Could Michigan's 'pink wave' ease way for female presidential hopeful?

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

In recent elections, Michigan saw  two distinct scenarios for female candidates hoping to win over voters during this week's Democratic presidential debates in Detroit. 

In 2016, Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders upset Hillary Clinton in the primary and she lost the state by less than 11,000 votes to Republican President Donald Trump that November.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, left, chats with U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, and U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, earlier this year at a Michigan Dems Women's Caucus luncheon.

But last year, Democratic female candidates swept Michigan's top statewide offices, bagging the seats of governor, attorney general, secretary of state and U.S. senator.

The 2018 "pink wave" in Michigan — combined with strong debate performances from U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren in June — heartened political analysts and party activists about the chances for a female Democratic presidential candidate in the state. Six women are running in the primary.

"We've always believed that once voters in this primary season got to know these extraordinary women — particularly the four senators — that they would start doing very well," said Stephanie Schriock, president of the group Emily's List, which supports Democratic female candidates.  

"They have won a lot of elections in their states, they've served in a number of different roles, they have very good understanding of what's happening in the country and around the world. They just needed a chance to be heard. That's why these debates like Detroit are so important. It gives an unfiltered opportunity for voters to see who they are: Great leaders."  

The victories of Michigan women last year could pave the way for the 2020 female presidential candidates and prove Clinton's performance to be isolated, said Adrian Hemond, a partner and CEO for Grassroots Midwest campaign consultancy in Michigan.

“She lost Michigan because she ran a wretched campaign here, not because she was a woman,” said Hemond, a Democratic consultant. 

“I definitely think there are multiple women in the field now that have the chance to take the state.”

Michigan set turnout records in the 2018 general election, boasting 4.3 million voters compared with the 3.2 million who showed up for the 2014 midterm, said voting data expert Mark Grebner of Lansing-based Practical Political Consulting.

The increased motivation to vote after a Republican presidential election is not unusual, though perhaps never to this scale, Grebner said. The effect of the Trump backlash vote is likely to grow in the 2020 presidential election, he said.

Whether the expected increase will include a swell of support for female candidates is difficult to say, Grebner said. The percentage of women voting in Michigan elections has remained largely unchanged — between 52% and 54% in the 2014, 2016, and 2018 elections.

Although the percentage of women heading to the polls isn’t changing, their votes may be.

In a May poll of 600 likely voters in Michigan, 58% of the women participating disapproved of Trump’s performance, according to the Lansing-based Glengariff Group.

Of five Democratic candidates paired against Trump in the poll, former Vice President Joe Biden had a 25-percentage-point lead among women and Sen. Bernie Sanders had a 21-point lead.

Harris of California, Warren of Massachusetts and South Bend Mayor Peter Buttigieg lagged behind Biden and Sanders in the May poll match-ups with Trump, but that was prior to the June Democratic presidential debates in Miami, where Harris and Warren held their own against the front runners.

Case for female candidates

Political analysts argue that Michigan’s 2018 election was more than the predictable left swing after a Republican presidential win. Many see it as proof that the state's voters are ready for a female presidential candidate.

The “pink wave” in the Great Lakes state was due to a combination of impressive female candidates and voters “fed up with what’s been going on” — a situation that one could argue is similar this cycle, said former Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon.  

“We were lucky in Michigan we had really strong high-quality candidates running up and down the ticket,” Dillon said. “The same is true for the women running for the Democratic nomination.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addresses the inauguration celebration in the Grand Riverview Ballroom at Cobo Center in Detroit on Jan. 1, 2019.

Michigan serves as direct evidence that a female candidate isn't a "liability" but a benefit, he said. 

"It shows that when you run the right campaign in Michigan, when you have the right candidates talking about the right issues, Democrats should perform fairly well in Michigan," Dillon said. 

The Michigan women who were elected last year are apt to agree.

