WASHINGTON – Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will deliver the Democrats’ response to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address, showcasing one of the many female Democrats whose 2018 victories were fueled by opposition to Trump.
Whitmer also represents the upper Midwest, a primary battleground for this year’s presidential race.
In addition to Whitmer’s remarks, Rep. Veronica Escobar of Texas will deliver the Spanish language response to Trump’s speech.
Here’s what you need to know about Whitmer.
Election was a test-run of 2020
Whitmer’s 2018 election was seen as an early test of whether Democrats could come back in a state that gave Trump a surprising – though narrow – victory in 2016. Trump beat Hillary Clinton by a margin of less than 11,000 votes as part of the sweep of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that earned him the White House. Trump was the first Republican presidential candidate to carry Michigan since 1988.
Bill Schuette, the Republican Whitmer defeated by 10 points in one of the most expensive and hard-fought campaigns in Michigan history, had fashioned himself in the model of Trump and had the president’s strong support.
Besides taking back the governor’s mansion in 2018, Michigan Democrats also kept the Senate seat on the ballot and flipped control of two congressional districts and the secretary of state and attorney general offices. All of the winning Democrats in those races were women.
Keeping her 2020 powder dry
Whitmer has not endorsed any of the Democrats running for president. But she has come up. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar mentioned her in the last Democratic debate when asked how she responds to people concerned that a woman can’t beat Trump.
“Michigan has a woman governor right now and she beat a Republican,” Klobuchar said. “Kansas has a woman governor right now and she beat Kris Kobach.”
Whitmer has also been mentioned as a potential running mate for the eventual nominee. She told reporters last year she’s not interested in joining the ticket. Asked recently if anyone has talked to Whitmer about the prospect, her spokeswoman said the governor is focused on her current job.
Emphasizing public schools
Whitmer, who has called herself a “proud product of public schools,” will be speaking from her daughters’ high school in East Lansing. That spotlight on education is part of Democrats’ focus on “kitchen table issues” that they think won them victories in 2018 and can beat Trump this year.
The location could also be a jab at Trump’s secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, a champion of charter schools. DeVos is from Michigan where she pushed the spread of charter schools.
In addition to education, other issues Whitmer is likely to emphasize include health care and infrastructure.
Attacked as a socialist
When Democratic leaders announced they’d chosen Whitmer to give the response, the head of the Republican National Committee accused Whitmer of pushing the “same type of socialist policies” embraced by national Democrats. RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, who is from Michigan, pointed to the 45-cent gas tax increase Whitmer proposed last year.
The tax was rejected by Michigan’s Republican-controlled legislature. So Whitmer, who ran on a promise to “Fix the Damn Roads,” recently announced a $3.5 million borrowing plan that does not require legislative approval.
On health care, another issue that Republicans are using to brand Democrats as socialists, Whitmer does not go as far as others in the party. She refused to support Medicare for All or a single-payer health care system during her competitive 2018 primary. Whitmer had worked with the previous governor, a Republican, to expand health care access under the Affordable Care Act.
Politics is personal
Whitmer is expected to talk about a difficult time in her life that she’s said has shaped her more than any other experience. Soon after being elected to the state House at age 29, Whitmer got married, had a baby and took care of her dying mother. She had to figure out how to keep nursing her infant, fight the insurance company that refused to pay for chemotherapy for her mother while learning how to do her new job. Whitmer says that’s why she will push for paid family leave so workers can take time off to care for a sick loved one or newborn.
She’s gotten personal before during policy discussions. During a 2013 debate on requiring women to get a rider on their insurance policies if they wanted to have an abortion covered under their health care plan, Whitmer shared that she’d been raped during college. Although Whitmer lost the policy fight, the calls and emails she received from women saying how much her speech had met to them “made it all worthwhile,” Whitmer told the Detroit Free Press.
Trading the ESPN dream for politics
Although both of her parents worked in Michigan government and politics, Whitmer’s early interest was sports broadcasting.
“I wanted to be the first woman on ESPN,” she told Stateline in a 2012 interview.
Instead, Whitmer became the first woman to lead a state Senate caucus when she served as the Senate Democratic leader in 2006.
Whitmer had majored in communications at Michigan State University. But a college internship at the state Capitol got her hooked on politics and public policy. After receiving her law degree, Whitmer was a corporate litigator before being elected to the state House.
Contributing: Detroit Free Press