Women Bolster the Democrats’ Midwestern Prospects

Women Bolster the Democrats’ Midwestern Prospects

Michigan Democrats are making a comeback. Women candidates, activists and voters are the reason why.

October 31, 2018

Meet Nicole Breadon. She’s 46, a lifelong resident of Clarkston, a town of fewer than 1,000 that’s become one of Detroit’s distant exurbs. Her husband Todd grew up in Clarkston, too. Breadon, a sous chef, left her job six years ago to spend more time with her two sons, both special needs children. She’s also an archetype of lasting change in Michigan Democratic politics.

“I wasn’t politically active before Trump’s election, but afterwards I felt I had to fight,” Breadon says. “I was concerned that because of him—and especially Betsy DeVos—my children and other kids in the special education system wouldn’t receive the services they need.” 

Paying careful attention to Trump’s post-election pronouncements and appointments, in mid-January, 2017 Breadon joined the North Oakland County Democratic Club. 

Then, only a few days later, came an event that left a lasting impression on Breadon: the January 21 Women’s March. She took part in the March on the Michigan Capitol in Lansing, one of the many local offshoots of the national protest.

“It was exciting and reassuring,” she says.“It was an inspiration.”

In the weeks that followed, Breadon formed North Oakland Indivisible, and early this year she became a campaign volunteer for Eighth District Democrat Elissa Slatkin in her bid to oust Republican incumbent Representative Michael Bishop. Last spring Breadon took a part time job as an organizer with the Michigan Unitarian Universalist Social Justice Network. A week later the state House Democratic Caucus asked her to run to be state representative from the 43rd District. She accepted. 

“It was the surge of women that inspired me to run,” Breadon says. “Whether it’s more funding for schools, or clean water, or transportation for older people, I think women are more sensitive to people who are struggling.”

Breadon’s campaign has shaken Republicans in this traditionally conservative district. She and her supporters have been door knocking at a breakneck pace. While stressing that her campaign is sticking to “kitchen table issues,” she is keenly aware that her campaign and those of other women is unlike anything Michigan has ever seen before. 

“I think Michigan is realizing that women deserve a seat at the table and a voice in the decision making process,” she says. 

Jacob Hamilton/Ann Arbor News via AP

Heather Heine of Ferndale holds a sign that reads "Let's grab them by the midterms" at a Get Out The Vote rally in Detroit.

Indeed, women make up two-thirds of the Democratic challengers in races for the Republican dominated Michigan House, where Republicans currently outnumber Democrats 110 to 63, and women hold only 33 seats. Women also won just under half of the Democratic nominations for the state Senate, where Republicans now hold a 27-to-11 super-majority. There, men outnumber women by a staggering 34 to four. More than half of the Democrats running for Michigan’s U.S. House seats are women, too.

And at the top of the ticket, the Democratic nominees for the four principal statewide offices are all women: Gretchen Whitmer for governor, Dana Nessel for attorney general, Jocelyn Benson for secretary of state, and incumbent U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow. 


The Party of Women

“The Michigan Democratic Party has become the party of women.” 

At 63, Larry Kestenbaum has been a fixture in liberal politics in Michigan for more than 40 years. Now, as Clerk & Register of Deeds for Washtenaw County, home to both the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University, he is the chief elections official of the most progressive county in the state. Reflecting his county, not surprisingly, Kestenbaum welcomes this new realignment.

“Women understand and can talk about the problems facing working families in a way that men, hard as they try, will never be able to do,” Kestenbaum says. “Men just don’t get that child care isn’t an ‘issue’ but a fundamental right.” 

It’s more than a matter of women being more effective candidates, he adds, it’s also a matter of equity. “Having a party that’s made up mostly of women, but governed by men simply isn’t tenable.”

But not everyone in the party welcomes this change as enthusiastically as Kestenbaum.

