Commentary

Rick Haglund: Whitmer has a strong economy on her side as she seeks reelection

But voters, stung by inflation, will need some convincing

April 20, 2022 4:20 am

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at the Flint drive-in rally for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden with former President Barack Obama, Oct. 31, 2020 | Andrew Roth

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer faces reelection this year during an extraordinary mix of economic, political and social conditions unlike anything most voters have seen in their lifetimes.

The environment enveloping the governor’s race has it all: a booming economy, surging inflation, a brutal invasion of Ukraine by Russia that threatens to become World War III, the remnants of the historic COVID-19 pandemic, and 10 wannabe Republican challengers who are largely focused on noneconomic and culture-war issues.

Some of those issues, like widespread election fraud and schools employing critical race theory to teach students that America is inherently racist, have been manufactured out of whole cloth by Republicans.

What does this all portend for Whitmer’s reelection prospects?

A growing economy almost always benefits an incumbent governor, and Whitmer has that going for her as she seeks another term. But she needs to be able to convince voters, whose budgets are being busted by inflation.

Michigan has largely recovered from the dark days of COVID, when more than one in five workers lost jobs as the virus brought the economy to its knees. The state’s jobless rate plunged from 22.7% in April 2020 to just 4.7% in March. 

Michigan recorded the third-largest annual unemployment rate drop among the states last year, according to the state Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives.

There were still about 130,000 fewer people employed in March than just before the start of the COVID pandemic, but that’s not because of a lack of available jobs. Michigan employers say they’re desperate for workers. 

Mario Tama/Getty Images

The average number of online job advertisements over the past 12 months, ending in February, was 60% higher than in the previous 12 months, the state said. Michigan employers posted 230,500 online help-wanted ads in February.

Wages are rising as well, particularly for hourly workers. The state’s latest jobs report showed that paychecks for production workers in manufacturing are 7.2% higher than a year ago and 7.8% higher for autoworkers.

Those gains have been eaten away by inflation, which, at 8.5% in March, is running at the highest rate in 40 years. And runaway inflation is a top concern of Michigan voters.

A statewide poll of registered voters in December conducted for the Detroit Regional Chamber found that 63% of respondents believe the nation’s economy is on the wrong track and cited inflation as the top reason why.

But potential November election voters aren’t buying Republican candidates’ efforts to blame Whitmer and President Joe Biden for surging inflation, which has become global.

The Detroit Chamber poll, conducted by the Glengariff Group, found that 58% of Michigan voters said supply chain problems are the main cause of inflation. Just 15.8% of voters blamed “Joe Biden and the Democrats.”

But while only 39% of voters liked the job Biden is doing, voters approved of Whitmer’s performance in December by a 48%-to-43% margin.

And while they’re worried about inflation, voters are feeling mostly secure about their own finances. Nearly three-quarters of voters said their personal economic situation has either improved or is about the same as in the past.

Whitmer also has electoral history on her side. Michigan voters almost always give governors multiple terms to accomplish their agendas. The state’s last one-term governor was Democrat John Swainson, who was defeated by Republican George Romney in 1960.

But Whitmer’s biggest competitive advantage might be an unusually weak field of would-be Republican challengers who are far to the right of most likely voters.

“I think it’s a mess to be perfectly honest,” said Glengariff Group President Richard Czuba said earlier this month on WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record” program. “Here we are four months — April — before the August primary. I can’t tell you who’s the frontrunner in this race.”

Former Detroit Police Chief James Craig is generally regarded to be atop the 10-person field of announced candidates. But his campaign has been mired in blunders

Czuba said having so many gubernatorial candidates in the race is likely bad news for Republicans.

“I think we need to remember that multi-candidate fields produce really wacky results,” he said.

Whitmer’s biggest competitive advantage might be an unusually weak field of would-be Republican challengers who are far to the right of most likely voters.

– Rick Haglund

Still, Democrats are vulnerable because so many voters, especially independents who are likely to decide the election, are freaked out about inflation, he said.

“If I were running as a Democrat, I’d be very worried right now,” Czuba said.

But Whitmer has been “pretty shrewd” in recently talking more about economic issues, he said. And a Supreme Court decision on abortion, expected by June, could benefit her and other Democratic candidates.

Many observers expect the court to strike down Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 law that legalized abortion. That could spark a “huge” voter backlash against Republicans who universally oppose abortion, Czuba said.

“Our polling shows two-thirds of Michiganders believe Roe v. Wade should be left in place,” he said. “Two-thirds of Michiganders believe that the 1931 Michigan law banning abortion should be overturned.”

Still, Czuba thinks the November election will be mostly about pocketbook issues.

“The question is, do Republicans get out of their own way and focus on the economy, because that’s where voters are,” he said.

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Rick Haglund
Rick Haglund

Rick Haglund writes the "Micheconomy" column for the Michigan Advance. He's a former reporter and business columnist for Booth Newspapers, now the MLive Media Group, with extensive experience covering Michigan’s economy and the auto industry. He now works as a freelance writer based in Southeast Michigan.

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