LANSING, Mich. — A former legislative leader with the establishment's backing is hoping to fend off two political newcomers who have staked out positions to her left in the race to be the Democratic nominee for Michigan governor.
On the Republican side in Tuesday's state primary, Michigan's conservative attorney general is touting his tax cut plan and endorsement from President Donald Trump in a four-man race he has long led.
The winners will fight this fall for a seat that's opening due the coming departure of Republican Rick Snyder, who is term-limited. Former state lawmaker Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, and GOP Attorney General Bill Schuette are favored to emerge from crowded fields, but Michigan's electorate is unpredictable.
Voters in 2016 narrowly backed Trump over Hillary Clinton, putting a crack in a "blue wall" state that has traditionally supported Democrats for president. They also delivered an unexpected primary win to Bernie Sanders, who will campaign on Sunday with Abdul El-Sayed, a 33-year-old upstart who led Detroit's health department before seeking the governorship.
El-Sayed's bid for a "progressive v. establishment" showdown with Whitmer — an undoubtedly liberal Democrat — is being complicated by another political rookie, chemical-testing entrepreneur Shri Thanedar, who has spent at least $10 million of his fortune to run.
The Democrats have focused on health care in the days leading up to the primary, which will also decide who will vie for three open House seats and which Republican will take on Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow in November.
In her recent ads, Whitmer speaks about battling an insurer when her mom was dying of brain cancer and helping to expand Medicaid to 680,000 adults as a legislator. The favorite of organized labor and women's groups, Whitmer has come under attack from her opponents for accepting donations from business interests and not committing to a "Medicare for all" single-payer system. She has not attacked her primary rivals, however, reserving her criticism for Republicans who slashed business taxes and enacted right-to-work laws that undermine unions.
"I'm not going to get distracted by these political games that everyone else wants to play," Whitmer said Thursday in Lansing, where she kicked off a get-out-the-vote tour that will feature stops with union leaders, top Democrats and others. "I am running against bad roads, failing schools, unclean water and a lack of skills. That's what this is all about."
El-Sayed, the son of Egyptian immigrants who has doctorates in medicine and public health, has gained national attention because he could become the country's first Muslim governor. The dynamic campaigner — who is counting on young people and other sporadic voters to propel him — blames "corporate greed" for expensive health care and the state's high auto insurance rates.
"It's about us coming out and deciding we are going to take our politics back," he told a crowd outside a recent rally near Ann Arbor with rising liberal star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York congressional candidate who recently defeated one of the most powerful Democrats in the House in a primary.
Thanedar, an immigrant from India, is spending big to promise better health care while urging voters to ignore his accent and consider his life's path. He says the Democratic candidates have more similarities than differences on policy issues, and what makes him stand out is his rise from poverty and his experience as a business executive.
"That's what really matters," he said. "Who can deliver? Who can make it happen?"
Sue Ziel, a 56-year-old middle school teacher from Macomb Township in suburban Detroit, said she cast an absentee ballot for Whitmer because of her track record and authenticity. She said she respects El-Sayed and Thanedar and their willingness to "stand up," but she wanted someone who has "proven public education needs to be a priority" — citing Whitmer's vote against a law that illegally allowed school employees' pay to be deducted for retiree health care.
Ziel said it would be "ridiculous," however, for Democrats to not coalesce behind whoever wins, given the stakes in the fall.
While Democrats have traded shots over political funding and health care, the GOP contest has been nastier.
Schuette, with Trump's endorsement and a mantra to make Michigan "win again," criticizes Lt. Gov. Brian Calley for renouncing his support for Trump in 2016 and working with a former Democratic governor on a business tax. Calley, a Snyder ally, accuses Schuette of illegally misusing his office for political and personal business, which Calley and another candidate, grassroots conservative state Sen. Patrick Colbeck, say will be a liability for the GOP in November if Schuette is the nominee.
Schuette, who has denied the allegations, campaigned Tuesday at a Lansing auto dealership where he highlighted Fiat Chrysler's plan to move production of the heavy-duty Ram truck from Mexico to Michigan in response to the Trump-backed U.S. tax cuts, adding 2,500 new jobs.
"I want to cut taxes in Michigan like he cut taxes in America," Schuette said. Vice President Mike Pence will travel to Michigan for a Republican unity rally on Wednesday, a day after the primary.
A fourth contender, Dr. Jim Hines, has self-funded his campaign with $2.7 million but has lagged in polling.
Calley is touting the economic turnaround in a state that was hit hard by lost manufacturing jobs and also stressing a workforce development plan.
"What I bring to the table are results and real plans for the future," he said.