In the years following the New Deal, the fast-growing United Auto Workers transformed the Michigan Democrats to the closest thing America had ever had to a functioning European-style social democratic party. Under the watchful eye of the union’s legendary president, Walter Reuther, Michigan Democrats stood in the forefront in backing civil rights, investing in education, promoting environmental protection and a laundry list of other initiatives, while consistently electing liberals to local, state, and federal office. However, with the loss of manufacturing jobs, especially in the auto industry, Michigan’s labor movement took a nosedive. By one estimate, unions in Michigan have lost 2.9 million members since the 1980s. Still, the UAW continued to exercise unmatched power in the Michigan Democratic Party and in time became the guardian of its status quo. The emergence of a party of women—particularly the candidacies of Whitmer and Nessel—represented change on an unprecedented scale.

On its face, nominating an all-women ticket may seem like a bold strategy devised by Democrats to galvanize the women’s vote. In truth it was a matter of chance and circumstance. Stabenow will have the party’s backing as long as she wants to serve. But Whitmer and Nessel faced opposition to their nominations based largely on their gender. And both overcame it.


Gretchen Whitmer vs. the Old Guys

If becoming governor were a matter of filling out a resume, Gretchen Whitmer would get the job without even an interview. As minority leader of the Michigan Senate, Whitmer managed to overcome Republican intransigence to negotiate the deal that expanded the state’s Medicaid program and another to win a modest increase in the state’s minimum wage. While these victories seem incremental to some of Whitmer’s critics, winning anything with the Senate, House, and governor’s office in GOP hands took major political skills.

However, Whitmer’s tenure is remembered by many for a fight she lost: her effort to keep the state from approving a draconian series of restrictions on abortion rights, including a requirement that women buy what amounts to rape insurance—supplemental coverage for abortions prior to needing one. 

In 2013 Whitmer took to the floor of the Senate chamber and revealed that she was a rape survivor herself: 

I thought this was all behind me. You know how tough I can be. The thought and the memory of that still haunts me. If this were law then and I had become pregnant, I would not be able to have coverage because of this. How extreme, how extreme does this measure need to be? I’m not the only woman in our state that has faced that horrible circumstance. I am not enjoying talking about it. It’s something I’ve hidden for a long time. But I think you need to see the face of the women that you are impacting by this vote today. I think you need to think of the girls that we’re raising and what kind of a state we want to be where you would put your approval on something this extreme.

Whitmer’s leadership in protecting reproductive rights was already well established. After Republicans had banned two women legislators from debates on abortion restrictions because they had used the word “vagina,” Whitmer protested by reading The Vagina Monologues on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol. Term-limited out of the state Senate, Whitman won election as Ingham County prosecutor in Lansing, where she established a new Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Unit. 

On January 3, 2018 Whitmer announced her candidacy for governor. Twelve days later she gained the backing of the Michigan Education Association (MEA), one of the state’s largest unions and long the UAW’s political rival. With the support of women activists and a coterie of other unions and state legislators, and having raised $3 million from 9,000 donors, Whitmer was unquestionably the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination.

Normally, this would be the point where major players who’d stayed on the sidelines would add their endorsements. This year was different. 

Instead of backing Whitmer, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, the UAW, Teamsters, and Michigan AFL-CIO were certain she couldn’t win. One reason cited was that Whitmer wasn’t from Southeastern Michigan (a shortcoming shared by Stabenow who, like Whitmer, hails from Ingham County in the central part of the state). However, the opposition to Whitmer had more to do with her gender than her zip code.

Though Jennifer Granholm, the state’s only woman governor, is known today as one of the Democratic Party’s most articulate advocates, by the time she neared the end of her second term in office in 2011 her approval rating had sunk to a dismal 27 percent. Convinced that Michigan wouldn’t elect another woman governor, Whitmer’s opponents searched for an alternative, a Great Male Hope as it were, who could deliver the party from what they were sure would be a devastating loss in November. Duggan, then-UAW President Dennis Williams, and some of the party’s other big guns met privately with U.S. Senator Gary Peters and pleaded with him to run. He turned them down, as did Congressman Dan Kildee of Flint and other less prominent men. With misgivings, but without a candidate, Whitmer’s opposition began falling in line. That’s not to say they were happy about it. At the news conference where he endorsed Whitmer, Duggan made the jaw dropping remark that, “Senator Peters, having run statewide, would have had an easier time of it.” 

