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Democrats learned some tough lessons in 2016. In fully embracing Hillary Clinton, the Democratic National Committee shut out Bernie Sanders — and his many enthusiastic supporters.

Michigan Democrats don’t want to make that mistake, especially considering this state went for Sanders in the presidential primary. So they are welcoming progressives with open arms. Thousands of new members have joined the state party ahead of its April 15 endorsement convention in Detroit, when the party will select its choices for the statewide offices of attorney general and secretary of state.

“Donald Trump has energized progressives to levels we haven’t really seen before,” says Howard Edelson, a Michigan-based Democratic political consultant.

But how far left are state Dems willing to go? That question is at the heart of the battle for the attorney general nomination. The two primary contenders are Dana Nessel, the Plymouth Township attorney who made a name helping overturn Michigan’s same-sex marriage ban, and Pat Miles, a Grand Rapids native and a former Obama-appointed U.S. attorney.

Nessel is firmly on the hard left of the Democratic Party, and is courting both Sanders voters and women who have become more politically active in response to Trump and the #MeToo movement. She famously quipped that she’s the candidate in the race who “doesn’t have a penis.”

Miles has spent his career closer to the political middle. But now he’s declaring himself a true progressive. In response to Nessel’s attacks on his past positions on gay marriage and marijuana legalization, he says some of his views have changed over time, following cultural shifts.

When he ran for Congress in 2010, Miles supported civil unions over gay marriage, which he argues is the same view President Obama formerly held, too. “We’re not very far apart on the issues, but we are far apart on leadership experience,” says Miles of Nessel.

Nessel highlights the strong possibility Democrats could have three women at the top of the November ballot, with Gretchen Whitmer for governor and Jocelyn Benson for secretary of state. It’s a message that may resonate with Democratic women. Women typically outpace men in voting, 52 to 48 percent. A CBS News poll from January found that 84 percent of liberal women think the country would be stronger with more women in office. Only 19 percent of GOP women feel the same.

Gender will likely play a role, but voters make their decisions based on other factors such as where candidates come from and their race. And, of course, the issues. Miles is African-American, which may help him with urban Democrats. And his west Michigan roots could draw support from that part of the state. Given he’s from a conservative area, he knows how to appeal to a broader base and bring in moderates and independents.

Last week, Miles also earned a big endorsement from the United Auto Workers. “That’s a clear win for Pat Miles and a true test to see if the UAW has the power to deliver,” Edelson says.

The GOP, which has held the state AG office for 16 years, hopes to cash in on the rush leftward by the Democratic candidates. The message from the Republican Attorneys General Association is: “What will April 15 bring? A candidate who will say anything to cater to liberal convention goers (Miles), or a provocative progressive who would not stand a chance in a general election (Nessel)?”

The answer to that question will reveal a lot about how Michigan Democrats intend to position themselves in 2018.

ijacques@detroitnews.com

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