DETROIT, Michigan — After Hillary Clinton lost the Rust Belt to Donald Trump, some Democrats argued that it would take machismo to win back white, blue-collar men. But this year’s midterm election looks set to prove them wrong. In 2018, it’s women who are poised to deliver the region for Democrats.
Women candidates like Gretchen Whitmer, the Democrat expected to make it to the governor’s mansion; Mari Manoogian, a Democrat running for state representative; and Mallory McMorrow, also a Democrat, running for the state Senate are all on the ballot in Michigan, the heart of the Rust Belt. And all have a strong shot at winning.
Whitmer is up by 12 points in the polls against Republican Bill Schuette. She’s running on competence and follow-through in a state where Republicans have neglected key infrastructure — one of her campaign messages is “Fix the Damn Roads.”
“What people in Michigan want is someone who does what they say they’re going to do, who is real and stays focused on the issues that matter to families,” Whitmer told me at a Dearborn campaign event earlier this month. “It’s not about macho, it’s about getting things done.”
Whitmer and other women running are showing that bringing their experiences as women to the campaign trail doesn’t have to be “identity politics,” at least not the way critics use the term. They’re pitching themselves as different from what’s gone before, in ways that include, but aren’t limited to, their gender.
“For me, it’s about more than just being a woman,” the 26-year-old Manoogian told me about her run for the statehouse. “It’s about being a young woman and a product of the community.”
Voters — especially women clamoring for a change from Trump — are listening.
“I’m tired of the masculine leadership,” said Kim Boudreau Smith, a Birmingham, Michigan business coach who didn’t vote for Clinton in 2016, when Manoogian and McMorrow visited her home on an October canvassing outing. “We really need a lot, a lot of changes.”
Many blamed “identity politics” for Trump’s win in states like Michigan
In the wake of the 2016 election, many pundits coalesced around one explanation for Trump’s win: He’d been unexpectedly successful at pulling white working-class voters away from the Democratic Party, especially in areas of Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania that had gone for Obama in 2008 and 2012.
“In the end, the bastions of industrial-era Democratic strength among white working-class voters fell to Mr. Trump,” wrote Nate Cohn in the New York Times, under the headline, “Why Trump Won: Working-Class Whites.”
As those surprised by Trump’s victory continued to dissect the election, many focused on a particular slice of white, working-class voters: men in the Rust Belt who worked in (or who had recently lost) manufacturing jobs.
“If there’s such a thing as a Trump Democrat,” Edward McClelland wrote in an op-ed at the Washington Post, “he’s exemplified by Bill Peek, a UAW member who worked 41 years for General Motors at the Saginaw Central Foundry.” He quoted Peek praising Trump’s toughness — “All of our businesses should be penalized if they move their plants overseas. He’s gonna put his foot down.”
“He’s ahead of Clinton in my book,” Peek told McClelland. “He’s a businessman. If anybody’s gonna get us out of here and get us back on our feet like it should be, he’s the one.”
McClelland wasn’t the only one to focus on post-industrial Michigan to explain Trump’s win. For a 2017 Atlantic story calling on the Democratic Party to recommit to the white working class, Franklin Foer spent time in Macomb County, outside Detroit.
“Once upon a time, Macomb was a testament to the force of the New Deal, a vision of middle-class life made possible by the fruits of American industry,” Foer wrote. “But over the years, Macomb grew distant from the party, and then furious with it.”
Trump beat Clinton by 12 percentage points in Macomb, and Foer uses the county as a springboard for the argument that Clinton lost the election in part because she paid too much attention to the ideals of the “cultural left” — which seeks “the validation of minorities and women in the eyes of the national culture” — at the expense of the “economic left” whose populism was more appealing to working-class white voters.
Foer doesn’t believe Democrats necessarily need male candidates to appeal to the disaffected of Macomb — his example of the party’s potential populist future is Elizabeth Warren. But he does argue that Democrats may have been focusing too much (or at least in the wrong way) on gender and racial justice, thus alienating voters who don’t like hearing about such things.
