In party response to Trump, Democrats hope to elevate a rising star

Why We Wrote This

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer won election handily with her now-famous slogan: "Fix the Damn Roads." In choosing her to give the response to the State of the Union, Democrats are highlighting a pragmatic female governor from a critical swing state.

Al Goldis/Reuters
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her State of the State address to a joint session of the House and Senate, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020, at the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, Mich.

The opposition party’s response to the president’s State of the Union address can be a kind of audition for the messenger. Many past performances have inspired more mockery than praise, such as then-Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s Mr. Rogers-like demeanor in 2009 or Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s mid-speech water break in 2013.

Tonight it’s Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s turn, as she gives the Democratic Party’s response to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address.

Congressional Democrats point to Governor Whitmer’s efforts to expand health care, support working class families, and ensure safe drinking water as reasons for giving her the prime time slot. The selection also has political overtones, since she’s a popular female governor from a critical swing state. 

“Gretchen Whitmer [appeals to] exactly the kind of voter the Democrats are hoping to retain and attract in November,” says Bill Ballenger, a longtime Michigan political observer and commentator. “They were a huge factor in her victory: suburban female voters, those with higher education, higher income, and from the suburbs around Detroit. The Democrats scored big gains in the elections of 2018 and Whitmer exemplifies that. She’s attractive, she’s articulate, and she’s pretty young at 48. She’s kind of a natural choice.”

After serving in both branches of the Michigan Legislature and as a county prosecutor, Ms. Whitmer won the Democratic nomination for governor in 2016 by easily defeating two more progressive challengers. Then she cruised to victory in the general election in a state that has been decidedly purple in gubernatorial races. The last time one governor succeeded another from the same party was 1969.

One of Ms. Whitmer’s major campaign promises was to, in her words, “fix the damn roads.” After taking office, she proposed increasing the state’s gasoline tax by 45 cents per gallon, a plan that fizzled in the Republican-controlled legislature. The latest proposal, announced in this year’s State of the State address, was to bypass the legislature and float $3.5 billion in bonds to fund road repair.

Mr. Ballenger surmises that tonight she will take a pragmatic approach rather than directly attacking President Trump.

“I think she’ll talk about what a Democratic governor in the hinterlands is doing today to address people’s bread-and-butter, food on the table problems,” says Mr. Ballenger. “Good education, good health care, and good roads: this is what Democrats can accomplish.”

For Ms. Whitmer, tonight’s speech is a chance to step into the national spotlight and make a good first impression. A strong performance could even propel her into the conversation about the vice presidential slot on the Democratic ticket. She has denied any interest in going to Washington, but Mr. Ballenger believes she would have a difficult time resisting such a summons.

“If she got the siren call from national leaders that you are needed, it would be hard for her to turn it down,” Mr. Ballenger says.

“She will either put herself in a great position with her speech or people will write her off and say ‘we can find somebody better than that.’”

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