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Michigan Democrats press for woman veep as race narrows to two men

As the presidential race largely narrowed to white men, top Democratic women and some voters in Michigan said they feel strongly the eventual Democratic nominee should pick a female running mate. 

"I really believe that we have incredible women leaders and that whoever our nominee is should be selecting a woman as vice president," said U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Lansing, who has not endorsed in the primary. 

"It's certainly time. It's past time. I think that's very, very important." 

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, left, chats with U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, who will deliver the keynote speech, and U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, at the Michigan Democratic Party Women's Caucus 33rd Annual Legacy Luncheon, at the Marriott Renaissance Center in this May 18, 2019, file photo.

The comments came as the leading high-profile female candidate, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, dropped out of the race Thursday without endorsing another candidate.

Women want to see female voices at the highest levels of government, Stabenow added, noting women swept the top four offices in Michigan in 2018. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who on Thursday endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden, said she was "very mindful" of representation among the remaining candidates and raised the issue with Biden as one of his new national campaign co-chairs. 

"I fully intend to take part in everything from the vetting of a running mate to the transition and beyond," Whitmer said. 

Pundits and party strategists have floated both Whitmer and Stabenow as potential candidates for vice president — choices that would both ensure female representation at the top of the ticket and underscore Michigan’s importance in November. 

Other potential candidates in the mix include Warren, Minnesota U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former Georgia state Rep. Stacey Abrams, California U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris and Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin. 

"I would be shocked if whoever wins the nomination does not pick a woman. That would be unwise," said Jen Eyer, a Democratic strategist in Lansing.

Eyer, a partner at Vanguard Public Affairs, added "women especially are really disheartened right now with the loss of several highly qualified women from the race." 

"Some fences need to be mended with women, really. I think a ticket that was rounded out with any one of the many, many dynamic women we have in the Democratic Party currently serving at very high levels would be just a huge asset and bring women who were supporting Warren, Klobuchar or (New York Sen. Kirsten) Gillibrand back into the fold."

Putting Whitmer or Stabenow on a vice presidential shortlist would lend their political savvy and popularity in a battleground state, Eyer said. 

Whitmer, Stabenow for veep

Whitmer, who won her seat on "kitchen table issues" such as road maintenance, gained national attention last month when she delivered the Democratic Party's official response to President Donald Trump's State of the Union address. 

The governor said Thursday she hasn't been approached about the vice presidential position and that it isn't something for which she's "angling." 

Presidential campaigns have reached out to Stabenow in recent months about putting her name forward for vice president, she said. The senator declined to disclose which campaigns. 

Former Vice President Joe Biden and Michigan Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer sit with Aidan Horowitz, Richard Eaton and members of the Horowitz family during a visit to Leo's Coney Island.

"The decision for me is where can I best serve Michigan, and I'm in a very senior, powerful position in the Senate right now to get things done, so that's a big consideration for me," Stabenow said. 

"I'm always willing to listen to people."

Former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Stabenow should be on "everyone’s shortlist."

"She is incredibly effective as a U.S. senator. She has relationships across the aisle that have resulted in her getting things done, getting results," said Vilsack, who worked closely with Stabenow on two farm bills.

"She has the ability to relate to people in the largest city and the smallest town and for a Democratic candidate that is important. She’s smart, and she’s tough." 

No doubt both women will be influential this year and in the years to come should the Democratic candidate win election, but it's too soon to analyze the possibility of either becoming vice president, said former Michigan Gov. Jim Blanchard, a Biden organizer. 

Still, "I think it makes sense clearly to have a woman running mate," Blanchard added.

"I had a woman running mate three times, in fact, and women are the power behind the Democrats.”

Glass ceiling still unbroken

Many Democratic women on Thursday expressed frustration that candidates such as Warren and Klobuchar were no longer competing in a primary field that started with six female candidates. 

Warren's withdrawal came after finishing third in her home state's primary. Klobuchar quit Monday. U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii remains in the race but doesn't appear to have a path to the nomination. 

In Thursday remarks, Warren acknowledged “all those little girls who are gonna have to wait for four more years.”

Shirley Horn, a bankruptcy attorney in Farmington Hills, favored Klobuchar and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg before they dropped out. 

