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Detroit — Michigan Democratic gubernatorial candidates barnstormed Detroit this weekend, cutting a path through the state's largest city where voters could account for roughly one out of every 10 ballots cast in Tuesday's primary election. 

Former state Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer rallied voters at Gordon Park, where she was joined by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence of Southfield, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy and other allies.

Five miles away at the Cobo Center, former Detroit health director Abdul El-Sayed campaigned with Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. The democratic socialist scored a surprise win in Michigan's 2016 presidential primary by energizing the progressive left. 

Ann Arbor entrepreneur Shri Thanedar, who hosted his own get-out-the-vote rally Saturday at the Sheffield Center, has flooded the state with television ads, glossy mailers and highway billboards that have helped him build critical name identification in Detroit.

While the electoral influence of Michigan's largest city has waned slightly in recent statewide elections, Detroit remains a top prize for candidates competing in Tuesday's gubernatorial primary and one of the party's most loyal strongholds in the general election. 

“There’s no group or demographic in the state that is as solidly Democratic as Detroit and the African-American voters inside of Detroit,” said Jonathan Kinloch, chairman of the 13th Congressional District Democratic Party.

Whitmer, the former lawmaker from East Lansing, has consistently led statewide polls of the Democratic primary but has struggled to catch fire in Detroit, where Thanedar has spent heavily and El-Sayed has roots as the city's former health director.

If she manages to win the primary without winning Detroit, Whitmer would be the first Democratic nominee to pull off the feat since 2002. That's when then-Attorney General Jennifer Granholm, former Wayne County corporation counsel, lost to former Gov. Jim Blanchard in the city but still went on to win the general election and become the state's first female governor.

"You can do it, but I don't recommend it," said Blanchard, who is supporting Whitmer and joined her at the Gordon Park rally. "You want Detroit to be a building block for the general election. It's a symbol that you're going to be a governor for the whole state and not just parts."

Detroit remains a vote-rich area for Democrats — just not as rich as it used to be. Absentee voting data is pointing to a strong statewide voter turnout Tuesday that could set a high mark for gubernatorial primary participation, but city officials are expecting relatively flat turnout in Detroit.

Elections Director Daniel Baxter last week predicted about 12 percent to 17 percent turnout in Detroit. That would be well below the 26 percent of Detroiters who voted in the March 2016 presidential primary, but consistent with 14 percent and 15 percent participation in the 2014 and 2010 gubernatorial primaries, respectively.

The city is declining as a share of overall votes in Michigan. Detroit cast about 10 percent of all statewide ballots in the 2016 presidential primary, down from 13 percent in the 2014 primary and 14 percent in the 2010 primary, the last to feature competitive gubernatorial races.  

The city now accounts for roughly five percent of all votes in statewide elections.

“Detroit keeps shrinking,” said consultant Mark Grebner, whose East Lansing firm Practical Political Consulting tracks absentee ballot data across the state.

Whether Detroit is the “holy grail” for Democrats or just the “cup that must be drunk from,” it remains a bellwether for candidate support among African-American voters and enthusiasm heading into the November election, said strategist and pollster Ed Sarpolus.

“If people of color are not motivated to get out and vote for you in the primary, you could have a problem with communities of color in the general election,” Sarpolus said.

MORE ONLINE: Get to know the Democrats: Whitmer, El-Sayed, Thanedar 

Thanedar's big Detroit bet

Thanedar, in particular, is betting big on Detroit in his long-shot bid for the Democratic nomination. The wealthy Ann Arbor entrepreneur, who has pumped more than $10 million of his own money into the race, has opened three campaign offices in the city and hired several prominent activists, including David Alexander Bullock as his campaign manager.

“Our numbers are very strong, and we’ve spent a lot of time in Detroit,” Thanedar told The Detroit News last week. “My campaign has hired more African-American staff and managers than any other campaign, and for some reason, my story resonates well in Detroit and also other parts of Michigan.

An Indian immigrant who built and lost businesses in Missouri before returning to Michigan and selling a successful chemical testing business in Ann Arbor, Thanedar said “working families appreciate the struggles that I’ve done. … They see me as a real person, not a politician with talking points. My talking points come from the life I have lived.”

Focusing on Detroit makes sense for Thanedar, Sarpolus said, but he'll need a heavy turnout in the city to make things "interesting" in the primary.

“Shri is going to have a very hard time trying to sell his message over in Macomb County, so where does he go? He has to go where people will be open to him, and if you’re looking at polling, his base was always in the urban core," Sarpolous said.

While El-Sayed hasn't had the budget to run as many television ads as Thanedar or Whitmer, he was the first Democratic candidate to start knocking on doors in the city.

And with recent endorsements from Sanders and New York congressional phenom Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, he's doing something gubernatorial primary candidates rarely can: Draw volunteers from out of state to help him canvass in the final weeks of the election. 

At his Sunday rally with Sanders, El-Sayed spoke of the poor conditions he witnessed in Detroit schools as the city’s health director and noted how he helped to create a lead testing program for Detroit schools.

People all over the country are watching the governor’s race in Michigan to determine whether the “working people” can take on the political establishment, Sanders said. "What happens here in Michigan will not only impact this great state; it will impact the entire country."

Duggan helps Whitmer

Duggan, who touted Whitmer as the Michigan Democratic Party's best chance to end eight years of Republican rule in state government, is helping Whitmer in Detroit and said Sunday "we're working hard and are going to try to get out every vote we can."

Whitmer has increased her presence in recent months and is “not an unfamiliar face to party activists in Detroit,” said local political consultant Greg Bowens. Allies started running television ads for her in late June, and her campaign began running its own ads in July.

“It’s become almost habit for mainstream candidates to not spend as much time or money or effort here in the primary, and unfortunately if that does play out here and Whitmer gets the nod for the nomination, it’s going to make it harder for her to really run a good campaign in November,” Bowens said. 

Whitmer, for her part, said last week she is confident in her primary operation in Detroit, which includes support from statewide unions that have nearly all endorsed her.

“Detroit is incredibly populous, and an important part of the state’s success is the success of the people of Detroit,” Whitmer said. “But here’s what I know: I’ve been to all 83 counties, and everywhere you go there are people who want to know their governor is going to solve problems that they confront, whether that county looks red on the political map or blue.”

Whitmer has “the largest machine” behind her in Detroit and statewide, Sarpolus said. El-Sayed has progressive networks and young, energetic activists backing him. “And Shri Thaendar is on his own,” Sarpolus said. “That’s why he needs to spend so much on television.”

Kinloch said he thinks Whitmer's union support will be an important factor.

“These folks are used to going out there and staying out there on the campaign trail," he said. "That’s a great resource for Whitmer leading up to and on Election Day.”

Statewide voter registration is down about 2 percent since the 2016 presidential election but up about a half-percent since January, according to data from the Michigan Secretary of State's Office, which cleans up its rolls after presidential elections. 

Voter registration is down about four percent in Wayne County, which includes Detroit. But it climbed in nine other counties — each of which Sanders won over Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Sanders won Michigan with help from suburban, rural and hard-left voters in increasingly Democratic areas like Grand Rapids. Clinton beat Sanders in Detroit, winning nearly three out of every four votes in the 2016 primary, but her “shallow presence” in the city likely cost her the general election to President Donald Trump, Kinloch said.

“Even though Detroit did turn out and strong for Hillary Clinton, if she had put just a slight increase in her presence in Detroit, it could have made all the difference in her closing that 10,000-vote gap," he said.

joosting@detroitnews.com

(517) 371-3662

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