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Lansing — Michigan women scored a series of huge victories in Tuesday’s primary, winning a major party gubernatorial nomination, almost every congressional primary they participated in, and a series of local and regional races.

Former state Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer coasted to victory in the Democratic gubernatorial primary and will face Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette in the general election.

She is seeking to become the second female governor in Michigan history. She also becomes one of the record-setting 11 women who so far have won nominations for governor nationwide in a single year, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

Michigan female candidates also won eight of the nine congressional primaries that had at least one woman in the race.

That included the 11th Congressional District, where Republican business executive Lena Epstein narrowly topped four men and Democrat Haley Stevens won a race that featured three men and one other woman.

“This was not a blue wave, but a giant pink wave building,” said Richard Czuba, a Lansing-based Glengariff Group pollster who has seen signs of growing female voter motivation for months.

While Republican women also fared well Tuesday, independent women voters appear to be “very sharply moving into the corner of the Democratic Party,” Czuba said.

This sets up favorable dynamics for the minority party in a mid-term election that could serve as a referendum on GOP President Donald Trump, he said.

“I think women, in particular Democratic and independent women, are looking for a stop, kind of a back stop to what they’re seeing happen in Washington right now,” Czuba said.

Congressional wins for women

In the 8th Congressional District, former Obama administration defense official Elissa Slotkin of Holly topped Chris Smith of East Lansing in the Democratic primary to take on Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop.

And former state Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Detroit won the primary race to replace resigned U.S. Rep. John Conyers in the heavily Democratic 13th District, meaning she is poised to become the first female Muslim in Congress.

Andy Levin, the son of retiring U.S. Rep. Sander Levin of Royal Oak, was the only male candidate to win a Michigan congressional primary that featured at least one woman, topping former state Rep. Ellen Lipton by about 10 percentage points. He’ll face Republican Candius Stearns, who ran unopposed in her primary, in the general election.

"Lipton's defeat likely says more about the power of the Levin brand than the campaign she waged," said Dave Dulio, chairman of the political science department at Oakland University. 

In general, Tuesday night was "more evidence that 2018 is shaping up to be the 'The Year of the Woman 2.0,'" Dulio said.

"With the results of the primaries in the 11th and 13th districts, Michigan is guaranteed to include two additional women in its congressional delegation; others are in positions to do well in other districts."

Matt Grossman, associate professor of political science at Michigan State University, noted that female candidates also did well in Washington state and the Kansas gubernatorial race Tuesday night.  

In the past, data indicated that female candidates performed about the same as male candidates in Democratic primaries, but there’s “burgeoning evidence” that women might be doing better than their male counterparts this year, Grossman said.

"Now, they're running more, so that makes a big difference," Grossman said.

“There is some evidence that Hillary Clinton might have stimulated interest in both women running and for women wanting more female candidates, and there was even some prior evidence that, basically, even when women lose, as Hillary Clinton did, they still have stimulated interest in female candidacies. So this might be another example of that."

Still, the gender gap between the Democratic and Republican parties "shows no sign of ebbing," Grossman added. "That also matters for the success of female candidates." 

Epstein's win in the contested 11th District GOP primary to replace retiring Rep. David Trott, R-Birmingham, was one of several exciting victories for conservative women on Tuesday night, said Linda Lee Tarver, president of the Republican Women's Federation of Michigan.

"Women in general have been under-represented" in political office," she said.

While the 2016 Women's March was mostly a liberal gathering, it helped "energize all women to visualize themselves as viable candidates. There was a great recruitment effort for both Republican and Democratic women to run for office this year."

The female wave may have crashed head first into state Sen. David Knezek, D-Dearborn Heights. Unofficial results from Wayne County suggest he lost his seat in a primary to Betty Alexander, a little-known candidate who did not report raising any individual contributions for her campaign and does not have a website. State Rep. Patrick Green, D-Warren, was unseated by teacher Lori Stone.

State Sen. Vincent Gregory, D-Lathrup Village, finished third behind two women in a primary for his old state House seat. Attorney Kyra Bolden won the race over Gregory, who has been rumored to be under consideration as a possible running mate for Whitmer.

State Rep. Tim Greimel, D-Auburn Hills, had support from major union organizations in his 11th Congressional District primary race but lost by roughly four percentage points to Stevens, chief of staff of Obama's auto task force that oversaw the financial bailout of Chrysler and General Motors from 2009-2011.

