Whitmer, Schuette win Michigan governor primaries
Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette and former state Senate Democratic Leader Gretchen Whitmer will compete to be Michigan’s next governor after winning party primary fights Tuesday night.
Michigan voters chose experience in the gubernatorial race, an about face two years after helping elect GOP President Donald Trump and eight years after picking term-limited Gov. Rick Snyder, neither of whom had held political office.
Whitmer, who spent 14 years in the state Legislature, held off a late push by former Detroit health director Abdul El-Sayed, a favorite of the progressive left, and Ann Arbor Entrepreneur Shri Thanedar.
Schuette, who launched his political career 34 years ago with election to the U.S. House, is looking to make the governor’s office his next stop after topping Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, state Sen. Pat Colbeck and obstetrician Jim Hines.
The primaries generated high interest, so much so that some precincts in Oakland County ran out of ballots just before the polls closed in most of the state at 8 p.m. There were several contested congressional primaries, while Farmington Hills businessman and military veteran John James won the Republican nomination to take on U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, in the fall.
“Well, we did it,” Schuette said to supporters during an election night party at the Dow Diamond minor league baseball stadium in Midland. After a bruising primary, he quickly turned his attention to the general election by urging GOP unity.
“Whatever differences we may have, it is my hope that starting tonight we can unite in our common goals: more jobs, greater growth and bigger paychecks for Michigan families.”
The Associated Press called the race for Schuette around 9:30 p.m. With 96 percent of all precincts reporting by Wednesday morning, he had pulled in nearly 51 percent of the vote, compared with 25 percent for Calley, 13 percent for Colbeck and 11 percent for Hines.
Endorsed by Trump, Schuette said later Tuesday that both the president and Vice President Mike Pence had called to congratulate him on the primary win.
Before midnight Tuesday, the president tweeted: "Congratulations to Bill Schuette. You will have a Big win in November and be a tremendous Governor for the Great State of Michigan. Lots of car and other companies moving back!"
Whitmer was named the projected winner around 10 p.m. Tuesday. With most precincts reporting by Wednesday morning, she was leading with nearly 52 percent of the vote, followed by El-Sayed at 30 percent and Thanedar at 18 percent.
A large crowd gathered for the Democratic nominee at the Sound Board theater at MotorCity Casino in Detroit and chanted “Go Gretchen, Go!” as they waited for Whitmer's victory speech.
“We are standing here primed to win in November,” Whitmer said. “It is because of all of you that we have the opportunity to reject the politics of division and exclusion, the politics of taking care of just a few instead of us all.”
Surviving attack ad barrage
Schuette survived a barrage of attacks from rivals en route to the GOP nomination. The 64-year-old downplayed revelations he used government staff to sign personal real estate documents and used his state office to plan for a political convention.
Calley, 41, had a reputation for soft-spoken and thoughtful work as lieutenant governor. But he took the gloves off in the primary, accusing Schuette of breaking the law and politicizing investigations like the attorney general’s Flint water crisis probe.
“We can be proud of the work we’ve done,” Calley said in a concession video that included congratulations for Schuette. “The reality is this is President Trump’s Republican Party. His chosen candidates win Republican primaries. We see it all across the country.”
Whitmer, 46, consolidated establishment support in the Democratic primary, including endorsements from Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, members of congress and most of the state's labor unions, including the United Auto Workers and the Michigan Education Association.
The East Lansing Democrat was a perpetual member of the minority party, but Whitmer has touted her work to cross the aisle and secure votes for a minimum wage increase and expanded Medicaid eligibility.
She campaigned promising to “fix the damn roads,” a blunt rallying cry for her plan to pump $3 billion a year into a new infrastructure bank, possibly by asking voters to approve long-term bonding.
Sara Stech, a 67-year-old social worker who lives in Whitmer’s home town of East Lansing, said she voted for the former Senate minority leader because she feels Whitmer is the best chance for Democrats to take on Republicans in the fall.
“Pragmatism rules,” Stech said. “We know her really well. We know her positions. She’s a good progressive, and we’re pragmatists. I spent my whole life being an idealist, but where did that get me? Mr. Donald J. Moron.”
Jason Huizing, 46, wore his feelings about Tuesday’s primary on his t-shirt. It said “F--- Trump” with an American flag.
Huizing, who sells handicap-accessible vans and buses, voted for Whitmer. He considered casting his ballot for El-Sayed but it came down to elect ability.
“I think she has the best chance of beating a Republican,” he said. “And that’s the goal – to get Trump and the Republicans out of office.”
El-Sayed had polled third in most polls of the race, but the 33-year-old former Detroit health director appeared to be building momentum in recent weeks as he rallied the progressive left with the help of Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist.
Sanders, who scored a surprise win in Michigan’s 2016 presidential primary, endorsed El-Sayed on July 26 and rallied with him Sunday in Detroit and Ypsilanti. New York congressional phenom Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez campaigned for him one week earlier.
“We punched well above our weight," El-Sayed said in a concession speech at Cobo Center in Detroit. "So many communities got behind this movement — a movement that was so diverse. That’s what America is supposed to be. We changed the conversation."
El-Sayed supporters were philosophical after his loss.
“It’s sad for me because I voted for him, but the people of Michigan have spoken,“ said Avery Bono, 19 of Taylor. “ But this is just the first part of the progressive (movement) that will happen in Michigan. The fact that Gretchen Whitmer had to fight him so hard shows we are gaining ground.”
