The past year has been a whirlwind for Michigan’s Democrats, ever since voters handed Governor Gretchen Whitmer an easy re-election and gave her party control of the state legislature for the first time in 40 years.
The party has used this power to implement a flurry of policies: union-friendly labour laws, school meals programs, money for infrastructure and subsidies for new factories. Along the way, they’ve tried to build a broad governing coalition encompassing trade unions to big business, working-class inner cities to affluent suburbs.
While Ms. Whitmer rocketed to prominence as foil to then-U.S. president Donald Trump during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, this caricature has often obscured the moderate, technocratic brand she is cultivating within her state.
“I will work with anyone who’s serious about solving problems,” she declared in an address to lawmakers earlier this year. “Let’s show everyone that the cure for cynicism is competence.”
This big-tent approach to politics could become a roadmap for Democrats federally as they try to lock down a majority voting block in 2024′s fractious presidential election. But it has also undergone severe tests this fall, amid the most extensive auto strike in decades and furious divisions over the Israel-Gaza conflict.
It all means that this key swing state could either be a glimpse at the future of the Democratic Party – or a case study in how its internal contradictions make it collapse in on itself.
Veronica Klinefelt, a state senator from the Detroit suburbs, contends that there is a clear path to victory for candidates who can focus on bread-and-butter issues and avoid the country’s increasingly angry rhetoric.
In her campaign last year, which helped give the Democrats their legislative majority by knocking off a Republican incumbent, she emphasised practical promises on infrastructure, education and the cost of prescription drugs.
“Voters want people that will sit down and talk to each other. We don’t have to hate each other,” she said in her office, overlooking Michigan’s stately, domed legislature building in the quiet state capital of Lansing. “They’re exhausted with the constant crisis and drama.”
Ms. Whitmer won her first gubernatorial run in 2018 by defeating a Bernie Sanders-backed leftist in the primary and running on a bipartisan promise to “fix the damn roads.” Her decisive enforcement of pandemic safety rules made her a folk hero to American liberals and the target of a militia kidnapping plot.
The governor came out of it with both a burnished reputation and a memorable nickname – Big Gretch – bestowed by Detroit hip-hop artist Gmac Cash in a viral video.
By 2022, Democrats’ prospects were also buoyed by the fall of Roe v. Wade. Michigan abortion-rights activists drafted an amendment to the state constitution guaranteeing reproductive freedom. The measure, Proposition 3, passed decisively and had the side effect of driving voter turnout that mostly favoured the Democrats.
“We had something like 30,000 people sign up to get involved,” said Sommer Foster of Michigan Voices, one of the groups that campaigned for the abortion amendment. “I’ve been doing politics in Michigan for 20 years and I’ve never seen so many people wanting to figure out what they could do.”
The Republicans, for their part, took a hard right turn. They nominated an anti-abortion conservative pundit for governor and election deniers for secretary of state and attorney-general. It helped reinforce a voter swap between the two parties that has been unfolding in Michigan since 2016. While some blue-collar former Democrats have gravitated to Mr. Trump, many white-collar suburban moderates have moved in the opposite direction.
Ryan Reese, 45, a Lutheran pastor in the city of Warren, said he was motivated to get involved in Democratic organizing last year to help defeat the GOP’s secretary of state candidate, Kristina Karamo, a high-profile conspiracy theorist.
“I became involved because she ticked me off. Her focus on challenging the 2020 election was detrimental to the democratic process and probably would have ruined our secretary of state office,” he said.
Since taking control of both legislative houses, Ms. Whitmer’s administration has plowed forward. It overturned a state right-to-work law and also obliged non-union contractors to pay union-level wages on government projects; ramped up the education budget, adding school breakfast and lunch programs; expanded a low-income tax credit; and added sexual orientation to the state anti-discrimination law.
The governor has also forged a close relationship with business leaders, funnelling public grants into tech and manufacturing, with a particular focus on helping automakers’ transition to electric vehicles.
“She set out to be aggressive with the EV transition. The resources the state has for economic development, we have not had in many years with that as a major priority,” said Mark Burton, a Lansing lawyer and lobbyist who previously worked as Ms. Whitmer’s chief strategist.
There are, of course, inherent tensions in trying to court wealthy corporations when your base includes increasingly activist trade unions. In September and October, the United Autoworkers undertook their first simultaneous strike at all of Detroit’s Big Three car makers.
Ms. Whitmer spoke at a rally for the union early in the strike and kept in touch with both sides. But Mr. Burton said she was cautious in her approach. “The governor is trying not to be too involved in that,” he said in an interview during the labour dispute.
Even harder to navigate has been Israel’s invasion of the Gaza Strip. In addition to the sharp divisions running through the Democratic Party nationally, with older voters more sympathetic toward the Israelis and younger Democrats tending to favour the Palestinians, Michigan also has large Muslim and Arab-American communities. In recent years, these have leaned Democratic and can easily tip a close election.
After Hamas’s massacres of Israelis on Oct. 7, Ms. Whitmer’s initial reaction was muted. In a tweet late that afternoon, she made no direct reference to either the violence or the country where it was happening, referring only vaguely to “communities impacted by what’s happening in the region.”
Only after a wave of online outrage did she follow up a few hours later with a more substantive condemnation of “violence against Israel.” During a rally at a synagogue a few days later, she affirmed that “Israel has a right to defend itself.”
This, in turn, provoked dismay from Muslim and Arab Americans. At one point, the governor had to cancel plans to speak at a fundraiser for a Muslim-led health clinic in Dearborn to avoid a planned protest against her presence.
Efforts to pass a resolution affirming support for Israel stalled in the state legislature. Some of the state’s highest-profile Jewish Democrats, including Attorney-General Dana Nessel, have fought on X, formerly known as Twitter, with Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian-American Detroit congresswoman.
Amer Zahr, a Palestinian-American political organizer in Dearborn, said that, in future, Muslim and Arab-American voters may choose to not vote at all in races where both the Democrat and Republican favour Israel. This could spell disaster next year for President Joe Biden, who is backing Israel with military aid.
“We feel very hurt and angered and betrayed by what this Democratic administration has done, even if we’re not necessarily surprised,” Mr. Zahr said.
At a meeting one fall evening at a union hall on an arterial road in Warren, a suburban city on the other end of Detroit’s sprawling metro region, local Democratic organizers were frank about how much work they will have to do to hold on to power.
Tellingly, while the Democrats won all four state executive offices by double digits last year, the margins in the legislative elections were decided by less than two percentage points. It suggests Michigan is evenly split and that the Republicans’ major error was choosing extreme candidates for the top of their ticket.
Mindy Moore, 67, a city councillor, recalled how when she first ran for municipal office 20 years ago, voters only asked about local issues. Now, they raise culture-war hot buttons that have nothing to do with her work.
“They ask about the border and the death penalty and whether I think boys can be girls and girls can be boys. I tell them I’m not going to be deciding those issues,” she said. “It’s more toxic now than I’ve ever seen it.”
Donavan McKinney, a 31-year-old first-term Democratic state legislator, recounted his casual conversations with Republican colleagues across the aisle.
“They tell me how angry they are that this is the first time they have no say in the state government,” he said. “They’re coming for us next year.”