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Lansing — Democrat Shri Thanedar is going on the attack with less than three weeks left until Michigan’s Aug. 7 primary.

The gubernatorial hopeful is sending voters a new mailer criticizing former Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer and suggesting the early Democratic front runner is “firmly in the pocket” of health care executives at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.

The direct mail is believed to be the first negative advertisement directly from a candidate campaign in the race for the Democratic nomination and indicates Thanedar may be getting “desperate” to make up ground in the race, said one Detroit political consultant.

“The only explanation for going negative is feeling like you’re behind and you need to chip away at the support the other person has,” Greg Bowens said.  

Thanedar also gently jabbed Whitmer in a recent television commercial. The ad features a narrator critiquing the "Democratic machine that tells you who to vote for" while a woman holds a faux-Whitmer campaign sign on screen.

Thanedar, an Ann Arbor chemist and entrepreneur, has committed nearly $6 million of his own money to his bid for Michigan governor. He has also run positive TV ads introducing himself to voters, but recent polling shows Whitmer leading.

A spokesman for the former Senate minority leader called the new attack mailer "a shame."

Health care has become a prominent issue in the Democratic primary. The race also features former Detroit health director Abdul El-Sayed, who has proposed a state-level “Medicare for all” style program. Thanedar supports calls for a national single-player plan.

His new mailer attacks Whitmer for benefiting from contributions from Blue Cross brass. As The Detroit News first reported in February, executives at the state’s largest insurer invited employees to donate to Whitmer and attend a March 7 fundraiser.

Thanedar’s campaign also blasted Whitmer for a 2013 Senate vote allowing Blue Cross to transition from a charitable trust into a tax-paying, nonprofit mutual liability insurer. The Senate unanimously approved the measure as Blue Cross agreed to contribute nearly $1.6 billion to a new state health endowment fund.

Whitmer voted to “deregulate the health insurance industry,” the mailer claims, and then Blue Cross “raised our premiums.”

Whitmer campaign spokesman Zack Pohl said the mailer shows that Thanedar knows he’s behind in the polls and thinks the only way he can win is by attacking her.

“That’s a shame, because we've kept our campaign positive instead of tearing down fellow Democrats,” Pohl said. “The truth is, when Gretchen's mother was dying of brain cancer, she spent hours on the phone battling the insurance company.”

Whitmer’s campaign regularly touts her work helping to expand Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act. The Healthy Michigan plan signed into law by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder now covers more than 662,800 low-income residents.

As governor, Whitmer would "work to ensure everyone in Michigan has access to quality, affordable health care," Pohl said. She'd also "stand up to Donald Trump" on health care and "take on the big drug companies" to lower prescription drug costs, he added.

Thanedar, in a statement released through his campaign, noted that Whitmer is the only Democratic gubernatorial candidate who has not embraced calls for single-payer health care.

"The matter of health care in Michigan and rising costs requires elected leadership with the independence to act on behalf of Michigan's citizens, rather than corporate interests," Thanedar said.

Negative ads have come fast and furious in the Republican gubernatorial primary, where Attorney General Bill Schuette, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley and their respective super political action committees have run a series of television attack ads targeting each other.

The Democratic primary has been tame by comparison, although Thanedar has battled controversy, including reports that lab animals were left behind at a pharmaceutical company he previously owned in New Jersey after the firm was placed in receivership.

Negative mailers are designed to drive down an opponents' favorability ratings, Bowens said. But going on the attack could be a risky strategy for Thanedar, an Indian immigrant who built his early campaign around a positive message and quirky commercials. 

"Anytime you’re saying 'Don’t vote for this person' instead of saying 'Vote for me,' it signals a sense of desperation," Bowens said. 

"And given the amount of money that Shri Thanedar's campaign has spent to get up name ID and get positives connected to his name, running negative ads can backfire and give people a reason to come out even stronger for the opposition"

The newly aggressive approach from Thanedar comes as Democrats prepare for their second and final televised debate of the primary season. They'll square off Thursday evening at the WDIV studio in Detroit.

El-Sayed has also criticized Whitmer, the daughter of a former Blue Cross CEO, over health care policy and support from Blue Cross executives, but he only indirectly challenged her during a June 20 debate in Grand Rapids. 

joosting@detroitnews.com

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