DETROIT — The most important Democrat at this week’s presidential debates is not a presidential candidate.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, whose election last year signaled that a big state key to Donald Trump’s surprise victory could swing back to her party in 2020, has a starring role as host.
And behind the scenes, she is emerging as an influential adviser to those running. Whitmer, 47, laughed with a knowing smile Wednesday when asked if she’s getting extra special attention.
“Yes,” she told BuzzFeed News in an interview at her Detroit office. “I think everyone knows that the path to the White House goes through Michigan and a handful of other states.”
Whitmer did not share specifics about who she hears from most or hint who might earn her endorsement. But she was not shy about the advice she is offering.
“As I hear from candidates who are coming into Michigan, who are touching base, bouncing things off of me, I just continue to remind them that it really is about the fundamentals,” Whitmer said.
To Whitmer, “fundamentals” are “dinner table” issues such as wages and education. She worries that Trump’s tweets — including racist ones targeting Detroit congressional Rep. Rashida Tlaib and others — distract from substantive policy discussion.
“I do think it’s important to take it on when he attacks Rashida Tlaib and the other young members of Congress or he is saying horribly racist things about an American city,” Whitmer said. “I think it’s important to call it out, but then to get right back into the issues that are going to improve people’s lives in this country.”
“People are less focused on the president’s Twitter feed and more worried about feeding their families,” Whitmer added. “You go into any grocery store in Michigan and chat with someone who is picking up food for themselves or their family, that’s not the first thing on their minds.”
Whitmer suggested her endorsement would come once the large Democratic field clears a bit.
“It’s way too early for me to consider making a decision at this point,” she said. “I really do want to see these candidates show up. I want to see the work that they do — how they react under pressure and what, really, they’re going to be able to do on behalf of the people of Michigan.”
She demurred when asked if there were candidates who have turned her off, instead pointing to significant Michigan endorsements scored in recent days by former vice president Joe Biden (Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan), Sen. Kamala Harris (the state party’s black caucus), and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Rep. Andy Levin).
“There’s appeal from each of the candidates in a different way,” Whitmer said, “and I think a lot of them will resonate to the people of Michigan.”
Whitmer ran as a moderate in her gubernatorial primary last year and worked to brand herself as a problem-solver. She made “fix the damn roads” a rallying cry for her campaign and for the state’s aging infrastructure, though has faced resistance from a Republican-controlled legislature that has balked at her plan to raise a gas tax to pay for such improvements.
“It’s a huge state,” Whitmer said. “When you’re in Lansing, Michigan — when you’re in the state capital — you’re actually closer to Washington, DC, than you are to the western end of the Upper Peninsula. It’s huge, like you’re 10 hours away from each. I spent a lot of time traveling the state, but when you do that and you stay connected to people, you don’t get distracted by issues that aren’t front and center for the electorate.”
Her youth and her Midwest profile could complement the eventual nominee.
“You know what,” Whitmer began when asked about vice presidential speculation, “I am seven months into my job as governor of Michigan, and I have a lot of work to do here. So it’s certainly flattering, but not something that I’m getting caught up in.”