For years, the so-called Blue Wall states — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — have been not just politically but also emotionally important for Democrats. With the party poised to enact a new primary lineup that includes Michigan in an early slot, the state has grown even more important for Democrats.
In many ways, Michigan offers a microcosm of American politics. It includes a diverse population of over 10 million people and a mix of big, medium and smaller urban areas, along with diverse suburbs and rural areas.
For Democrats, much of the debate about running in and winning big northern industrial states is that we have to choose a style of campaign. Either we talk to blue-collar voters about issues like economics and manufacturing, or we talk to suburban women about abortion. Either we use progressive issues to turn out our base, or we take moderate positions on issues to persuade people in the middle.
There is a model for running an effective campaign in Michigan and states like it — and it involves rejecting many of these false choices.
Gretchen Whitmer illustrated that model in Michigan this year. With her midterm victory, she has now had two decisive general-election wins in a critical Blue Wall state. Last month, she won by 10.6 points (a margin bested by only two Democratic presidential candidates in the last 50 years, Barack Obama in 2008 and Bill Clinton in 1996).
She ran on economics and abortion, increased Democratic turnout and persuaded swing voters, all while connecting with the party’s largest base: Black voters. She embodied the way smart campaigns in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and around the country operated this cycle, and she gave a blueprint for Democrats in 2024.
The first lesson of Ms. Whitmer’s campaign is that economic good news and development — especially building things — really make a difference. Democrats should run on American manufacturing: Whether it was a new semiconductor plant (to help ease the chip shortage facing the auto industry) or generational-level investments from G.M. in electric-vehicle battery plants (to make sure the critical supply chains for electric cars will be based in Michigan, not China, where many E.V. batteries are currently built), Ms. Whitmer fought to bring them to Michigan.
In in multiple TV ads, she told voters, “I can’t solve the inflation problem, but we’re doing things — right now — to help.” She listed tangible benefits that she proposed or got done, like more affordable community college, insurance refunds and tax cuts for seniors. She passed four balanced, bipartisan budgets with no tax increases, and she let voters know about that.
A lot of Democrats talked about economics across the country, but few did so as consistently and effectively as Ms. Whitmer. And it wasn’t just talk: When businesses opened, she was often there to celebrate them.
This was paired with a pocketbook attack. Her opponent, Tudor Dixon, took millions of dollars from the wildly unpopular (in Michigan) billionaire Betsy DeVos and her family. For months her campaign highlighted Ms. Dixon’s connections to Ms. DeVos and how Ms. Dixon’s tax plan would benefit Ms. DeVos and hurt the middle class — working-class tax hikes, cuts to schools and the like. Ms. Whitmer also highlighted abortion rights as a vote-deciding issue for swing voters. Again, this was not just talk. Through a ballot initiative, Michigan voters faced the decision on whether to place abortion protections in the state Constitution. Voters approved changing the state Constitution with strong support (57 percent).
Months before the Dobbsdecision overturned Roe v. Wade and could have effectively banned abortion in Michigan (because of a dormant law from the 1930s), Ms. Whitmer sued and got courts to block enforcement of that law. No doubt the issue helped Michigan Democrats and progressives to catalyze turnout. Estimates from the U.S. Elections Project show overall turnout in 2022 was down about 6 percent from the 2018 midterm, but in Michigan, turnout was up nearly 5 percent.
Ms. Whitmer also developed a deep connection with Black voters well before she picked as her running mate and governing partner the state’s first Black lieutenant governor, Garlin Gilchrist. After winning Black voters decisively with high turnout in 2018, she deepened that connection. The “Big Gretch” song (“We ain’t even about to stress/we got Big Gretch”) and memes that came out of Black Michigan spoke to a deep appreciation Black voters had for her decisiveness in the pandemic to keep people safe.
This was on top of a lot of other work to help Black voters, things like bringing the first new auto plant to Detroit in 30 years and making sure Detroiters had a first crack at the plant’s jobs.
This did not come at the expense of talking to white voters: She won Macomb County, ground zero for voters who cast ballots for Barack Obama, then switched to Donald Trump, by about 60 percent more in 2022 from 2018.
What Ms. Whitmer has done in Michigan can be done by Democrats across the country. We can talk about economics and abortion, we can invest in turnout and persuasion, and we can strengthen our appeal to voters of color while winning over white voters.
Brian Stryker (@BrianStryker) is a partner at Impact Research and a strategist for Gretchen Whitmer, Tim Ryan and Mandela Barnes, among others.
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