Detroit — Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has won a second term in Michigan’s top office, defeating Republican challenger Tudor Dixon after a heated race that focused on abortion rights and the battleground state’s economy.
With about 68% of the estimated vote counted, Whitmer led Dixon, 52%-47% a 5-point advantage for the incumbent. At 1 a.m., Whitmer was winning Oakland County by 23 percentage points, 61%-38%, with nearly 85% of the precincts in the state’s second-largest county reporting tallies. In 2018, Whitmer claimed Oakland County by 17 points.
After the COVID-19 pandemic and battles with a Republican-controlled Legislature and former President Donald Trump that put her in the national spotlight, Whitmer’s victory marked a significant achievement for Michigan Democrats, who had been shut out of power in Lansing from 2011 through 2018.
At a Democratic election night watch party inside the Motor City Casino, Whitmer told supporters early Wednesday morning that her campaign was “feeling damn good” about where it was headed.
“Regardless of who is in office, we will always work with anyone who wants to solve a problem because there’s nothing more important than all of the people of this state,” Whitmer said. “I thank you for being here to the wee hours of the morning, but if you would like to return for a press conference in the morning, we will be ready to talk about the future of Michigan.”
More than 2 million absentee ballots had been requested and 1.8 million absentee ballots returned to clerks in Michigan as of 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, said Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s office. The all-time record for turnout in a Michigan gubernatorial contest is 4.3 million in the 2018 election.
President Joe Biden called to congratulate Whitmer late Tuesday evening. But Dixon told her supporters at an event in Grand Rapids that the race was “too close to call.”
“That’s definitely going to be a late night for us,” Dixon added. “And that definitely means there’s still a lot more votes to be counted.”
Observers at multiple precincts reported higher-than-expected turnout for a midterm election as voters said Whitmer’s bid for a second term and a ballot proposal to enshrine abortion rights in the state Constitution were among the main reasons they wanted to cast their ballots.
“I think everyone’s voice is important,” said Joe Wysocki, 60, standing outside his polling place in Barry County’s Irving Township. “This is an important election. I am hoping I have an effect to some extent. I am sure I do.”
Wysocki, a Democrat, said he voted for Whitmer, but he acknowledged that he was worried about his party’s chances nationally Tuesday. Concerns about inflation, high gas prices and the first half of Biden’s term have been a focus of Republican criticisms this fall.
Usually, the party that holds the White House struggles in the first midterm election under a new president. However, that dynamic clashes with another trend: an incumbent Michigan governor hasn’t lost a reelection race since 1990 when Republican state Sen. John Engler unseated Democratic Gov. Jim Blanchard by less than 1 percentage point.
Johnnie Willey, 74, a retired machinist in Roseville, said he voted for Dixon, a political commentator from Norton Shores, on Tuesday because he felt change was needed to address the rising cost of living, crime and public safety. He was unhappy with how the Whitmer administration handled COVID-19, noting school closures and stay-at-home orders that hurt small businesses, he said.
“This country is going to pieces, and if we don’t do something about it, it won’t be here in a couple years,” Willey said.
Whitmer, a former state lawmaker from East Lansing, won her first term by 9 percentage points in 2018, defeating Republican Bill Schuette. Efforts to combat COVID-19, including through unilateral executive orders, and clashes with the Republican-controlled Legislature were features of her first term. The initial cases of the virus in Michigan were reported in March 2020.
The governor and her supporters have touted her achievements, like record funding for K-12 education and a new economic development program that’s already attracted a handful of large projects.
“We want to put our foot on the accelerator now,” Whitmer told reporters of her agenda for a potential second term after her final campaign rally Monday night on the campus of Michigan State University. “We either win the race this decade or we run the risk of being left behind for a generation.”
Dixon, a first-time candidate, focused much of her campaign on education, calling for improved test scores and giving parents a greater say in classroom curriculum.
“Let’s make history today, Michigan,” the Republican nominee tweeted on Election Day.
In downtown Grand Rapids, Dixon’s supporters began arriving at a GOP election night watch party at 6 p.m., and the ballroom at the JW Marriott hotel was full.
Whitmer’s campaign has emphasized safeguarding abortion rights after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down in June the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, which had protected access to abortion nationally.
Michigan voters will also decide Tuesday whether to approve a constitutional amendment, Proposal 3, to place abortion rights in the state Constitution. Standing outside her polling location, Nancy Jasman, 72, of Potterville, said she voted against Proposal 3 but in favor of Whitmer.
“I like Gretchen,” Jasman said, joking that her positions on the proposal and the governor might be “one of a kind.”
“I just think she’s done a good job, especially through the pandemic,” she added.
Dixon opposes abortion, including in cases involving rape and incest. Her stance was the subject of millions of dollars in campaign ads sponsored by Democrats. Throughout the race, Dixon was at a financial disadvantage as Put Michigan First, an organization tied to the Democratic Governors Association, reported spending about $30 million.
Bryce Dumond, 42, of Irving Township said his main reason for supporting Whitmer was because of Dixon’s stance on abortion.
“I want to protect women’s rights to abortion,” Dumond said.
But Janet McCutcheon, 64, turned out Tuesday in Pleasant Ridge to vote for Dixon because “she is not Whitmer.” McCutcheon said she voted against Proposal 3 because its language for abortion rights was “ridiculously broad.”
Stevie Brinkerhoff, 72, campaigned outside a polling location in Richland Township on Tuesday for a judicial candidate. There was a “constant flow of people” into Grace Spring Bible Church to vote, she said.
“People realize democracy is important, and they want to be a part of it,” she said.
Brinkerhoff cast an absentee ballot for Whitmer. The support Whitmer earned from some Republican figures in Michigan was key, the Kalamazoo County voter said.
“The fact that those Republicans expressed admiration for her bipartisanship made an impression,” she said.
Likewise, Jane Laucher of Midland voiced support for Whitmer’s reelection. Laucher voted for Republican Donald Trump in 2016’s presidential election and cast her ballot for Schuette in 2018’s governor’s race, but Trump’s handling of the pandemic was eye-opening, she said. As a retired veterinarian, watching the president criticize masks and science, pushed her to the Democratic Party, Laucher said.
“When our former president, our disgraced former president… when he called her that woman from Michigan, and people started making the t-shirts, I bought one,” she said, referring to the shirts that said “I Support that Woman from Michigan.”
“I’m very proud of her,” she added of Whitmer. “She endured a lot, and she stood up. She did not back down.”
Tony Martinez, 56, of Potterville had a much different take. Asked which candidate he supported in the governor’s race, he replied “not the one we’ve got now.”
“I don’t think she handled the lockdown right,” Martinez said of Whitmer.
Cindy Uzzel, 63, of Kentwood also voted for Dixon. Uzzel said she wanted to “change our governor.”
“I just like what she stands for about, even though I don’t have kids in school now,” Uzzel said. “I just think it’s important what the teachers are teaching the kids in school.”
Dixon became the Republican nominee by winning the Aug. 2 GOP primary. She scored the endorsements of Trump, the anti-abortion group Right to Life of Michigan and the Police Officers Association of Michigan.
Staff Writers Melissa Nann Burke and Kayla Ruble contributed.
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