If Gretchen Whitmer is ‘the establishment,’ progressives are winning

Progressives won the fight for the soul of the Democratic Party long before yesterday's primaries

Michigan Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer (left) (Photo by Ali Lapetina for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Michigan Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer (left) (Photo by Ali Lapetina for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

If you followed the national political coverage of Tuesday night’s Michigan gubernatorial primaries, you probably think that the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party just got pwned.

The Democratic primary pitted Gretchen Whitmer, a longtime state lawmaker and legislative leader, against Abdul El-Sayed, a young, wonky physician who led Detroit’s health department. An El-Sayed victory, CNN proclaimed, would “upend the conventional wisdom within the party establishment that says progressive left politics are a loser with Midwestern voters.” Huffington Post described El-Sayed as the torchbearer for “Bernie Sanders’ vision.” New York magazine declared that “Abdul El-Sayed’s Campaign Is a Test for Leftism in the Midwest.” Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, the newly minted face of the progressive wing of the party, and Sanders himself both made trips to the state to campaign for El-Sayed.

So when Whitmer beat El-Sayed by more than 20 points on Tuesday, her victory was quickly framed as a defeat for the left.

Well, maybe. Yes, the leftmost candidate did not win in Michigan. If you are a Sanders Democrat or a Democratic Socialist, you have every right to be disappointed that the candidate whose values most closely align with yours did not prevail on Tuesday.


It is also true, however, that the “establishment” candidate ran on a platform that is pretty far to the left, and much further than mainline Democrats were willing to go just a few years ago. Here’s a brief rundown of Whitmer’s record:

  • Medicaid Expansion: Whitmer served as the Michigan Senate’s Democratic leader during the 2013 battle to expand Medicaid. The state ultimately did expand Medicaid under Obamacare, despite the fact that Republicans held the governorship and the state legislature. Eight state senate Republicans voted with Whitmer’s caucus.
  • Minimum Wage: Whitmer supports a $15-an-hour minimum wage. She also wants to repeal a so-called “right-to-work” law passed by the Republican legislature to undermine unions.
  • Marijuana Legalization: Whitmer wants to legalize marijuana for recreational use — a position she touted, among other places, at Ann Arbor’s annual “Hash Bash.” She also hopes to tax the legal marijuana industry to fund government services such as road improvement and public schools.
  • Reproductive Justice: Whitmer is proudly pro-choice, calling on the state to repeal its 1931 ban on abortions before Republicans on the Supreme Court overrule Roe v. Wade, and to restore funding Republicans cut to Planned Parenthood. She also supports teaching a “‘Yes Means Yes’ consent curriculum” in public school sex-education classes.
  • LGBTQ Rights: Whitmer’s campaign touts her efforts to “expand our civil rights laws to include people of all genders, identities, and sexual orientations.” She also touts her support for “same-sex adoptions and domestic partner benefits.”
  • “Ban the Box”: Whitmer calls for government employers in her state to “eliminate checkboxes on job applications that require potential employees to
    indicate whether they have a criminal background,” a priority for criminal justice reformers who hope to reduce recidivism and ensure that people with criminal convictions are still able to find work.
  • Universal Preschool: Whitmer also promises to “create our state’s first ever
    universal preschool program.”

Again, Whitmer is not as far to the left as El-Sayed, who proposed a localized single-payer health plan — an ambitious proposal but also one that is very difficult to implement at the state level because of the risk that sick people will rush into states with such health plans, eventually making it unaffordable. But Whitmer’s campaign is a testament to the success of progressive activists who’ve worked to shift the Democratic Party to the left for years.

Compare Whitmer’s positions to those of Jennifer Granholm, the last Democrat to serve as Michigan’s governor. In 2007, Granholm had just won reelection and, thanks for term limits, could not seek a third term. Because Granholm is a naturalized citizen (she was born in Canada), she could not run for president. At the time, moreover, Michigan had two firmly entrenched Democratic senators.

Granholm, in other words, was at the pinnacle of her political career in 2007. She had no more brass rings to grasp, and was free to say more or less whatever she wanted without having to worry about how it would play in her next election. Here’s how she decided to tout her record on her own website.

Jennifer M. Granholm was re-elected the 47th governor of Michigan in November 2006. Since taking office in 2003, she has successfully resolved more than $4 billion in budget deficits, trimming more from state government than any governor in Michigan’s history. A fiscal hawk, Granholm has worked to ensure that state government spends every penny efficiently, while aggressively pursuing her top priority of putting Michigan families first.

Just over a decade later, Whitmer is campaigning on her efforts to expand social services, restore public health funding, and find new sources of tax revenue. When she talks about reducing government spending, she often does so in the context of advancing a progressive priority. One of the reasons she supports ban-the-box legislation, for example, is that doing so would “save taxpayer dollars on corrections facilities.”


So yes, Michigan Democrats did not choose the leftmost candidate on Tuesday. But that choice should not obscure just how far the party has moved to the left. And, in the long run, that bodes very well for Democratic progressives.

The way to realign the Democratic Party isn’t just to run insurgent candidates who occasionally upset the party’s establishment. The way to move the Democratic Party to the left is for progressives to become the party’s establishment. They are well on their way to achieving this goal.