If the 2016 presidential election is the ruler with which all elections will be measured in the future, the gubernatorial Democratic race in Michigan is about to give some people a severe case of déjà vu. The ghosts of our candidates past seemed to have taken the form of former state Sen. Gretchen Whitmer and former Detroit health director Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, who are locked in a competitive race to be decided Tuesday. (A third candidate is wealthy immigrant entrepreneur Shri Thanedar, who has said he is a progressive but also reportedly contemplated running as a Republican.)
While it would be easy to write off the battle between Whitmer and El-Sayed as a Hillary Clinton vs. Bernie Sanders redux, the nuances of each candidate's gubernatorial bids are way more interesting.
Whitmer, who most expect to win, has a solid legislative record and the support of most establishment household names, including that of Emily's List, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, and former Gov. Jim Blanchard. An outspoken progressive who fought on issues from reproductive rights to workers' protections and a Medicaid expansion while in office, she was in the national spotlight in 2013 after she disclosed she is a sexual assault survivor during a debate about an abortion bill. She's also spoken up about being sexually harassed in the context of the #MeToo movement. Part of her platform includes gun safety measures such as universal background checks and closing the domestic violence loophole; fighting the opioid crisis by expanding treatment and recovery services; continue expanding Medicaid services in the state; and protecting women's reproductive rights.
But in recent days, political newcomer El-Sayed nearly closed the gap between him and Whitmer in the polls. The 33-year-old, who is vying to become the first Muslim governor in the history of the United States, has brought the big guns to the Wolverine State in recent days — packing up events with the likes of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and rising political star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Supporters have called the son of Egyptian immigrants "the new Obama." El-Sayed has no previous political experience and didn't vote in the 2016 presidential primary election, but by challenging Whitmer from the left, he is hoping to prove that a Democratic socialist platform can capture voters in the Midwest. His platform is very similar to that of Ocasio-Cortez, who toppled one of the most powerful House Democrats earlier this summer: support for abolishing the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, also known as ICE; legalizing marijuana; implementing a single-payer health care system, i.e. "Medicare for All"; and increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour.
Though there's the perception that Whitmer is a centrist Democrat, she was among the most liberal lawmakers during her time at the Michigan Senate and House of Representatives. However, throughout her gubernatorial bid she's really leaned in on the idea of bipartisanship and trying to work with Republicans in an effort to court independent voters. El-Sayed, on the other hand, contests that Democrats should focus on their core voters instead of trying to convince independents and moderate Republicans. (This is a strategy that worked for Stacey Abrams in Georgia, though arguably El-Sayed is more to the left than her.)
In many ways, the race represents the questions that the fractured Democratic party has struggled with internally ever since President Donald Trump's major upset in the general election nearly two years ago. But if anything, it's also very important to note every candidate in the gubernatorial race are more liberal than some Democrats in other parts of the country.
That alone can be a win for progressives, particularly since Michigan is one of the Democratic Party's main targets this election cycle. On one hand, the state went for Trump in 2016 — to the shock of the Hillary Clinton campaign and most of the establishment. Since then, however, the president has become unpopular. (As of June, he held a 52% disapproval and a 44% approval, per Morning Consult.) Someone who is also deeply unpopular is Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, in part due to the Flint water crisis. He's on his way out due to term-limits and Democrats are hoping voters will also sour on Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, the frontrunner in the Republican primary.
On Tuesday, Democratic voters in Michigan will decide the party's primaries, including its competitive gubernatorial race. Based on absentee balloting figures, experts have predicted there will be a record primary turnout.
While Whitmer is poised to win the primary per the most recent polls, El-Sayed's supporters are confident that he can pull an upset à la Ocasio-Cortez and even similar to Sen. Sanders in the 2016 presidential primary. But no matter what happens on Tuesday, Democrats are keeping their eye on the prize: Come November, a blue wave could sweep Michigan. The only thing left to see is who will lead it.