After Whitmer scores a big win, speculation about a future presidential run ramps up
Gretchen Whitmer speaks at the General Motors Detroit- Hamtramck assembly plant in Detroit on January 27, 2020. - JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP/TNS/TNS

With her double-digit win on Nov. 8, there’s been no shortage of speculation about the political future of Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, with national media postulating her viability as a future presidential candidate as early as 2024 if President Joe Biden decides not to seek a second term.

Whitmer did pledge during the campaign to serve a full second term if reelected.

The Democratic incumbent beat GOP gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon by 10.5 points, helping to lead a historic sweep of state government that will place Democrats in control of the legislature for the first time in nearly 40 years.

With some of the blame for the Republican collapse being aimed at former President Donald Trump, some Republicans, like U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Grand Rapids), who lost his bid for reelection, are pinning their 2024 hopes on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. He was reelected last week by a nearly 20 point margin. Trump is expected to announce his 2024 candidacy on Tuesday in Florida.

Meanwhile, Democrats concerned about Biden’s age have informally looked to potential replacements should Biden defer trying for another term, with Whitmer’s name consistently making the short list.

President Joe Biden speaks about electric vehicle manufacturing during a stop at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit on Sept. 14, 2022. (Andrew Roth | Michigan Advance)

The White House has rejected the idea that Biden won’t seek a second term, while Biden himself said he intended to do so, although he left some room for doubt.

“I think everybody wants me to run, but we’re going to have discussions about it,” Biden told reporters following last week’s midterm election, adding that he planned to discuss the decision with his family over the holidays and announce a final decision in early 2023.

With that lack of certainty, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Time, The Hill and NBC News have all published articles and/or opinion pieces naming Whitmer as a top contender in 2024, noting her selection to deliver the party’s response to Trump’s State of the Union address in February 2020 and high-profile battle with him over his pandemic response, which then placed her among Biden’s potential choices for a running mate later that year.

Biden ended up tapping now-Vice President Kamala Harris, but Whitmer was on the short list. Biden and Whitmer are personal friends.

Whitmer’s office did not respond to a request for comment from the Michigan Advance for this story.

When asked by a reporter for WXYZ-TV the day before the election if she would run for president in 2024 should Biden decide not to, she seemed to leave no room for doubt.

“No,” she replied. “Everyone else speculates and writes stories without actually talking to me, but no, I’m running for four more years as governor. My hope is to win this election and my absolute dedication is to serving out four years.”

However, Whitmer was less concrete when asked the same question on the same day by NBC News.

“I’m proud of being a Michigander,” said Whitmer. “And that’s where my focus is at the moment.”

Republicans, including Dixon, made the case during the election that Whitmer will leave Michigan to the Oval Office.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at a rally for former Vice President Joe Biden in Detroit, March 9, 2020 | Andrew Roth

A major appeal of a potential Whitmer candidacy could be leading a swing state and her staunch support for abortion rights.

Even before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, Whitmer filed suit to prevent Michigan’s 1931 abortion ban from taking effect and then remained steadfast in using the issue to differentiate herself from Dixon, who said she opposed exceptions for rape, incest or the mother’s health, but then tried to distance herself from those comments.

Whitmer’s strategy paid off on Nov. 8, as evidenced by the solid victory for Proposal 3, which enshrined abortion rights in Michigan’s Constitution. It won with nearly 57% of the vote and nearly 2.6 million votes cast in support.

Meanwhile, exit polls that showed abortion was the top issue for voters in Michigan.

One pundit who took note was Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne.

“She built her big majority by immediately grasping the power of the abortion issue after the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade,” he wrote. “A referendum to enshrine abortion rights in Michigan’s constitution undoubtedly brought out a big Democratic vote on Tuesday.”

Looking ahead, many strategists see abortion remaining an effective campaign issue for Democrats nationwide, especially if Republicans continue to embrace positions that seek to restrict or ban it outright.

Even voters in GOP-dominated states like Kentucky backed abortion rights on Nov. 8, a further sign that a majority of Americans, regardless of political affiliation, are not in favor of eliminating or severely restricting access to the procedure.

Dionne also remarked that Whitmer’s appeal to a national audience went beyond just abortion.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks to the crowd gathered outside the Michigan Capitol in Lansing for a protest against the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade on June 24, 2022. | Photo by Andrew Roth

“After much ink-spilling since Trump’s election over the loss of blue-collar industrial jobs, she joined Biden and Democrats elsewhere in describing a new manufacturing future involving making more electric cars, “semi-conductors and clean energy right here in Michigan,” said Dionne. “Watch this theme: How to build a new economy is the big issue of the next decade.”

Dionne added that in her victory night speech, Whitmer also praised organized labor as well as “movements for women’s rights and civil rights and LGBT rights” while also urging Michigan residents to fight for “family, friends and community.”

“Two litanies, progressive and traditional, defined the ground on which a broad Election Day alliance was built,” he concluded.

David Axelrod, who was a senior adviser to President Barack Obama and is also a part-time Michigan resident, told the Washington Post there was “no doubt” Whitmer’s name would be near the top when Democrats consider future national leaders.

“That was an impressive win on difficult terrain, but she’s proven herself to be smart and resilient and she has a kind of non-coastal appeal,” said Axelrod, who described her as “someone who doesn’t present like a garden-variety politician spit out of a computer.”

The Hill ranked Whitmer fourth on its list of Democrats who could run in 2024, behind Biden, Harris, and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg — who also now lives in Michigan — making her the top choice outside the administration.

Noting that Whitmer had been a lower on the publication’s previous lists, The Hill said she emerged from the midterms in a stronger position.

“She was a rising star in 2020 but even more so now,” they quoted one Democratic consultant as saying.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks at a rally with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, Attorney General Dana Nessel and other Michigan Democrats in Ann Arbor, Mich. on Nov. 4, 2022. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)

Not all of the coverage is glowing, however. The New York Times, while noting Whitmer’s appeal as “Pabst Blue Ribbon with just the right measure of merlot,” also said it was “unclear how commanding she’d be on a larger stage” while describing her debate performance against Dixon as “solid but unspectacular.”

Los Angeles Times columnist and Michigan native LZ Granderson saw it differently, saying Whitmer was definitely someone to keep in mind for 2024.

“If President Biden decides not to seek reelection, do not underestimate her chances for the Democratic nomination and the White House,” he said. “She outraised her opponent, Tudor Dixon, who was endorsed by Trump and financially backed by his Education secretary, Betsy DeVos, and her family. Whitmer was also greatly aided by the Democratic Governors Assn., which has emphasized that the party needs not only Michigan but also her.”

Granderson said Whitmer’s win last Tuesday was an audition.

“Eyes will be on Whitmer,” he said. “The governor has an opportunity to show the rest of the country what a Whitmer administration could look like, what her brand of progressive policies would look like and how she handles the criticism of those policies now that the heat’s been turned up.”

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