking up, they should try looking north—to “the woman from Michigan,” who coasted to re-election with a double-digit margin under brutally polarized conditions in a critical swing state. If that’s not a sign from above, I’m not sure what is.

In her re-election campaign, Whitmer defeated the Trump-endorsed MAGA candidate Tudor Dixon by more than 10 points, improving on the 9-point victory in 2018 that put her in the governor’s mansion.

Between those elections, Whitmer navigated a Republican-dominated legislature, COVID, armed protests at her state Capitol, a barrage of attacks from Trump, and a hybrid kidnapping and assassination plot against her that resulted in the conviction of four right-wing militia members.

Yes, there were some unforced errors, which her opponents maximized to full advantage. She traveled to Florida to visit her ailing father while the state urged residents to stay home; the privately chartered flights were paid for by a nonprofit set up to pay for Whitmer’s inauguration. Her husband “jokingly” tried to use her name to get his boat out of storage ahead of other customers. But things grew dangerous for Whitmer when Trump singled her out, as he did in a March 2020 press conference while declaiming against Democratic governors:

I say, “Mike [Pence], don’t call the governor in Washington, you’re wasting your time with him. Don’t call the woman in Michigan.” . . . You know what I say? If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call.

(Whitmer did speak to Pence a few times and in at least one conference call implored him to get Trump to back off his attacks, but it does not appear that Pence did anything in response.)

Confusion and anger over travel restrictions, school closures, and shutdowns for businesses with a footprint of more than 50,000 square feet brought thousands of protesters to Lansing in April 2020. Trump encouraged them with a tweet that said, “Liberate Michigan.” Protesters and militia members then came back with rifles and stormed the State Capitol, an event later described by one state senator as a “dress rehearsal for January 6th.” The protests attracted numerous militant actors, including some of those later prosecuted in the kidnapping plot.

Whitmer acknowledges how tough Trump and his supporters made it to do her job, but she doesn’t dwell on it. And her GOP opponents seem to respect her finesse.

Former Michigan Republican House Speaker Lee Chatfield—who became nationally known after Trump invited him to the White House to discuss election conspiracies in November 2020 (and who is now being investigated for alleged embezzlement, bribery, and campaign finance violations, and for allegedly sexually assaulting his sister-in-law for years)—told Tim Alberta back in 2020 that Whitmer wanted to “get things done without tearing people apart.”

“She’s the only Democrat I’ve seen placate the business lobby and the environmentalists,” Chatfield said. “Seriously—nobody else can do it. I’ve seen her sit down with CEOs in suits, then have beers with people from the upper peninsula.”

Whitmer was at the time being considered for the role of Biden’s running mate.

“Mark my words, it would be a missed opportunity for the Democratic Party not to consider Gretchen Whitmer for the ticket,” he went on.

That may still be the case.

With Whitmer at the top of the statewide ticket in 2022, Michigan Democrats kept the governorship and took control of both chambers of the Michigan state legislature for the first time in almost forty years.

While she may have privately turned a few happy cartwheels (yes, really) over her 2022 victory, she isn’t widely celebrated as a top party performer. Too often, she’s mentioned only perfunctorily in conversations about 2024 or, worse, left out entirely.

What is even stranger is that Kamala Harris is coming to be considered the default candidate—even though she’s done little in her current role. (What she has done hasn’t endeared her to voters: Last fall, her approval rating dropped lower than that of former Vice President Dick Cheney.) Whitmer’s fellow Democratic governors Wes Moore of Maryland and Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania, both newly inaugurated, appeared to become top-tier names the minute they took the oath of office. Pete Buttigieg is polling well in New Hampshire, despite most of his visibility coming from fielding complaints about air travel on Morning Joe. Elizabeth Warren, Gavin Newsom, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, and Raphael Warnock are always discussion points. Every couple of months, Trump adviser Dick Morris even summons the ghost of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy to goose his email list and send lazy reporters into a frenzy. Marianne Williamson is, too, somehow in the mix. Why? Because she went to New Hampshire to reflect on her political future.

Amid all this prognosticating, discussing, and reflecting, Whitmer has continued to fight Trump and Trumpism, something she has done successfully on a national stage for years. Now, fully in her element in the post-Trump, post-pandemic era, she’s going on offense.

Earlier this month, Republican Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin terminated plans by Ford Motor Company to create an electric vehicle battery plant in his state over its ties with China. Youngkin told reporters, “We felt that the right thing to do was to not recruit Ford as a front for China to America.” Whitmer was quick to characterize Youngkin’s decision as a “political determination,” defend Ford and make it clear that Michigan would welcome the “exciting opportunity” of hosting the plant.