Shahzad Mian, 46 of Ann Arbor said he was “very proud” of the candidate, despite the result.
“He ran a good campaign,“Mian said. “He will continue to be a leader for our community. But this is a democracy. We live in a wonderful country where people get to have their voices heard at the ballot box, and that’s what happened. But we will still keep going.“
Thanedar's spending spree
Thanedar, a wealthy Ann Arbor businessman, flooded the state with a series of television ads, glossy mailers and billboards in the run-up to the primary election.
The 63-year-old immigrant also campaigned on a hard-left platform while touting his rags-to-riches story that began with childhood poverty in his native India. He built and then lost a small business empire in Missouri before building and selling a successful chemical testing company in Ann Arbor.
Aaron Wright of Detroit, 40, said he voted for Thanedar because of his business experience, noting the Ann Arbor entrepreneur has “made millions” in private industry.
Television ads are “mostly propaganda,” Wright said, “but I actually seen a special about his life, a TV show talking about his life and where he went, that kind of made me like him as a person.”
Calley's stalled campaign
Endorsed by Snyder as his chosen successor, Calley ran on a promise to “continue the comeback” and build on recent economic gains. While Schuette won backing of the powerful Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the Detroit Regional Chamber and the Grand Rapids Chamber both endorsed Calley.
Schuette, endorsed by Trump, bashed Calley for renouncing his presidential endorsement in 2016 after audio tapes surfaced of the New York businessman bragging about using his celebrity to grope women.
Mark Johnson, a 52-year-old aviation expert from Howell, said he voted for Calley because he saw him as the most moderate candidate in the GOP primary.
“I think the partisanship in this country is a very bad thing, and we need more people in the middle who can solve problems.”
Democratic campaign sparring
The Democratic primary was a relatively timid affair but exploded in controversy last week when El-Sayed accused Whitmer of "money laundering." He quickly walked back the complaint, noting there was nothing illegal about untraceable contributions made to a group running ads supporting Whitmer.
El-Sayed faced backlash over a separate campaign finance irregularity first reported by The Detroit News. Donors who had already given him maximum individual contributions pumped big bucks into a political action committee that appeared to funnel the money into El-Sayed's campaign.
Whitmer, in her victory speech, thanked her Democratic primary opponents after talking to them on the phone.
"There is a place for you as we move forward,” Whitmer said. “I appreciate your spirit and energy. I appreciate your ideas and what you have meant for this party.”
Joined on stage by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, and several other Democrats, Whitmer repeated her plans for the state, including her efforts to “fix the damn roads!”
"We’ve got a lot of work to do," Whitmer said. "We’ve got to throw Bill Schuette a big retirement come November 6.”
At a time when some people want to build walls, “we in Michigan are going to get back to building bridges,” Whitmer said.
Thanedar’s aggressive spending has put this year’s gubernatorial race on pace to be one of the most expensive in state history.
Candidates and outside groups had already pumped about $42 million into the race through late July, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. The 2006 matchup between incumbent Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Republican Dick DeVos drew about $79 million through the November general election.
Whitmer had raised more than $6.2 million through July 22, a haul her campaign said came mostly from small, in-state donors despite accusations of special interest influence by Thanedar and El-Sayed, who had raised nearly $4 million by the same point.
If elected, Schuette has promised to cut the state’s personal income tax from 4.25 percent to 3.9 percent, completing the phase out of a temporary increase approved under former Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm but frozen under Snyder.
“If you thought Jennifer Granholm was bad, well look out, Gretchen Whitmer would be worse," Schuette said Tuesday night in his GOP victory speech.
Schuette impressed Tom McDade when he met him at an Oakland County Republicans event last year, and he’s done a decent job as attorney general, the 69-year-old Auburn Hills man said.
“Sure, he’s a professional politician but you kind of need to be,” Dade said. “Our president is proof of that.”
Hines, a 62-year-old doctor, pumped more than $2.6 million of his own-money into his long-shot bid for governor as he ran television ads and toured the state in a 32-foot recreational vehicle.
Hines embraced his outsider status, promising to bring a fresh perspective to Lansing and put “people first, not politics.”
Colbeck, who rode a wave of tea party support to a state Senate seat eight years ago, courted grassroots “Trump Republicans” despite the fact the president and Vice President Mike Pence both endorsed Schuette.
An aerospace engineer and small business owner before he jumped into politics, touted his Christian faith and promised conservative “principled” solutions if elected governor, including outside-the-box ideas for road repairs and health care.
Ann Jackson, 48, said she voted for Colbeck in Marion Township because she appreciated his Christian faith.
“He really comes off as a very honest man and that he really cares,” said Jackson, who works in retail and attends the same Plymouth church as Colbeck. “I think he would follow through on what he is saying.”
For the first time in Michigan history, two Libertarian candidates for governor also made the primary ballot, which the party qualified for because of presidential nominee Gary Johnson’s performance in 2016.
With more than thre-quarters of precincts reporting, Grand Rapids area businessman Bill Gelineau was headed toward victory over James Tatar, a retired Livonia teacher, 58 percent to 42 percent. The winner has the chance to play spoiler in the November general election.
Staff reporters Maureen Feighan and George Hunter and freelance writer Michael Gerstein contributed.