Susan J. Demas: If you think women can’t win after 2016, try coming to Michigan

April 26, 2019 6:44 am

Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer speaks at a Democratic election-night party on November 6, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan. | Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

The pink wave of 2018 — fueled by female rage — has given way to a throwback election for president in 2020.

The race has, so far, been dominated by establishment/pundit favorite Joe Biden, left-wing hero Bernie Sanders, fresh face Pete Buttigieg, old It Boy Beto O’Rourke, and, of course, the tweeter-in-chief himself, Donald Trump.

If you haven’t figured out that all of these hopefuls have a couple things in common, well, you’re probably also a white male.

There are six women running for president right now: Kirsten Gillibrand, Tulsi Gabbard, Marianne Williamson, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Kamala Harris.

And no, it’s not your imagination. They really are getting less (but more negative) media coverage, as Michigan Attorney Dana Nessel recently pointed out.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren
Elizabeth Warren prior to addressing a rally at Bonanza High School in Las Vegas | Nevada Current

My favorite implicit rule is that you can’t cover a female contender without negatively comparing her to another woman — like the sub-genre of stories backhandedly complimenting Warren while gratuitously slamming Hillary Clinton.

Of course, there’s nothing that makes male journalists descend into a blinding rage more than suggesting they might (even subconsciously) cover women unfairly. Look, there’s nothing sexist about framing the presidency as an office that’s won by “regular guys” who you want to have a beer with. No, that definitely doesn’t box women out.

When all else fails, point to the fact that voters have just decided, at this early juncture, that white male candidates are just more electable — while conveniently ignoring how glossy Vanity Fair profiles of O’Rourke, fawning covering of Buttigieg’s fluency in Norweigan and the Intercept’s relentless stanning of Sanders help shape the debate.

When it comes to analysis of the next election, beltway pundits are fighting the last war — and that’s 2016. And the lesson many have gleaned from Clinton’s defeat is that women just can’t win.

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris in Detroit | Susan J. Demas

Sorry gals, it’s nothing personal — you can still wear your adorable pussy hats. But it’s almost 2020. Time to listen. Men are running now.

Well, let me break it down in the preferred hackneyed parlance of Ivy League analysts pretending they understand folks in Real America.

I reckon you best hop on one of them fancy aeroplanes and high-tail it to Michigan, where working stiffs will probably pick the next president.

Cuz a funny thing happened in the last election — which was 2018, not ‘16, by the way. Democrats ran the table here in every statewide office.

And you’re going to want to sit down for this one. They were all women, including Nessel, who’s the first openly gay top statewide official here — except for Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, who made history as the first African American to hold that post.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand with MSNBC host Chris Hayes at town hall, March 18, 2019 | Andrew Roth

But wait, how can that be? Trump won the state, appealing to white, blue-collar Macomb County voters with his anti-immigrant schtick and empty promises about coal mining jobs, or whatever.

And yet, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer took Macomb (as well as pretty much all the high-population counties), becoming the state’s second-ever female governor.

But it didn’t have to go down that way. As I first reported in 2017, there was a big, somewhat under-the-radar effort by Democratic poohbahs to persuade a white male savior candidate to jump into the race.

That started after U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) — who gained a national profile during his city’s water crisis — decided to stay in Congress (it worked out OK; he’s now a key member of majority leadership). Some of the Dem old guard called every white male Democrat (but not their mothers) and begged them to run, since obviously, women and people of color couldn’t win Michigan now.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at her first State of the State address | Casey Hull

Never mind that the Mitten State had a female governor, Jennifer Granholm, for eight years last decade. And apparently, no one recalled that a guy named Barack Obama managed to twice prevail in Michigan by double digits (and he won Macomb to boot).

If all of this sounds an awful lot like today’s presidential race, just wait. It gets better.

Whitmer, a former state Senate leader, cruised through the Democratic primary against two men who attempted to run to her left, including Abdul El-Sayed, who launched a Sanders-style campaign and got all the DC cool kids media attention (not that there was any sexism, lol).

Whitmer notched a 22-point victory and dominated all 83 counties, while barely breaking a sweat.

In the general election, she dispatched a Trump acolyte, now-former Attorney General Bill Schuette, who also made the mistake of believing it was still 2016 and Michigan would never elect someone with Whitmer’s liberal record in the Legislature.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) | Andrew Roth

She won by almost 10 points — not roughly 10,000 votes as Trump did.

Now Michigan is the only state in the country with an all-female top executive lineup: Whitmer, Nessel, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack.

The victories ran down-ballot, too. If you look at all statewide elected offices, women dominate seven of the nine slots.

Glossing over 2018 also insults women and people of color behind the scenes who have put in the work. Groups like Indivisible were instrumental in taking back the U.S. House, so now there’s a congressional backstop to some of the Trump administration’s wanton corruption and lawlessness.

It wasn’t just a record-breaking year for female candidates on the Dem side. Women of color broke down barriers, with the first Muslim and Native American women joining Congress.

President Donald Trump at the White House February 15, 2019 in Washington, DC. | Alex Wong, Getty Images

But, hey, I get it. It’s natural to wonder if women really have the right temperament to be commander-in-chief, what with Trump’s hourly Twitter tantrums and another Dem presidential hopeful, Andrew Yang, challenging O’Rourke to a skate-off.

Maybe by the time our country hits our tercentenary in 2076, we’ll finally be ready for a female president. But ladies, come on. Let’s not be too hasty.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 21-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 4,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 70 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.