LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Democrat Gretchen Whitmer was elected Michigan’s next governor on Tuesday, retaking the office for her party after eight years of Republican control of a state that Donald Trump won by the slimmest of margins.
Whitmer, a former legislative leader who led a female-dominated statewide ticket, defeated GOP state Attorney General Bill Schuette. Her running mate, Garlin Gilchrist II, will be Michigan’s first black lieutenant governor.
“At a time where we see too many people who want to divide us through building walls, I think we in Michigan need to get back to building bridges,” Whitmer told supporters in Detroit. The people, she said, chose “hope and inclusion” along with “respect and collaboration” over divisive politics.
While campaigning, Whitmer cast herself as a bipartisan problem-solver who joined with term-limited Gov. Rick Snyder to expand Medicaid to more than 600,000 adults. She pushed to “fix the damn roads,” lagging schools and drinking water infrastructure, which was exposed by Flint’s lead-tainted water.
Her win further cemented a trend in Michigan gubernatorial races. The last time the state consecutively elected governors from the same party was the 1960s, and the party opposite the president has now won 10 of the last 11 elections.
Whitmer’s victory was somewhat tempered because Democrats fell short of winning at least partial control of the Republican-led Legislature, a crucial step for her to be able to enact a governing agenda.
The 47-year-old Whitmer, of East Lansing, was a state lawmaker for 14 years — always in the minority — and later served as Ingham County’s interim prosecutor. As the top Democrat in the Senate, she spoke forcefully against GOP-backed laws that slashed business taxes while raising them on individuals, made union fees optional, and required residents or businesses wanting health insurance coverage for elective abortions to buy extra coverage. She disclosed during a debate on the abortion bill that she had been raped in college.
“I thought that was so brave. I think she’s got the moxie and the courage to stand up for her beliefs,” said Kristin Schrader, a 51-year-old marketing and communications officer for a Girl Scouts organization who voted for Whitmer. The resident of Superior Township near Ann Arbor called Whitmer pragmatic and credited her for working across the aisle and staying positive despite being in the minority party for so long. Others who voted for Whitmer cited her pledge to press for a multibillion-dollar plan to improve deteriorating roads.
Schuette — a former congressman, state senator, state Cabinet official and state appellate judge from Midland — called Whitmer to concede. She led by 9 percentage points with more than third-fourths of precincts reporting early Wednesday. Republicans kept control of the state Senate despite losing seats, while the battle for the Michigan House majority remained unsettled.
Schuette had called for an income tax cut and lower auto insurance rates while urging voters to stick with a Republican to succeed the more moderate Snyder, who has been at the helm during a sustained economic recovery. Schuette warned against going “backward” and likened Whitmer to Democratic former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who was in charge during Michigan’s economic downturn and pushed through a mix of tax hikes and spending cuts to resolve major budget deficits.
People who voted for Schuette said they favored his opposition to tax increases, his pro-business record and his work as attorney general, specifically how he investigated Flint’s water crisis and the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal at Michigan State University.
“I was impressed by how he handled them,” said Jeff Burden, a 38-year-old writer from Westland.
Whitmer attacked Schuette’s time as attorney general by criticizing his opposition to the federal health care law, his legal defense of the state’s gay marriage ban and other moves.
Schuette secured Trump’s backing in the primary but mentioned the president less afterward and later softened his position on the Medicaid expansion. He highlighted his office’s prosecution of Nassar and accused Whitmer of failing to charge Nassar with assaults before Michigan State University police brought the case to him.
Schuette also brought charges against current and former state and city officials for the public health emergency in Flint, where the drinking water was tainted with lead and people died in a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak. Whitmer alleged that Schuette ignored complaints about the water and waited to investigate until the crisis attracted widespread media attention.
The Flint charges — which include manslaughter counts against two high-ranking members of the Snyder administration — were among various factors in the governor’s refusal to endorse Schuette.
Joyce Coleman, a 65-year-old retired teacher from Detroit who voted for Whitmer, applauded Schuette’s prosecution of Nassar but said “there’s some things that I don’t appreciate. … I don’t like the way he went after the LGBT community.” She said she liked Whitmer’s focus on Flint and turning around the school system.
Jerry Barbree, a 50-year-old from Springfield who is on disability due to epilepsy, said he voted for Schuette because Republicans “have been trying to get things fixed.” He cited as an example Trump’s emphasis on an immigration crackdown, saying the “we’ve got enough of our own people here that we’ve got to support.”
Associated Press writer John Flesher in Traverse City contributed to this report.