Gretchen Whitmer first gained attention when she ran for governor of Michigan with an unforgettable campaign slogan: “Fix the Damn Roads.”
The back-to-basics approach led Whitmer to overwhelmingly claim the seat in 2018, positioning her as a Democratic fresh face capable of winning back the Midwestern voters who abandoned Hillary Clinton two years prior.
Now, the first-term governor is facing the biggest crisis of her tenure, a death toll from the coronavirus that exceeds all but two states, as she faces new scrutiny after likely Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden confirmed she was on his short list for a running mate.
Political experts say Whitmer’s resume and biography make her a natural for consideration as a vice presidential pick.
“She’s far outside the Washington bubble ... an important counterbalance to Biden, who’s spent 50 years on either end of Pennsylvania Avenue. More importantly, she led a Democratic wave in a big Midwestern state that will be critical to Donald Trump’s reelection,” said Robert Yoon, a visiting political communications professor at the University of Michigan.
“Whitmer has only been a governor for a little more than a year, which in a normal election year would probably become a major talking point,” Yoon said. “But I think it’s more likely that she’ll be evaluated positively or negatively for her handling of a historic global crisis rather than the length of time she’s been in office.”
Whitmer signed a stay-at-home mandate on March 23, four days after California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued the first such order in the nation. She has strongly indicated she will extend the restrictions, which are set to expire on April 14.
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Republicans argue that Whitmer, 48, lacks the experience or the achievements to be a heartbeat away from the White House. Her first-year attempt to fix the roads through a 45-cents-per-gallon gas tax failed miserably. She criticized the federal government for its coronavirus response, but she was late in filing a request for a federal disaster declaration.
“I understand the electoral thinking of picking a female governor of Michigan. I understand the logic of that, but she’s not really tested in a big way,” said GOP strategist Trent Wisecup, a Michigan native who has worked on the presidential campaigns of Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney and on the California gubernatorial campaigns of Meg Whitman and Arnold Schwarzenegger. “I think she’s a talented politician. I don’t think she’s ready for the national stage.”
Trump has been critical of Democratic governors throughout the coronavirus crisis, but he has singled out Whitmer for some of his harshest words. He has dubbed her “Gretchen ‘Half’ Whitmer,” and said she was clueless and “in over her head.” He asked Vice President Mike Pence not to call “the woman in Michigan.”
After Trump told Fox News host Sean Hannity recently that he was having “a big problem with the young — a woman governor from — you know who I’m talking about — from Michigan,” Whitmer responded on Twitter with an emoji of a hand waving hello.
“Hi, my name is Gretchen Whitmer, and that governor is me,” Whitmer wrote. “I’ve asked repeatedly and respectfully for help. We need it. No more political attacks, just PPEs, ventilators, N95 masks, test kits. You said you stand with Michigan — prove it.”
One minute later, she added, “PS: I’m happy to work with the VP! We get along well.”
Trump’s repeated references to Whitmer by gender but not by name has led activists to rally around the phrase “That woman from Michigan.” Whitmer wore a blue T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase on the “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” on Wednesday.
The daughter of two attorneys who worked in Michigan state government, Whitmer went to Michigan State University for her undergraduate and law degrees. She served in the state Legislature for 14 years, eventually becoming the Senate minority leader. She was the first woman to lead a party caucus in the state. In 2018, she won the governor’s race by nearly 10 percentage points, after eight years of Republican rule.
She won the most votes any governor had ever received in the state. Her slogan — “Fix the Damn Roads” — resonated with a wide swath of Michiganders. Whitmer’s victory was especially notable two years after Hillary Clinton lost the state — which had voted Democratic in presidential elections since 1992 — to Donald Trump by less than 11,000 votes.
Whitmer pulled together a coalition of black voters, suburban women and blue-collar workers, and reduced the margins of her losses in conservative parts of the state. That’s the formula Democrats need to follow in 2020 to win the state, which is viewed as key to their chances of taking the White House.
Veteran Democratic strategist Jill Alper of Grosse Pointe, Mich., said Whitmer’s success was driven by the fact she isn’t an ideologue.
“She has a no-nonsense, brass-tacks, let’s-get-it-done attitude that is very appealing,” said Alper, who advised and raised money for Clinton in 2016. “The whole moniker ‘Fix the Damn Roads’ demonstrated her outrage about common-sense, everyday problems people are facing that weren’t being addressed.”
In a sign that Democratic leaders saw her potential, Whitmer was chosen to deliver the party’s response to the president’s State of the Union address this year.
Biden said he was looking at Whitmer as a running mate before her handling of the pandemic pushed her into the national spotlight.
“She made the list, in my mind, two months ago,” Biden said on Tuesday on MSNBC, adding that he expects his campaign to vet six to 10 women.
Whitmer, a national co-chair of Biden’s campaign, has said she was not interested in joining the Democratic ticket, and that Biden should pick a woman of color.
“I have never wanted to move to Washington, D.C., I’ll just be very honest with you,” she said on March 6, according to WWMT, a CBS affiliate in Kalamazoo, Mich. “I am 14 months into the job that I am so grateful for and I have a lot of work to do.”