First of all, I love to play the VP game. Earlier this year, I looked at all the remaining candidates in the Democratic primary and tried to match them with a running mate that would give each the best chance at winning the general. For me, this is my NFL draft. And when I made this list months ago, Gretchen Whitmer, the current Governor of Michigan, was not on any of my lists.
After all, Whitmer was only elected governor in 2018, having held the position for just over a year now. Still, her victory in Michigan, considered a battleground state that swung for Trump in 2016, was enough for her to be viewed as a rising star in the Democratic Party. Whitmer was given the Response to the State of the Union in 2019, now seen as a vehicle to launch up and coming party stars to the national stage. Even so, her notoriety paled in comparison to the previous woman to give the response, former Georgia State Representative Stacey Abrams, who has kept herself in the national spotlight post her gubernatorial loss through her Fair Fight Action organization. By all accounts, Whitmer was not poised to be a VP frontrunner.
Because of the importance of winning Michigan back from Republicans, Whitmer was likely always put on any candidate’s list for potential running mates, but it wasn’t until the Michigan primary that she really started to become a contender. Having swept Super Tuesday, former Vice President Joe Biden had become the primary leader again, after losing the title to Bernie Sanders. In 2016, Hillary Clinton suffered an embarrassing loss to Bernie Sander in Michigan, which allowed him to continue to have a shot at getting the nomination. This time around, the match up was seen as a test to whether Biden’s support was greater than the former Secretary of State’s.
Whitmer endorsed Biden before the primary and the former VP achieved an impressive victory. Biden received 52.9% of the vote, while Sanders only managed 36.4%, which pretty much solidified Biden as the presumptive nominee. While it is always hard to determine how much an endorsement weighs on any given victory, Whitmer’s endorsement was the only one that could have mattered and the narrative was set. She was a new face that appeared to be able to make headway with voters who had previously been inclined to vote for Donald Trump.
Despite all of this, she still wasn’t a frontrunner. There are many major female candidates who spent about a year vying for the Democratic nomination themselves. Sen. Kamala Harris is an excellent debater and skilled politician. Sen. Amy Klobuchar appeared to help Biden clinch her home state of Minnesota, while Sen. Elizabeth Warren could help bring together the moderates and the progressives. There seemed to be too many better alternatives to pass up on.
Then, Coronavirus happened and the entire campaign changed. Heck, the entire world changed. Every single American’s life has been affected by this illness, with people forced to stay inside, many becoming unemployed. Hospitals are overwhelmed and people are dying. And in this time, two Governors have risen to national attention due to outbreaks in their states, Whitmer being one and the other being the Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo. Both have received high marks for their dealing with Covid-19 and have also sparred with the president over his response to the virus. Whitmer had criticized the federal government for not getting the state enough ventilators, which prompted Trump to rebuke her on Twitter, giving her the nickname “Gretchen ‘Half’ Whitmer.” Whatsmore, Trump said that if governors want his help, they need to be appreciative, telling Vice President Pence, who leads the Coronavirus response, not to “call the woman from Michigan.” It should be noted that Trump addressed Jay Inslee, another person who had been critical of him, as “the governor of Washington,” as opposed to “the man from Washington.”
While Cuomo has received support in terms of a ‘Draft Cuomo 2020’ movement making headlines, it is not remotely possible Biden could even be replaced at this point. And with Biden already committing to choosing a woman as his VP, Whitmer is, at this moment, the only female governor at the forefront of this crisis. While Trump’s job approval rating has increased about 3 points since the crisis began, Whitmer’s has jumped 18 points. Needless to say, this election is going to be all about Coronavirus, both in terms of what should have been done and what needs to be done in the future. And from that perspective, Gretchen Whitmer is the woman that would be able to say she tackled the crisis successfully and be able to effectively criticize the current administration.
That all being said, there are some issues with picking Whitmer that are linked to Coronavirus as well. Just as the medical professionals have been saying, this is going to be a long road to recovery. In terms of social distancing, which impacts people’s ability to work and pay bills, the measure could be in place until August, if not longer until a vaccine is made. To be Biden’s VP, she would have to campaign around the country with him, giving ammunition to Republicans to say she is more focused on politics than dealing with the consequences of the virus. And while Michigan is a swing state, it shows signs of leaning the Democrats way, regardless of whether Whitmer is on the ticket. She could be a stronger ambassador for Biden than partner. There is also the argument that Democrats should be focusing less on the rust belt, which has drifted away from its days of being the Blue Wall, possibly inching its way to becoming Republican territory.
Lastly, there is the issue of demographics and, shockingly, policy. On the demographics side, Whitmer would make both party tickets all white. While we will never know how much race plays in terms of general election politics, it’s hard to erase from your mind that the last ticket to lose on the Democratic side was a white man and woman. In the present day, for a party that is 40% minority, it is a risk not to have any racial diversity on the ticket. Whitmer also doesn’t bring anything to the table in terms of winning over progressives still loyal to Bernie Sanders. Even if Sanders gives his most enthusiastic endorsement, which I unfortunately doubt will happen, it’s going to take a lot to unite the party. If Biden’s female running is not black, a demographic he owes his comeback to, latina, a demographic he needs to do better with, or progressive, a base that is fervently against him, then Democrats run the risk of ignoring the diversity of their own party.
Tim Kaine was a terrible VP pick for Hillary Clinton. While I feel Whitmer brings more to the table, she’s still very much an unknown factor. If Biden is looking for a pragmatic outsider, then Stacey Abrams fits that bill, but also represents a minority that has always been the backbone of the Democratic Party and is not responsible for an entire state’s recovery from Coronavirus. Whitmer’s is now a frontrunner and she’s not a bad pick, but she has just as much risk as anyone else.