And he quotes Bernie Sanders’s now-famous post-election criticism of identity politics (and, by extension, of the Clinton campaign): “It is not good enough for someone to say, ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me!’”
The message of much analysis of the 2016 election, then, is as follows: Hillary Clinton, the first woman presidential nominee from a major party, focused too much on her own gender and on “cultural” issues generally, at the expense of the issues that really matter to white working-class voters in places like Michigan, and especially white, working-class men.
Donald Trump, meanwhile, was the macho man the Rust Belt craved. To beat him and his ilk, Democrats should feed that craving — either with white, male candidates (Joe Biden comes up a lot) or, at the very least, by not talking so much about gender and race.
But a look at Michigan reveals the shortcomings of this narrative. It’s possible to talk both about so-called cultural issues and about economics — and it’s possible to talk about the importance of women in politics without saying it’s the only thing that matters. (Something that, it’s worth noting, Clinton never did.)
The women running in Michigan aren’t saying, “I’m a woman! Vote for me!” But they are campaigning on their unique experience, which includes their gender. And rather than recoil in horror from “identity politics,” voters are seeing something appealingly different.
More than “I’m a woman! Vote for me!”
In 2013, when Whitmer was the minority leader of the Michigan State Senate, Republicans backed a bill that required women to purchase an additional insurance rider if they wanted coverage for abortion. The bill contained no exception for pregnancy resulting from rape.
In explaining her “no” vote, Whitmer told a personal story she had never shared publicly before.
“Over 20 years ago I was a victim of rape,” she said in a speech to the state Senate. “If this were law then, and I had become pregnant, I would not be able to have coverage because of this.”
“I am not the only woman in our state that has faced that horrible circumstance,” Whitmer went on. “I am not enjoying talking about it. It’s something I’ve hidden for a long time, but I think you need to see the face of the women that you are impacting by this vote today.”
Despite Whitmer’s emotional speech, the measure passed. “I bared my soul to the world and it didn’t make a single difference in the vote,” Whitmer told me on the way to a rally with Bernie Sanders in Ann Arbor this month. “I went to bed incredibly depressed that night.”
But soon, she said, women and men around the state began calling and emailing her office, and posting on Facebook, to tell their own stories.
“We were just overwhelmed by the enormous supportive reaction,” she said. “I didn’t change that vote that day, but I added my voice to a conversation that was long overdue.”
The moment in some ways anticipated the spread of the #MeToo movement, to which Whitmer contributed last year with a video she posted on Facebook.
“I shared my story of sexual assault during a tough debate at the Capitol,” she says in the video. “But I did it because women’s voices weren’t being heard.”
Whitmer has also been outspoken about the sexual misconduct allegations against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. On the day Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that Kavanaugh had assaulted her when both were in high school, Whitmer tweeted simply, “I believe Dr. Ford.”
I believe Dr. Ford— Gretchen Whitmer (@gretchenwhitmer) September 27, 2018
“Anyone who’s a survivor knows it’s a lifelong scar you carry,” Whitmer told me. “It’s painful to see another woman discounted,” she added, “but it’s also something that added more energy to the work that I’m doing as a candidate.”
There was a time when talking about something like sexual assault was considered dangerous for female candidates.
“For women historically, the challenge has been that the expectations of candidates and officeholders have aligned more often with masculine traits and masculine areas of expertise,” said Kelly Dittmar, an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University and co-author of the book A Seat at the Table: Congresswomen’s Perspectives on Why Their Representation Matters.
“I think that’s changing this year,” she said. “Women are really pushing the boundaries.”
Women candidates in this election cycle are pioneering a new way of running for office, Maeve Coyle, deputy director of campaign communications for Emily’s List, which supports pro-choice Democratic women and has endorsed Whitmer, told me.
“They’re not shying away from their personal stories, and they’re not following any specific formula to what a candidate should or shouldn’t look like,” Coyle said. “We have candidates all across the country who are kind of just throwing the playbook out of the window.”