In the August 7 primary, Whitmer scored a 22-point victory over her principal opponent, the former director of the Detroit Health Department, Abdul El-Sayed, who ran with the support of the Arab American community leaders and the Bernie Sanders left, including New York congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. 

Most observers credit Whitmer’s success in large part to her support among women.

Amy Chapman, a long-time political consultant who headed up Barack Obama’s 2008 Michigan campaign, says that “on a gut level and anecdotally I believe Whitmer’s being a woman helped her—both as the only woman running for governor as well as what seemed to be a surge of folks voting for women.” It’s also been a critical factor in Whitmer’s taking and maintaining her lead over the Republican nominee, arch-conservative state Attorney General Bill Schuette, who bills himself as “a strong defender for the rights of the unborn,” and “an avid hunter.” 

On a scale of one to ten, how important has Whitmer’s being a woman been to her lead over Schuette? “A seven,” Chapman says, “maybe an eight.”


Dana Nessel’s Insurgency

While Whitmer’s opponents were acclimating themselves to her being at the top of the ticket, there was an insurgency growing to nominate another woman as attorney general. 

Unlike Whitmer, who was chosen in the state’s August primary, the party’s picks for attorney general, secretary of state, and several other statewide offices would be made at an endorsement convention on April 15 in Detroit. Winners would then be formally nominated at a second convention during the weekend of August 25 in East Lansing. It’s a byzantine process that gives the party’s prospective nominees more time to campaign against Republicans. However, it also puts an inordinate amount of power in the hands of the UAW and other unions that routinely turn out the greatest number of delegates. That didn’t happen this year. The reason was Dana Nessel.

As a Wayne County (Detroit) assistant prosecutor for more than 10 years, Nessel put her share of bad guys behind bars, but where she made her mark was in private practice when she successfully challenged Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage in the case of DeBoer v. Snyder. Nessel wonin federal district court and eventually in the U.S. Supreme Court, which struck down the Michigan law in 2015. That victory, which contributed to the Court’s subsequent striking down same-sex marriage bans throughout the U.S., established Nessel, a lesbian with a wife and two children, as one of the country’s premier legal advocates for LGBTQ rights.

Though her platform encompassed an array of issues, in 2017 Nessel moved sexual harassment to the forefront of her campaign with what longtime political analyst Jeff Greenfield described as “the single most astonishing political ad I have ever seen.” It begins with a montage of Donald Trump, Charlie Rose, and former Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore. Nessel, seated in front of a fireplace, looks into the camera.

If the last few weeks have taught us anything it’s that we need more women in positions of power, not less.

So, when you’re choosing Michigan’s next attorney general, ask yourself this: Who can you trust most not to show you their penis in a professional setting? Is it the candidate who doesn’t have a penis? I’d say so.

Some people will tell you I can’t be the Democratic nominee for attorney general here in Michigan because "we can’t have an all female ticket for statewide office in 2018. Pundits and insiders are asking ‘can we afford to have a female governor, a female attorney general, and a female secretary of state?"

Well I read the news and I bet you do, too. It has me wondering: Can we afford not to?”

For its part, the UAW was backing Pat Miles Jr., a highly credentialed former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Michigan with deep roots in Grand Rapids’s black community. His nomination would have been in keeping with the party’s tradition of nominating an African American for one of the state’s top jobs—a practice grounded in the recognition that Democrats cannot win statewide elections absent the overwhelming support of Michigan’s 820,000 African American voters. In 2016, black voter turnout in the state had dropped more than 12 points from four years earlier. Had it been even slightly higher, Hillary Clinton would have easily taken the state, rather than lose it by fewer than 11,000 votes. Normally, the UAW’s support for Miles would make his nomination a given, but it was no match for the uprising Nessel was organizing.

Hunter Dyke/The Ann Arbor News via AP

Dana Nessel announces her decision to run for Michigan attorney general during a news conference in Ann Arbor. 

