DETROIT — According to conventional wisdom, former State Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer should romp to victory in Michigan’s Democratic primary for governor Aug. 7, and then have little trouble winning the general election in November.
For one thing, she has been endorsed by just about everyone from the big unions to Emily’s List to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan to every Democratic congressman from the state.
She is personally appealing, and has something neither of the last two governors had — experience in the legislature.
But despite all those strengths, and though she formally declared her candidacy even before President Obama left office, she has struggled in the polls for much of this year, and only recently pulled ahead of Shri Thanedar, an eccentric immigrant from India who has poured millions of his own money into the race.
And nationally, more attention has been paid to Abdul El-Sayed, a charismatic, 34-year-old physician who has attracted out of state media and money in his bid to become the nation’s first Muslim governor. Last week, we took a look at the Republicans in this race; this week, it’s time to look at the Democrats:
Abdul El-Sayed is, by all accounts, brilliant and charismatic. Mr. El-Sayed was a Rhodes Scholar, then a Marshall Scholar; earned a PhD from Oxford, an MD from Columbia, and became director of Detroit’s health department.
He was there less than a year, however, before he left to run for governor. Politically, he is closest to the Bernie Sanders wing of the party; he proposes that Michigan establish a universal, single-payer health care system for everyone under 65.
Mr. El-Sayed also says he would invest heavily in education at all levels, including universal pre-kindergarten.
Some Democratic leaders worry that smart as he may be, Mr. El-Sayed lacks the seasoning and political experience to be an effective leader of a large and politically diverse state.
And there is the practical political question as to whether Michigan voters would be willing to choose a Muslim for governor. Past elections have indicated they may not be — and for most of the campaign, Mr. El-Sayed has run third in the polls.
Shri Thanedar is one of the least likely candidates for governor in Michigan history; a native of India, a Hindu, and a research chemist who has lived in the state barely eight years.
What’s even more remarkable is that for much of this year he led most polls, thanks to his pouring millions of his own money into slick “Shri for We” TV commercials. Mr. Thanedar, now 63, sold a majority stake in his Avomeen Analytical Services, a chemical testing laboratory in Ann Arbor, to fund his campaign.
Though his proposals are generally progressive and differ little from the other candidates, questions have been raised about his grasp of the issues, and whether he is a Democrat at all. The candidate donated to U.S. Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, and last year explored running as a Republican as well as a Democrat.
And in recent weeks, his campaign has been bruised by, among other things, a lawsuit alleging he fraudulently misrepresented the value of Avomeen before he sold it.
Worse, it was charged that one of his firms tested toxic substances on 118 dogs and 55 monkeys, and that Mr. Thanedar abandoned them in a locked building after a previous firm he owned went bankrupt. Workers climbed the fence to feed the animals, which were eventually adopted or taken to sanctuaries.
Gretchen Whitmer, who turns 47 next month, has been seen by most as the inevitable eventual nominee since U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee of Flint decided he wouldn’t run a year ago.
Nobody doubts her knowledge of government; she grew up in the Lansing area, where both her parents were attorneys. Her mother was an assistant state attorney general; her father became head of Blue Cross/Blue Shield. She served in both houses of the legislature.
Her positions are also progressive, but slightly more moderate than her rivals’. She has emphasized a commitment to education, and infrastructure; her most common slogan is “fix the damn roads.”
Yet despite more than a year of campaigning, she is still largely unknown to many voters, and is running a weak third in Detroit, the traditional Democratic stronghold. However, the Motor City now casts less than five percent of the total statewide vote.
Democrats like her experience and ability — but worry that she seems to be having difficulty connecting with minority voters and the blue-collar voters who gave Donald Trump his narrow upset victory in Michigan’s presidential election two years ago.
Retired Xerox executive Bill Cobbs, the only African-American in the race, is running a write-in campaign for the nomination, but isn’t expected to be much of a factor.
History suggests that whoever wins the Democratic nomination ought to be a strong favorite in November. Michigan voters have replaced retiring governors of one party with a new one from the other party in every election since 1982. Additionally, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder is unpopular, as is President Trump.
But nothing is certain in politics — especially perhaps in Michigan, where voters also have a strong history of upsetting expectations. That’s something Hillary Clinton very well knows.
Jack Lessenberry is a veteran Michigan journalist and The Blade’s part-time ombudsman.
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