"We're the people who have been saying, 'We’re tired of a bunch of old white men deciding everybody’s fate,' and it’s fascinating to me that the old white men are the only ones who are viable now," Horn said. "That just doesn’t make sense."

The likelihood of a male Democratic nominee also was disappointing for Lori Goldman, founder of Michigan’s Fems for Dems. She said it won't stop her from supporting the eventual nominee. 

“We doubt ourselves so that we make all of what the pundits say is true,” Goldman said. “If we can’t stop and look at what we’ve done over four years and say we are enough, look at what we’ve done … then I’m hoping time will help.”

Stabenow said she saw progress for the female presidential candidates compared with Hillary Clinton's experience in 2016. 

"I loved that we had multiple women with different perspectives, different constituencies in this race, and it became less about them being a woman and more about their ideas and their ability to win," Stabenow said.

Women make up over half of the population, and the majority of voters and "will ultimately decide when we have the first woman president and first woman vice president," she added. 

Voters weigh electability

A poll of 600 likely Michigan Democratic voters this past week showed Warren was viewed favorably by women 53.5% to 20%, while men viewed her favorably 48% to 31%, according to the Glengariff Group survey for The Detroit News/WDIV-TV (Local 4). 

Despite that favorability, 8% of women said they would vote for Warren, according to the poll. Biden took 31% of the female vote, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders got 19%. 

Female candidates held no clear advantage among female voters coming out of the first three primaries. Their fate largely was sealed Super Tuesday when Biden and Sanders pulled ahead in delegate counts.

After “the trouncing Hillary took” in 2016, the results to date reflect a lingering fear that a woman can’t beat Trump — a fear that is unwarranted, said Fems for Dems' Goldman. 

“The fear makes us follow the behaviors of not supporting and not throwing money to these women. It all becomes true, self-fulfilling prophecy,” she said.

U.S. Rep. Andy Levin of Bloomfield Township was among Warren’s supporters in Michigan. Even as he voiced confidence in the candidate in recent days, he acknowledged she and other female candidates can face deep-rooted bias. 

"With a lot of things wrong with the country, I think it would be good to put a woman in charge for once and deal with some of these questions about our spending priorities and putting families and students first more," Levin said. 

“But there’s structural sexism in America like there is structural racism, so people may have their fears." 

Misogyny may have played a role in Warren's struggle in the Democratic primary, but so too did the fact that Warren’s policy proposals were similar to Sanders', who was a clear front runner, said Lonnie Scott, a Warren supporter and executive director of Progress Michigan.

“It is sad to me that it takes extra for women to be considered in that way — being able to win," Scott said.

Pink wave ebbs 

Michigan’s “pink wave” in 2018 saw voters electing women to the state’s top three executive offices when they voted for Whitmer, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Attorney General Dana Nessel, in addition to re-electing Stabenow. 

But the same momentum appeared to be missing on the national Democratic stage.

The pink wave benefited Michigan's female candidates in 2018, Whitmer acknowledged, but the momentum shouldn't overshadow the "grit" and hard work of the candidates. 

Also, unlike the presidential race, women in Michigan didn't have to break the same glass ceilings in the offices of attorney general, secretary of state and governor, she said.  

"Breaking a glass ceiling is very difficult," Whitmer said. "There are historic, there are economic barriers that our candidates are bumping up against. We had the benefit of having someone come before us.”

The 2018 elections were considered a strong response to Trump’s mostly male cabinet members and White House policies that Democratic voters saw as anti-woman, Nessel said. 

Nessel, a progressive Democrat who became the state’s first openly gay attorney general, said her support in 2018 was somewhat mischaracterized as stemming solely from LGBT voters, cannabis enthusiasts or Sanders supporters. 

“Really, I think a lot of my supporters were women who came by the busloads to vote for me,” Nessel said. “I think they played a really active role in Michigan in 2018, and I think their voices are going to be heard in 2020.”

They were also important in 2016 — something many pundits are forgetting, she said. 

“The nominee for the Democrats in 2016 was a woman, and she received over 3 million more votes than the current president,” Nessel said.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com

mburke@detroitnews.com