From a standing start, Nessel’s campaign cobbled together a base among feminists, LGBTQ activists, marijuana legalization advocates, the MEA, and a cross-section of the non-labor white left, many of whom had never been involved with Democratic politics before. Together they signed up 3,000 supporters to attend the convention in Detroit and, despite freezing rain and treacherous driving, most of them showed up. Overwhelmed by the turnout, and facing what would have been a certain 10-point loss to Nessel, Miles bowed out and moved to have the convention nominate her by acclamation. It was an unprecedented defeat for the Auto Workers. 


Pro-Life, Pro-Second Amendment, Pro-Business

The GOP’s assault on the Democratic ticket came fast and furious. The Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity launched an ad blitz to rebrand Whitmer as a Granholm toady who’d do whatever she could to raise taxes and drive jobs out of the state. Republicans have also run ads claiming that Whitmer wouldn’t enforce immigration laws; that she and her running mate, Garlin Gilchrist, hate Israel and support Hamas, and that, as Ingham County prosecutor, Whitmer bungled the case against a Michigan State University serial child molester, Dr. Larry Nassar. Yet despite these and other claims, Nate Silver’s 538 forecast puts Whitmer’s chance of winning next week at 14 out of 15. 

It’s not hard to see why. Polling by the Detroit News revealed that voters give Whitmer much higher marks than Schuette when it comes to dealing with the  state’s biggest problems, including education, health care, jobs, and, and repairing streets and highways (or, “fixing the damn roads”—the signature line that Whitmer has used since the beginning of her campaign). And then there’s Flint and the political fallout from Republican Governor Rick Snyder’s negligence in failing to prevent and immediately respond to the water crisis that continues to this day. Though the GOP still tries to cast Snyder as a Republican success story, a Morning Consult poll last July ranked him as America’s third most unpopular governor (he’d been fourth the year before).  Some success.

Nessel has also maintained a lead over her Republican opponent, Michigan House Speaker Tom Leonard, but by a slimmer margin. One poll showed her support dropping from 13 points in September to 7 percent in mid-October. The Republicans’ campaign against Nessel has included accusations that her former law firm’s defense of accused sex abusers amounted to “letting men get away with the most heinous acts.” For her part, Nessel has aggressively slamming Leonard for his ties to the insurance and drug industry.

In the race for secretary of state, Democrat Jocelyn Benson has held a steady lead over Mary Treder Lang, “a results-driven executive management professional” whose work for the party and involvement with her yacht club fits the profile of a typical “Grosse Pointe Republican.” But Lang’s politics are anything but genteel. A devotee of “election integrity”schemes, she’s heaped praise on the outgoing Republican secretary of state for having thrown 1.2 million Michiganders off the state’s voter roles. Lang told one podcaster that had they not been barred from casting their ballots “we wouldn’t have President Trump today as our great president, nor would we be a red state.” In response to the GOP’s assault on voters two proposals have been placed on the state ballot. One would end gerrymandering by placing redistricting in the hands of an independent commission and the other would eliminate various barriers that were designed to keep voters, particularly minorities, from participating in elections. If both pass, which is considered likely, the new secretary of state will determine how they’re implemented.

The 538 forecast gives the remaining member of the all-women ticket, U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow, a 97.8 percent chance of defeating Republican John James. 


Donald Trump and the Myth of the Red Wave

A major factor in the Democrats’ lead in the polls is that Trump’s wafer-thin 2016 Michigan victory wasn’t a measure of his support so much as Hillary Clinton’s lack of it. The race was hers to lose and she did.

Despite improvement in the state’s economy and Trump’s emphasis on trade and protecting manufacturing jobs, always a staple of Michigan politics, his popularity in the state has consistently lagged behind the national average. Though pundits believed Stabenow’s opposition to the Brett Kavanaugh nomination to the Supreme Court would upend her campaign, it barely made a dent. Polling consistently showed that the majority of Michiganders opposed his confirmation. If anything, it further energized women who were already planning to vote Democratic, including both independent and Republican college educated white women who’ve washed their hands of the GOP.

“I’m Democratic [now]. I’ve never been before,” a woman named Bobbie (she would only give her first name) who lives in Birmingham, one of the state’s richest cities, recently told BuzzFeed. Would she vote for a Republican? “Absolutely not,” she said. “I don’t see myself voting for any of them.” Dawn, a Birmingham resident who’s still a Republican, told BuzzFeed, “I haven’t done much research on candidates yet, but I can tell you it won’t be a Republican.”