That doesn’t mean they’re saying voters should cast their ballots based on gender alone. Rather, Dittmar explained, women candidates like Whitmer are saying, “gender is among the value-added pieces of me that I bring. It’s not just being a woman, it’s living my life as a woman and all of the experiences that brings.”
Whitmer isn’t the only Michigan candidate taking this approach. For Mari Manoogian, a former State Department employee and Birmingham native running for the state House of Representatives there, gender is just one factor she believes gives her a unique perspective on her state’s problems.
The issues facing Michigan, from education to health care to the environment, would benefit from fresh ideas, and one way to introduce those, Manoogian says, “would be having a different kind of representation, whether that’s young people, or women, or homegrown people.”
“That’s, to me, why I think it’s really important to me to have diverse leadership,” she said.
For McMorrow, a 32-year-old industrial designer who’s worked for Mazda and Mattel, 2016 was a wake-up call that more women needed to get involved in politics. “It wasn’t just that Trump got elected, it’s that we had somebody who was openly bragging about sexual assault get elected.”
“That was really a push that got a lot of people in,” she said, speaking of the unprecedented numbers of women running for office in the wake of the 2016 election. “But now I think the reasons we’ve all stayed in and found success have been very different.”
She believes she brings something new to the table in Michigan, but it’s as much about her background as her gender. “My skill set as an industrial designer and the way that I think about solving problems is gravely missing from our political process,” she said.
Manoogian, McMorrow, and Whitmer are spending plenty of time talking with voters about issues that cut across gender. All have promised to work to fix the state’s pothole-ridden roads. All have pledged to help clean up the water — the state, still reeling from the Flint water crisis, now faces another potential threat to citizens’ health as toxic chemicals called PFAS have been found in water consumed by more than 1.5 million residents.
“Who the governor is impacts our lives every single day, from when we turn on the tap water and brush our teeth, to when we drive our roads to take our kids to school, to the schools that they attend,” Whitmer said in a speech at the Arab American Chamber of Commerce in Dearborn on October 19.
Women candidates’ pitches are resonating with voters around the country
Polls suggest that, at least in Michigan, women candidates’ pitches are working on voters. Though her margin has shrunk in some polls, Whitmer is favored to beat her Republican opponent, Bill Schuette, who has the endorsement of President Trump.
Michigan, where Republican Gov. Rick Snyder is departing due to term limits, was one of the top states targeted for pickup this year by the Democratic Governors’ Association. Snyder is unpopular because of his handling of the crisis in Flint, and voters may be soured on Republicans as a result. But the Democrats also like their chances due to Whitmer’s strengths as a candidate.
“You’ve got to run the campaign that is authentic to you,” said David Turner, deputy communications director for the Democratic Governors Association. “She is clearly comfortable in her own skin, she knows exactly why she’s running, who she’s running for, and what she’s going to do to help them.”
Meanwhile, Democrats hope to gain control of the Michigan House of Representatives, and believe they may have a shot at the state Senate as well — and women candidates are a big reason why. Democrats are running a woman candidate in 10 of the top 13 target races in the House, according to the Detroit News, and in seven of the nine top races in the Senate. Among these key races are Manoogian’s, against Republican David Wolkinson for an open Republican seat, and McMorrow’s, against Republican incumbent Marty Knollenberg.
In some cases, Democratic women have been able to appeal to groups and voters across the aisle. Republican Women for Progress, a PAC started by Republican women who supported Clinton in the 2016 election, has endorsed two Democratic women from Michigan, Haley Stevens and Elissa Slotkin, for Congress. The endorsement “was inspired by us talking to Republican women in these districts where they said there was just no way that they could vote for the Republican,” Meghan Milloy, co-founder of Republican Women for Progress, told the Detroit Metro Times.
“We think the best thing that we can do for the party and for the country right now is to make sure there are good women — Democrat or Republican — that are elected to office and who can serve as a check on this administration and on the president,” she added.
