LANSING — Former legislative leader Gretchen Whitmer won the Democratic nomination for Michigan governor yesterday, leading what could be an all-female Democratic statewide ticket into her fall showdown against Republican state Attorney General Bill Schuette, an ally of President Donald Trump.
Whitmer, the first woman to lead a Michigan state Senate caucus, beat former Detroit health director Dr. Abdul El-Sayed and chemical-testing entrepreneur Shri Thanedar, who had tried to outflank her from the left.
With Whitmer's victory, Michigan's Democrats are currently set to field an all-female ticket for statewide office, though Whitmer could still choose a male running mate. In addition to Whitmer and Debbie Stabenow, who is seeking a fourth Senate term, the Democrats are also fielding women for state attorney general and secretary of state.
Schuette received congratulatory calls from President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence after he defeated Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, conservative state Sen. Patrick Colbeck and Dr. Jim Hines, an obstetrician-gynecologist.
Schuette, who had been accused by Calley of misusing his public office for political business, immediately sought to bring his party together and criticized Whitmer.
"Whatever differences we may have, it is my hope starting tonight that we can unite in our common goals — more jobs, greater growth and bigger paychecks for Michigan families," Schuette told supporters in his hometown of Midland. He credited Republican leaders for helping the state "get off the mat" after a decade-long downturn and said Whitmer would "take us back to a time of shuttered industries, dashed dreams and higher taxes."
Whitmer also appealed for unity, saying she was proud to have run against such a diverse field of candidates. She asked the supporters of El-Sayed — who was hoping to be the country's first Muslim governor and was endorsed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders — and Thanedar to join a "big tent" to fight for clean drinking water, better roads and better-funded schools. She called for voters this fall to "reject the politics of division and exclusion, the politics of just taking care of a few at the expense of us all.
"We need to throw Bill Schuette a big retirement party come November," she told backers in Detroit. "We need a governor who knows how to get things done, who's ready to roll up her sleeves and get to work."
The GOP has controlled Michigan for 7.5 years, and Democrats are eager to capitalize on what is typically rough sledding for the president's party in midterm elections and the state electorate's penchant for backing the opposite party when a governor leaves due to term limits.
"We have so many elected officials with no political background. You have to understand how things work to get things done," said Karen Rozanski, 67, of St. Clair Shores, who voted for Whitmer. "She's not promising the moon."
Steve Lauer, 75, a retired business consultant from Traverse City, said he backed Schuette because of his experience and conservative beliefs. He likes Trump but said the president's endorsement did not sway him.
"I like balanced budgets. I like lower taxes," Lauer said.
In the frantic closing days, Whitmer campaigned with union leaders, members of the state's Democratic congressional delegation and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who said she is the party's best chance to retake the governorship in November. El-Sayed got a boost with a visit from Sanders, who predicted that El-Sayed would defy polling like Sanders did in narrowly upsetting Hillary Clinton in Michigan's 2016 presidential primary.
Both El-Sayed and Thanedar — an immigrant from India who spent at least $10 million of his fortune to run — highlighted their support for a "Medicare-for-all" health care system and opposition to accepting corporate political action committee money. Whitmer said she supports getting everyone covered but stopped short of embracing a single-payer plan, instead promoting her work to help expand Medicaid to hundreds of thousands of adults through former President Barack Obama's health care law while also promising to fix deteriorating roads.
In the Republican battle, Schuette — a veteran politician who has served in Congress, the Legislature and as an appellate judge — emphasized his endorsement from Trump and a proposal to cut the state income tax. Calley, who was supported by Snyder but withdrew his support for Trump in 2016, touted economic gains under their watch and accused Schuette of illegally misusing his office to advance his political career and wrongly prosecuting top state officials for Flint's water crisis.
Colbeck, a former rocket scientist who hoped to offset lower fundraising with enthusiasm from grassroots volunteers, proposed initiatives such as eliminating the state income tax. Hines self-funded his campaign with $2.7 million, hoping voters would elect another outsider like they did in backing Snyder in 2010.
Voters in Michigan also decided other primary races. John James won the GOP Senate primary and will try to deny Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow a fourth term in November. And Democrat Rashida Tlaib won a race to run unopposed for the congressional seat vacated by John Conyers, making her poised to become the first Muslim woman in Congress.
Ed White in Detroit and John Flesher in Traverse City contributed to this story.