Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is a popular person these days.
The national spotlight shined upon her last week as she delivered the official Democratic response to President Trump’s State of the Union speech, which even the president told her he’d heard she did a “nice job” on, as the Advance reported.
Michigan is poised to play a pivotal role in the 2020 election — as it did in 2016 when Trump flipped the state — and Whitmer has been batting down vice presidential rumors right and left. Hers is considered a coveted endorsement in a still-crowded Democratic presidential primary and most candidates have called her for advice.
So what are the odds that she’ll endorse before Michigan’s March 10 presidential primary?
“Probably low,” Whitmer told the Advance during a Monday phone interview from Washington, D.C., after the Governors Ball at the White House.
The governor also talked to the Advance about what it means for many female hopefuls and candidates of color to have dropped out of the presidential contest early. She again ripped on the “crazy way of deciding candidates,” with Iowa and New Hampshire going first.
Whitmer also suggested that one unifying solution after the primary would be for the eventual nominee to take a “Team of Rivals” approach a la Abraham Lincoln. And she assessed Trump’s strengths and weaknesses in must-win Michigan.
The following are excerpts from the interview:
Michigan Advance: What are the odds that you’ll be endorsing before the March 10 primary?
Whitmer: Probably low. I was sitting [Monday morning] with Jared Polis, [governor of] Colorado, his state goes with Super Tuesday [March 3]. … So a lot is going to happen in that three-week span in March. So I think we’re all kind of of the same mindset that [we’re] unlikely to endorse in a primary and highly likely to jump in once we get past it so that we can work hard to make sure that our party is unified.
Michigan Advance: So there’s only one woman in the top tier of presidential candidates right now [U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)]. Are you surprised about that after how well female candidates did in the 2018 election, obviously in Michigan, but elsewhere?
Whitmer: I am, but I’m not. The antiquated system for sussing out the frontrunners has perpetuated what we have seen in our country, right? White male leaders. And I think if it was a national popular election, it might be a very different environment. I can’t say for sure, obviously.
But I do think that the system needs to be revamped. I’m open to looking at what might be a superior way of doing it. I was chatting about this with … [Gov.] John Bel Edwards from Louisiana this morning, Polis from Colorado and [Gov. Steve] Sisolak from Nevada. And every one of us recognizes that the system is old. It doesn’t really make sense anymore. And whether it’s an alternating three states [to] start the process earlier, or if it’s national primary, [or] somewhere in the middle, we need to have a robust conversation about how we can improve on this crazy way of deciding candidates.
Michigan Advance: So Iowa and New Hampshire going first, in your mind, does not work?
Whitmer: It doesn’t work. It really doesn’t. I think, no disrespect to either of those states or their way of doing it, but it’s not representative of the country. And I think they shouldn’t have an outsized voice in determining what the field looks like before Michiganders or Nevadans or people across our country have an opportunity to weigh in.
Michigan Advance: And does that also cut against candidates of color, as well?
Whitmer: I think that you could include that, sure. In 2018, we saw some great strides made in improving representation in leadership and as we look at how the [presidential] field’s shaping up — part of it is the nature of a national election and how important resources are and that’s a major contributing factor. But I think that there are consequences for doing it the same way it’s been done for a long time.
Michigan Advance: There’s also only one former governor who’s currently running for president, Deval Patrick [of Massachusetts]. Do you think that’s a missing perspective, as well, in 2020?
Whitmer: I think that executive leadership should matter. Governors have to find common ground with legislatures, whether they’re of the same party or different [ones], but it’s certainly something that translates into working with Congress on a budget, on setting an agenda, so much policy that impacts your life. So I do think that type of leadership translates well [to the presidency] and is important and is, in large part, missing from the conversation now.
Michigan Advance: The Democratic field for president has definitely been winnowed down and you’ve had a chance to talk with so many candidates, including those who have dropped out. Is there anybody whose voice that you wish were still on the stage right now?
Whitmer: Each of the people that have dropped out really brought something that I thought was important. When [U.S. Sens.] Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) are not on the stage, I think there’s a perspective that’s very important that is not fully represented in the first person. And I think that’s something that needs to be a part of the direction that we’re headed in this country and the decisions that are made.
And while I know that there are great leaders still on that stage, I hope and I would like to see whomever the ultimate nominee is to make space for each of these great leaders, whether it’s a cabinet like the ‘Team of Rivals’ that Lincoln created or something different, I think that’s how you unify and that … creates opportunity for everyone.
Michigan Advance: What would you say Trump’s biggest strengths and weaknesses are in Michigan going into this election?
Whitmer: I think that the weaknesses are the erratic trade policies that have undermined some of our most important pieces of our economy — whether it’s agriculture or in the auto industry, that’s a weakness. And people that thought they were getting a break with these tax cuts and find out that they’re not.
But I also would say that he’s spent quite a bit of time focused on Michigan and I don’t think that’ll change. Whether it’s the Soo Locks or the potential for F-35s coming to Selfridge [Air National Guard Base in Macomb County], I anticipate he’ll continue to focus on our state and that would be something that is a strength for him.