Women like Bobbie and Dawn are keeping Republican leaders awake at night, not only because their votes and those of women like them may guarantee the election of the all-women ticket, but also because of the impact it could have down ballot. One such race is in the Eighth Congressional District, which stretches from the Michigan State University campus to many of Detroit’s northern suburbs. There, Democrat Elissa Slatkin, a veteran of the CIA and a past adviser to both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, is hoping to unseat two-term Republican Mike Bishop, whose support has decayed after unrelenting efforts by Indivisible activists, principally women, to hold him accountable for his vote to repeal Obamacare. 

Indivisible’s efforts underscore another advantage Democrats hold over Republicans this year: the spontaneous self-organization of many Michigan women in the wake of the 2017 Women’s March. While most such protests produce little more than t-shirts and memories, the Women’s March was, in the words of pollster Celinda Lake, “totally fundamental” to the tsunami of women Democrats running for office this year.

“It really inspired a lot of women, showed them they were not alone, and energized a lot of donors and volunteers for their campaigns,” Lake says. It’s part of the reason why the election of Democratic women candidates could end Republican control of Michigan’s legislature, which seems more likely than not to happen.

AP Photo/Paul Sancya

Gretchen Whitmer, Democratic gubernatorial candidate, waves to the audience before a rally in Detroit.

In its 2018 State Legislative Election Forecasts, Klarnerpolitics.com anticipates that Democrats gains in the state Senate that only would that eliminate the Republicans’ veto proof majority, but would also place half the chamber’s seats in Democratic hands. In the lower House the pollster predicts Democrats will do even better and win control outright. 


Putting the Pieces Back Together

Those victories would be crucial for Whitmer as she prepares a legislative agenda that likely would be dominated by extending health care, reducing auto insurance costs, and a series of proposals she spelled out in “Get it Done: Fighting Urban Poverty,” an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of ideas ranging from “Ban the Box” legislation to protecting tenants from lead exposure. Most pointedly, the Democrats’ new power in the legislature, owed largely to women voters and the election of women lawmakers, would be pivotal to the success of Whitmer’s plan to protect reproductive rights, not only by repealing Michigan’s 1931 ban on abortion, but also by restoring funding for Planned Parenthood, repealing the rape insurance law, eliminating the 24-hour waiting period for abortion, and overturning other remnants of Republican rule. 

As with her other initiatives, Whitmer would need the backing of a united Democratic Party. It might not be easy. 

One challenge Whitmer would immediately face would be building a new relationship with the labor movement in the wake of the resistance of some major unions to her candidacy, and their stunning rebuke by activists in the battle to nominate Dana Nessel. A modus vivendi certainly looks plausible. In the wake of the Republicans’ passage of a Right-to-Work law and the U.S. Supreme Court’s Janus Decision, Michigan’s unions need all of the support they can get—and to transform her platform into policy Whitmer needs all of the support they can offer.

But there’s another issue Whitmer would need to respond to that’s of far greater consequence to the party and the state.

Though the all-womenticket came about by chance, it was an all-upscale-white-women ticket (three of them lawyers). The Democrats’ strongest supporters, African Americans—and African American women in particular—were left on the outside looking in. And the wounds suffered by African American Democrats went beyond the party’s monochromatic ticket. 

The race to win the nomination to succeed Representative John Conyers, an icon of black politics since the 1960s, saw four African American candidates splitting their community’s vote and losing to a Palestinian American, Rashida Tlaib. While her election will make her one of two Muslim women in the House of Representatives, and one of two members of the Democratic Socialists of America, it also means that the African American community will lose one of the two seats it’s held for decades. Whitmer has responded to the diminished strength of blacks in the state not just through her urban poverty agenda but also by naming Garlin Gilchrest—an African American and longtime activist—as her choice for lieutenant governor.

For now, the epochal transformation of the Michigan Democratic Party is one of gender. And the issue the party must confront isn’t whether it ought to be a party of women. The all-women ticket and candidates like Nicole Breadon have proven it is. It’s whether Michigan men are able to accept it. 

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