LANSING (AP) — Call it Michigan's pink and blue wave.
Gretchen Whitmer's victory in the gubernatorial primary on Tuesday means the Democrats will field an all-female statewide ticket this fall if she picks a woman to be her running mate. It would be a first for either party in Michigan and is part of the broader surge in women running for office — mostly as Democrats — since the election of President Donald Trump.
The number of women in Michigan's 14-member House delegation will at least double, to four, because of the primary results. It could triple, to six, if the Democrats can pick up Republican-leaning seats in November.
"There is tremendous intensity among Democratic women to participate in the election," said Bernie Porn, a pollster with EPIC-MRA in Lansing who attributed the surge to a backlash against Trump. He pointed to his June poll of likely November voters that showed 57 percent were extremely interested in the election and extremely motivated to vote, but among Democratic women it was 67 percent.
Though Whitmer could choose a male lieutenant governor candidate, Democrats also are fielding Sen. Debbie Stabenow for re-election to a fourth term, lawyer Dana Nessel for state attorney general and election expert Joceyln Benson for secretary of state — which is already unprecedented.
Democrat Rashida Tlaib is set to become the first Muslim woman elected to Congress after she won the nomination to run unopposed for the House seat long held by Democratic Rep. John Conyers, who retired while facing sexual harassment claims. And either Republican business executive Lena Epstein or Democratic former auto bailout chief of staff Haley Stevens will succeed a retiring congressman in suburban Detroit.
The nominations of Whitmer, a former legislative leader who will face Republican state Attorney General Bill Schuette, and Democratic state Sen. Laura Kelly of Kansas brought the number of female gubernatorial nominees this year to 11, breaking the previous record of 10, according to the Gender Watch 2018, a project of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University and the Barbara Lee Family Foundation. The number of female House nominees is at least 185 nationwide and stands at 10 in Michigan, which also are records.
Fred Woodhams, a spokesman for the Michigan secretary of state's office, said Tuesday's turnout was "drastically higher" than in past primaries, approaching 2.2 million voters. That is nearly 28 percent higher than the 1.7 million who turned out in 2002, which is believed to be the previous Michigan midterm primary record. Turnout figures posted online only go back to 1978.
Whitmer would not be Michigan's first female governor, nor has she made the anti-Trump resistance movement a centerpiece of her campaign, instead focusing on issues such as road repairs, school funding and water. But she was an outspoken advocate for women's issues long before the January 2017 Women's Marches and #MeToo era, publicly disclosing during a 2013 legislative debate on health insurance coverage for abortions that she had been raped in college.
She said earlier this week that "there wasn't a single mom" consulted when the decision was made to switch Flint's water source, which led to lead contamination that has been blamed primarily on Republican Gov. Rick Snyder's administration.
"Women leaders use our platforms and our power to make sure that we are being representative, that we are making decisions with all voices around the table," Whitmer said. "When you've got a Legislature that's so male, all the leaders making decisions around our health care being white males ... you get the policies that we have here in Michigan. They've pushed anti-choice. They've cut us out of the debate about everything from our health care to our water. So electing more women empowers those voices and informs better decision-making."
In other races that will be closely watched this fall, Democrats nominated former national security official Elissa Slotkin and former state Rep. Gretchen Driskell for Republican-held House seats in southeastern Michigan. Slotkin, who has raised more money than Rep. Mike Bishop, said that particularly this year, voters are looking for candidates "who will no longer just kind of check the box on voting the right way" but are asking how they will defend their rights.
She said even Republican-leaning women in Oakland County north of Detroit are volunteering for her campaign.
"They come to the race and will tell us, 'We really believe in electing women because women will be more civil and get more done in Washington,'" Slotkin said.
While the Michigan GOP's statewide ticket will be led by Schuette and Senate nominee John James, who are backed by Trump, it is still taking shape and could include women. Party activists will choose attorney general and secretary of state nominees at a convention in late August, and Schuette said Wednesday his running mate will be a woman. He declined to name her.
Vice President Mike Pence, who sought to unify Republicans at a post-primary rally in Grand Rapids, said the "blue wall" crumbled in Michigan with Trump's 2016 win — the first for a GOP presidential nominee in decades.
"I'm here to tell you: right here right now, come November, the red wave is coming right through Michigan," he said.
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