Why Gretchen Whitmer was the Democrats’ pick to respond to Trump’s State of the Union

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will deliver the Democratic response to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address on Tuesday night.

The State of the Union response is notoriously a mixed blessing for the speaker. No one who follows politics will soon forget Marco Rubio’s lunge for his water bottle; Bobby Jindal went from presumed future presidential frontrunner to watercooler joke overnight. But the politician selected to give it still serves an important totemic role for their party.

As the woman who won the governorship of a Midwestern battleground state with her “fix the damn roads” slogan, Whitmer makes sense for a Democratic Party that sees progressive but pragmatic women voters as critical to their hopes of retaking the White House in 2020. After all, they powered the blue wave in the 2018 midterm elections that handed Whitmer her win. And Michigan will be essential to Democratic hopes of beating Trump in 2020.

Whitmer’s tenure as governor so far has had some successes and plenty of struggles. She’ll get the national stage on Tuesday night for her party’s English-language response to Trump, as Democrats try to draw a sharp contrast with the president after his speech in the House.

Mayoral candidate Gretchen Whitmer takes pictures with campaign volunteers in Detroit, Michigan, before the state’s Democratic primary, on July 28, 2018.
Kainaz Amaria/Vox

As governor, Whitmer has fought with a Republican-controlled legislature

In her home state, Whitmer has received mixed reviews since she took over in January 2019. Here is how Paul Egan summarized her tenure so far in the Detroit Free Press:

Analysts’ appraisals of Whitmer’s 2019 performance vary widely. Some say Whitmer fared better than could be expected in advancing her priorities in the face of GOP opposition. Others view her handling of the state budget negotiations, in which she sought to pressure lawmakers by vetoing close to $1 billion in spending — not all of which has been restored — as disastrous. The most common view is somewhere in between.

Republicans control both chambers of the Michigan legislature, which put Whitmer at a disadvantage from the moment she took office. They have been a serious obstacle to her plans as governor, though she’s made some mistakes of her own.

Whitmer’s signature issue as a candidate for governor was infrastructure. She pledged to “fix the damn roads.” But she hasn’t yet delivered on that promise.

Last year, she proposed a 45-cent gas tax to fund her rebuilding project, a proposal that was “widely panned” per the Free Press. Ultimately, the legislature didn’t budge and road funding stayed flat. But in her recent State of the State speech, Whitmer said she would work around the legislature by issuing $3.5 billion in bonds over the next five years to get the money she needs. (That’s a lot of money, but less than the $2.5 billion annually the gas tax would have raised.)

On other issues, Whitmer has found more success. Michigan Republican legislators and former Gov. Rick Snyder approved Medicaid work requirements before Whitmer entered office and, while it was beyond her power to nix them completely, she cut a deal with GOP lawmakers to ease the requirements.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s State of the State address in Lansing, Michigan, on January 29, 2020.
Al Goldis/AP

Whitmer has used her executive authority aggressively: She issued an order that would make 200,000 workers eligible for overtime pay. She used her power to veto line items in the state budget a record 147 times, per the Free Press. Whitmer has also found some common ground with Republicans. They reached a compromise on legislation to reduce auto insurance premiums in the state, which have been the highest in the nation.

Altogether, Whitmer has been a reasonably successful first-term governor, constrained as she is by a legislature in the other party’s hands. She still enjoys a solid approval rating (44 percent approving, 34 percent disapproving in a recent poll).

But her significance as the Democratic respondent to Trump’s State of the Union speech goes beyond her record as her state’s chief executive.

Michigan is going to be really important in the 2020 election

If you have forgotten, Donald Trump won Michigan by less than 11,000 votes. It was his narrow sweep through Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin that allowed Trump to win the presidency despite losing the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes nationwide.

And in 2020, Michigan’s 16 Electoral College votes will once be pivotal. So it’s easy to understand why the Democratic Party would want to put the state’s new leader, just the second woman to be governor of Michigan, in front of a national television audience as the 2020 campaign really starts to take off.

Supporters of President Trump cheer during a campaign rally in Battle Creek, Michigan, on December 18, 2019.
Evan Vucci/AP

Whiter beat Republican Bill Schuette there by nearly 10 points in the midterms, a sharp reversal from Trump’s surprising win over Hillary Clinton. The most recent poll of Trump’s approval rating in Michigan put him at 41 percent approval among all voters and 54 percent disapproval. He trailed every Democratic presidential candidate in a hypothetical general election match-up in the same survey by EPIC-MRA.

Whitmer is also a reminder that, though the frontrunners the Democratic presidential primary field are mostly white men (and old white men, besides), the party’s future will be powered by a more diverse coalition. Women could be decisive in the 2020 election: Just 40 percent of women approved of President Trump’s job performance in the most recent Morning Consult tracking poll, while 56 percent disapproved.

There is no need to overstate the importance of a State of the Union response. Usually, the best the respondent can hope to do is not become a story in their own right and serve as a functional messenger for their party’s rebuttal to Trump’s vision for the country.

But in politics, every choice is made for a reason. Gretchen Whitmer makes a lot of sense for a Democratic Party that wants to turn out women voters and win back the Midwest in 2020.