It’s not just Michigan; around the Rust Belt and the Midwest, Democrats are betting on women to win. In Minnesota, Ilhan Omar is favored to become one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress. In Pennsylvania, a record eight women, seven of them Democrats, are running for congressional seats. In Ohio, women make up 44 of 99 Democratic candidates for the state House of Representatives, and seven of 17 candidates for state Senate. Six of them recently got together to form Ohio Women Lead, a group that has produced a video ad and is working on get out the vote efforts.
“In prior elections, women may have been less likely to talk on the campaign trail about what it’s like to be a mom and balance family and work,” Rep. Kristin Boggs, who is leading the group, told the Columbus Dispatch. “With these candidates, our families have been such a motivating factor about why they’ve gotten into the election. They are actively talking about it, using it to connect with other women who are just as frustrated with the state of affairs.”
Meanwhile, across the country, women likely voters are favoring Democrats at even higher rates than usual. In a September survey, women in Michigan supported Democrats by more than 20 percentage points.
Historically, women tend to vote their party, not their gender, Dittmar said. However, there is evidence that having a woman on the ballot can increase women’s enthusiasm and engagement in the election, if they share her party, she added. “I do think that we are seeing that this year.”
One woman who’s planning on voting for a Democratic woman is Smith, the Michigan business coach, who said, “Gretchen has my vote big-time.”
“I’m not going to just go vote because all women are running,” she explained. “It takes the right women.”
Other Michigan voters echoed her views.
“I think whatever gender that supports the community, that is the gender we should go with, whether woman or man,” Vann Glover told me as she shopped at Detroit’s outdoor Eastern Market on October 20.
“But it’s always good to see a woman take the job,” she added. “I think we’re a little more sensitive to people and their needs.”
A loyal Democrat, Glover said she planned to support Whitmer in November.
Jeanne Royal, meanwhile, was still doing her research for the midterm election, she told me at Eastern Market. But she was planning to vote this year for the first time ever.
“I used to have a view that my vote doesn’t matter. But I see how a couple little votes didn’t matter and we got stuck with — you know,” she said, laughing.
Royal was excited to see a potential “year of the woman” this year.
“I like that, that’s awesome,” she told me, pumping her fist in approval. “Women have been oppressed throughout civilization,” she said. “It’s good to see that my species is rising.”
Women candidates offer voters a change
In the wake of the 2016 election, some analysts assumed that beating Republicans would require copying Trump’s appeal to white working-class masculinity. But Trump didn’t just run as a macho man. He also ran as a change candidate — a business executive and TV star who pledged to “drain the swamp” in Washington. Two years later, the candidates best placed to run on change may be not men, but women.
It’s not just women who think so. McMorrow said one male voter recently told her, “I voted for Trump because he’s different, and I’m going to vote for you because you’re different.”
Hillary Clinton failed to carry Michigan for a number of reasons, some of them unknowable. There was a decades-long history of sexist news coverage that helped convince American voters she was “unlikeable.” There were her own admitted shortcomings as a politician. There was her failure to spend much time in the state in the general election campaign.
But Clinton, despite her historic status as the first woman major-party nominee, also looked to many voters like business as usual — the wife of a former president, she struggled to win over those who opposed his policies. And when Trump was caught on tape bragging about his ability to grab women “by the pussy,” he was able to bring up Bill Clinton’s allegations of sexual assault, even bringing some of Clinton’s accusers to a debate.
Whitmer has made her career in state government and is familiar to many voters. Still, she, McMorrow, and Manoogian likely represent more of a departure than Clinton ever could — especially now, when women are watching the fallout from Trump’s election.
This year, Dittmar said, “You’re seeing women say, I can’t afford to sit on the sidelines because of what is happening in politics.” That’s a different environment than the one that prevailed in 2016 — and it might produce a different result.
Whitmer, McMorrow, Manoogian and others aren’t campaigning solely on their gender, or on opposition to Trump, or on #MeToo. But they are campaigning on offering voters something different than what’s gone before.
“When I think about Mallory or I think about this phenomenal ticket that’s come together,” Whitmer told me, “we all got here not because we had this master plan, but because we were tired of the status quo.”
“We all came from different directions,” she said, “but I think the similarities are, we grit our teeth and do the work.”