“I think if there’s an example of how women are taking control of the Democratic Party, Haley Stevens is the perfect example,” Czuba said.

Women dominate Dem ticket

Whitmer’s win means Michigan women will dominate the top of the Democratic ticket this fall. U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Lansing, who is up for re-election, will top a ticket that will also feature presumptive attorney general nominee Dana Nessel and presumptive secretary of state nominee Jocelyn Benson.

Whitmer, who was one of four women in the 38-member state Senate when she served as Democratic leader, has long encouraged more women to run for office.

“I think when you’ve got a legislature that’s so male, all the leaders making decisions around our health care being white, male, wealthy, you get the policies we have here in Michigan,” she said earlier this week. “They push anti-choice. They’ve cut us out of the debate about everything from our healthcare to our water.”

Electing more women empowers female voices and informs better decision-making, Whitmer said on a call hosted by EMILY’s LIST, a national organization that backs pro-choice Democratic candidates.

“I find women don’t get nearly as caught up about credit. We just want solutions. I don’t accept excuses in my household, and I don’t expect them from my government either," Whitmer said. 

2018 is not just shaping up to be the “year of the woman,” said EMILY’s List President Stephanie Schriock.

“We believe this is a sea change. We believe we’ve got a decade of women leaders lining up to run with over 40,000 women who have stepped up” nationwide.

"Women who are first-time candidates, and women who are thinking about what their races are going to be in 2020 and 2022. We’re just getting started and this is really going to be a lasting change, we believe, with the energy of women organizing, running and ultimately voting in these elections. We’re looking at the beginning of a long path here to some good change."

Whitmer struggles in Detroit

Despite a bevy of female candidates, Democrats could struggle with a different type of diversity this fall: The party’s top of the ticket is also all white.

That won’t be an issue for Republicans. Farmington Hills businessman John James, who won the U.S. Senate primary to take on Stabenow, is the first African-American Republican in more than four decades to make the general election ballot as the party’s nominee for a prominent statewide office.

Being black could help James make inroads in African-American communities that traditionally vote for Democrats, but "he is not a person that relies on that," said Tarver, former ethnic vice chair for the Michigan Republican Party. 

"We selected him because he was the best qualified to lead and help our president in the U.S. Senate," she said.

"That's how we look at it, and we're excited about it. He happens to be black. It's a great thing."

Democratic dynamics mean Whitmer will almost certainly select an African American as her running mate, said Jonathan Kinloch, chairman of the 13th Congressional District Democratic Party.

“Democrats win when we have a diverse ticket, and at this particular point, that’s the only option and the only opportunity where we can put someone of color on this ticket,” Kinloch said.

“I’m sure that Gretchen will sit down with residents and party (officials) to make sure that diversity happens.”

Democratic sources say union officials continue to push Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, who had been an early favorite to join Whitmer on the ticket but was frustrated when she did not pick him earlier.

Other names floated by Democratic sources include Gregory; Garlin Gilchrist, a 2017 Detroit city clerk candidate and executive director of the Center for Social Media Responsibility at the University of Michigan; state Sens. Morris Hood and Ian Conyers; state Rep. Sheldon Neeley and Detroit Council member Andre Spivey.

The pick could be big for Whitmer, who lost Detroit despite her statewide win. Unofficial city results show Ann Arbor businessman Shri Thanedar topped Whitmer by roughly two percentage points in the city.

Polls had consistently shown Whitmer struggling in Detroit, “but Gretchen didn’t do as bad as people thought she was going to do,” Kinloch said.

Thanedar invested heavily in the city after investing more than $10 million of his own money into the race.  He ran television ads long before Whitmer that helped him build name identification.

The narrow finish suggests Whitmer “shows that her message has been growing legs in Detroit, and I think the ore she engages in the general election across the state, her message will continue to grow,” Kinloch said.

Detroit remains a top prize for Democrats, but decades of population losses in the state’s largest cities have minimized its significance in both the primary and general election, Czuba said.

“Whitmer has some work to do to build voter enthusiasm in the city of Detroit, but the reality is the race was never going to be won or lost in Detroit,” he said. “That vote was decided last night in the suburbs.”

joosting@detroitnews.com

(517) 371-3662

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