In her State of the State address last week, Whitmer called out nearby states that are hostile to abortion rights and the LGBTQ community, saying, “I’ll go to any state that restricts people’s freedoms and win business and hardworking people from them.” She then mentioned Ohio and Indiana by name. Both states have Republican governors, and many Michigan observers interpreted her remarks as applicable to Florida under DeSantis, too.

“States with extreme laws are losing talent and investment because bigotry is bad for business,” Whitmer said. “We should build on our reputation as a welcoming beacon of opportunity where anyone can succeed.”

The governor delivered that address with winsome confidence, buoyed by a chamber full of cheering lawmakers. At the top of her remarks, she thanked the Michigan State Police and Michigan National Guard. “We will always have their backs,” she said. “We mean it.”

The signal is clear: She is not the kind of Democrat who entertains calls to defund the police.

In the past, Whitmer used her pragmatic “Fix the Damn Roads” agenda to court Republican voters and put together a winning coalition that her party would love to replicate in other rural states across the country. There was even a “Republicans for Whitmer” group helping her re-election campaign.

But now, at the helm of a new state government fully under the Democrats’ control, Whitmer is free to do things her way—an opportunity few politicians are able to enjoy. She seems to be seizing the day with her own brand of tough Midwestern sensibility—consider the mantra embroidered in Detroit Lions Honolulu blue on her ballcap in this photo she posted to Instagram—that big-city Democrats would be wise to study.

An example: Whitmer called for gun control reform in her State of the State address, but while she didn’t go Beto O’Rourke’s “Hell yes, we are going to take your AR-15” route, she wasn’t squishy, either. “The time for only thoughts and prayers is over,” Whitmer said before calling for middle-of-the-road interventions like safe gun storage, universal background checks, and red flag laws. Referring to the latter, she said, “If Florida and Indiana can get this done, we sure can, right?”

That’s a national debate worth having.

Given all this, it’s intriguing to contemplate a DeSantis-Whitmer matchup in 2024.

Their pandemic policies are in complete opposition. Although DeSantis initially embraced COVID closures and vaccines, he has now made opposition to them his calling card. Whitmer defends her record, arguing she erred on the side of caution and protecting children but would prefer to move the discussion forward.

Whitmer’s 2022 victory wasn’t as large as DeSantis’s (he beat Charlie Crist by 19.4 points), but DeSantis ran in a state much more friendly to Republicans than Michigan is to Democrats. Whitmer’s advantage was running in a state where the GOP was fractured by myriad Trump-induced problems; DeSantis, meanwhile, has reaped myriad benefits by forging a political identity for himself as second-wave MAGA. Whitmer had to unite Democrats while still appealing to disaffected Republicans. DeSantis’s main task was—and his current focus is—uniting the far right with the center-right.

If DeSantis were to emerge as the next GOP nominee, it would be at the risk of alienating Trump voters—especially “Always Trump” voters. If Whitmer became the Democratic nominee, it would likely be with Biden’s full endorsement—and with it, the rest of the Democratic party’s.

Whitmer faced plenty of unsought political adversity during her first term; DeSantis actively stokes culture war conflicts to prove his mettle to the GOP base, thereby handcuffing himself to it. Whitmer keeps her relationship with hardcore progressives at a friendly distance, and doing so makes it possible for her to keep the flaps open on the big tent.

Outside of intraparty politics, one necessary skill for any winning presidential candidate is the ability to think on his or her feet. Here the difference between the two governors is especially revealing.

Over her tenure as governor, Whitmer has grown more comfortable speaking with the press. Going back to the original question of whether she would run in 2024, Fox 2 Detroit’s Tim Skubick grilled her every which way possible about her ambitions for higher office. She batted him off with a combination of appropriately calibrated annoyance and humor while leaving the door open to running sometime in the future. Basic stuff.

DeSantis, on the other hand, rarely travels outside the MAGA media bubble. And it shows. Contrast Whitmer’s response with DeSantis’s uncomfortable non-response to a similar prodding from his opponent, Charlie Crist, during a gubernatorial debate. DeSantis should have been well prepared to respond. It sure didn’t look like it.

Now imagine how he might face off against Whitmer. Tell me why Whitmer doesn’t get anywhere near the hype from the left as DeSantis does the right.

Amanda Carpenter

Amanda Carpenter is an author, a former communications director to Sen. Ted Cruz, and a former speechwriter to Sen. Jim DeMint. She was formerly a Bulwark political columnist.