“The conventional wisdom when I first jumped in the race was being female might be a deficit, and yet we found it to be an incredible strength,” said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who beat Republican Bill Schuette by nearly 10 percentage points.

The 2018 election shows voters are “clearly ready” for a female presidential candidate, said Attorney General Dana Nessel. But Democratic voters, she said, also “understand the importance of strongly supporting our nominee.”

Schriock said Emily's List spent time in Michigan partnering with Whitmer's campaign early on trying to convince people she was “electable.”

"We still live in the world where a lot of folks haven’t seen women in leadership positions as often, but the truth is ‘electability’ is a plainly flawed metric based on coded language for candidates who differ from what we’re used to," Schriock added.

"And what we’re used to is a particular looking candidate who happens to be typically white and male."

Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, said she’s not surprised that the questions about female electability keep coming up, especially after Clinton's experience in 2016.

“I’ve been in the workforce and looked at it and dealt with it for a long time, and it’s just a factor. We have good strong women in this race, and people are seeing them and looking at what their positions are,” Dingell said.

“That’s part of what happened last time. I’m not over-focusing on this.”

Choice for women voters

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel thanks supporters at the Democrats' election night party in Detroit. At left is her wife, Alanna Maguire

The 2018 "pink wave" and some of the organizing done for those candidates likely will benefit any female presidential candidates seeking favor in Michigan, Hemond said. 

Candidates would be well-served to address women's issues in addition to the fundamentals Whitmer advocated while on the campaign trail and in office. 

"The base of the Democratic Party in Michigan and nationally is female; I think it's good politics to speak about women’s issues, Hemond said. 

Any Democratic female president candidates' chances likely will rely on the growing power of the female base in Michigan, said Democratic political consultant Mario Morrow. 

“They are a force to be reckoned with,” Morrow said. “Warren and Harris are going to be battling it out for that voting bloc.”

Those thoughts were echoed by Lori Goldman, a Bloomfield Hills woman who founded Fems for Dems after Clinton’s loss in 2016 and worked to elect the Democratic women who sailed to victory in 2018.

The group is up to 4,000 members, mostly women and many of whom were enthusiastic about Harris and Warren after the June debates, Goldman said. 

“Women no longer have to be the underdogs,” she said. “People want good leadership. People don’t care anymore if it’s a women or man. Especially after this Trump presidency, people want to feel proud of their president again.”

Michigan Republican Party Chairwoman Laura Cox said the GOP is not focused on gender but on policy and issues. 

"And 2016 proved that. The president beat a female, and it wasn’t about her being female. It was about her policy and her issues and her ideas," said Cox, who rejected the idea that female presidential candidates face a higher bar. 

"I really firmly believe that it’s not the gender of the candidate. The election of a president is about ideas and what matters to folks. An economy that is strong. Historic records on unemployment rates. Wages are increasing. Minorities and women are more employed than ever. Those kind of things are important to Michigan voters."

Meshawn Maddock, the Milford-based co-founder of Michigan Trump Republicans and Women for Trump, acknowledged the importance the female vote will play in Michigan in 2020 but also said a candidate's gender shouldn't play a role. The best candidate should win, period, she said.

Maddock credited 2018’s pink wave to the midterm slump that plagues either party in control after a presidential election year. She hopes Republicans can win the female voting bloc by appealing to women on more than women’s health care issues, but also topics such as the economy, military and immigration law.

“I do recognize that what women need is to be empowered,” Maddock said. “They need to know that it’s OK for them to talk about what they’re happy about right now under a Trump administration.”

Michigan Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson

One of the statewide officeholders elected in 2018, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said her focus will be on educating residents to turn out at the polls. New voting laws that expand access to the ballot box could aid that goal.

The new rules, which include the ability to register up to or on Election Day, were used for the first time in May's elections, and 300 of the 400 people who signed up were 18- and 19-year-old voters, Benson said.

“I think when you have that (high turnout) as you certainly did have in 2018 you see the diversity of the electorate reflected in the diversity of candidates who win,” she said.

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