When Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gave her keynote address at the Mackinac Policy Conference in May, it suddenly became clear how many pundits had misjudged this particular political moment.
You would have expected the Democrat to earn some polite applause at the traditionally stuffy confab dominated by CEOs, lobbyists and legislators, one where her predecessor, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, always seemed most at home.
But rather than play it safe by tossing out a few platitudes about growing Michigan’s economy and calling it a day, Whitmer decided to use the platform to talk about abortion, even before the U.S. Supreme Court sent shock waves by dumping Roe v. Wade.
“As we chase our collective success, we must also be a state where women have bodily autonomy and equal rights,” Whitmer declared, as the room erupted in cheers and applause.
In an interview with the Advance afterward, Whitmer noted that the “most profound economic decision a woman will make in the course of her whole lifetime is whether and when to have a child.
“If you want to make Michigan a place where we can draw and lure and keep talent, women have to be able to make their own health care decisions,” she added. “The vast majority of the public respects that and agrees with that, whether they would individually make that choice or not.”
In the months since, abortion has consistently rated as the top issue with voters this election, as one in three women in America has lost access to abortion in just a few months’ time. It’s flipped conventional wisdom about Republicans dominating the midterms on its head, as even voters in conservative Kansas decisively shot down an anti-abortion measure in August.
Perhaps more than any politician in the country, Whitmer has read this moment right — and relished this fight in a key swing state.
It’s a big reason why she’s dominated the gubernatorial race that was, at one time, billed as one of the most competitive in the country.
Naturally, this has absolutely incensed Republicans who have been trying to talk about anything except reproductive rights. They’re desperately counting Whitmer’s tweets on abortion and begging her to stop bringing up the subject — especially her GOP opponent, Tudor Dixon, who backs a ban with no exceptions for rape, incest or the mother’s health. (It’s gotten so sad that anonymous sources have taken to complaining to the media about how frustrated the campaign is over Whitmer’s “incessant” focus on abortion).
Anyone who’s been in politics for more than a few minutes knows that when an issue hits, you just keep hammering. But Dixon, a political novice, seems extremely flustered that she can’t just change the subject like she could as a low-wattage right-wing commentator.
It’s not for lack of trying. After mostly disappearing from the campaign trail for weeks following her Aug. 2 primary win — letting Whitmer dominate the airwaves with her pro-reproductive rights message — Dixon reemerged with a hot new anti-gay distraction.
The Republican has done a series of events on everything from banning trans athletes from school sports to criminalizing drag shows to banning “pornographic” books in the classroom (we still have no idea which ones).
But Dixon still keeps getting asked about abortion, because voters deeply care about the issue. (She hasn’t exactly helped herself, either, by volunteering that she firmly believes 14-year-old rape victims should be forced to give birth).
While some stodgy (male) pundits have been clamoring for the candidates to talk about “real” issues like the economy, Dixon has made it clear that she really wants a culture war campaign — just one that’s detached from reality and oozing with attacks on LGBTQ+ kids.
Meanwhile, Whitmer is making the case that there would be “incredible economic impacts” if abortion is banned in Michigan. That’s resonated with voters, who get the connection between basic rights and their financial well-being. (Sometimes it takes pundits a while to catch up).
It’s hard to remember, but it wasn’t inevitable for Whitmer to be in the driver’s seat this election.
As the COVID pandemic dragged on, the Democrat’s popularity took a hit. Critics like me argued she was running a rudderless campaign as she meekly touted bipartisan successes on jobs and education, while Republicans routinely excoriated her as something just short of Satan.
But this spring, she flipped the switch. With women’s rights on the line, it seems like she opted for a “Let Whitmer be Whitmer” approach.
The decision to zero in on abortion was a risky one, but it was also deeply personal. Nine years ago, Whitmer gave an emotional speech on the Senate floor about being a rape survivor — something she hadn’t told her father until that day — in an effort to stop an anti-abortion bill, which ultimately failed in the GOP-led Legislature.
Whitmer, 51, who was born shortly before the Roe v. Wade decision, also has two daughters in college who are supposed to be inheriting a world of innovation and progress. But in some fundamental ways, that’s not the case.
“I am horrified, as are so many women who are 50 years old, or in my generation, that the thought that my daughters will have fewer rights than I’ve had virtually my whole life,” Whitmer told “Face the Nation” in June.
When you’ve devoted your entire life to ensuring that your children have more opportunities than you did, there’s such profound sadness in realizing they’ll have to battle for essential freedoms and even democracy itself. It’s a feeling I know well, as I have the somewhat surreal experience covering this election while being the same age as Dixon, 45, with kids who are the same ages as Whitmer’s.
My oldest may not be able to make the right health care decisions for herself or marry who she loves — rights we should be able to take for granted. Those are the same fears that thousands of parents across Michigan have right now.
Being governor is about understanding real problems and how to solve them. Gretchen Whitmer realized a long time ago that abortion is a kitchen-table issue for people. And she seems completely at peace with her decision that this is the ground to fight on, win or lose.
Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Michigan Advance maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Susan Demas for questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.
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