Politics

Power of Progressive Left on Ballot in Michigan Governor’s Race

Underdog with endorsements from key progressives will test establishment

Abdul El-Sayed
Abdul El-Sayed / Getty Images

The electoral might of the left will be put to the test Tuesday in Michigan, as the Democratic primary pits a progressive candidate with endorsements from socialists Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez up against an establishment Democrat backed by the state's party and union allies.

Abdul El-Sayed, 33, is a "product of Michigan schools" who later became the city of Detroit's public health director, according to his campaign website. Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez have been actively campaigning on El-Sayed's behalf in the last week. If he were to win the primary and go on to win in November, he would be the first Muslim governor in America.

"On August 7th, let's show Michigan and this nation what is possible and elect @AbdulElSayed to be the next Governor of Michigan," Sanders tweeted on Sunday, along with a video of the senator speaking to a packed auditorium urging the crowd to vote for El-Sayed. Ocasio-Cortez, a self-described Democratic-socialist, campaigned for El-Sayed in Grand Rapids, Flint, and Detroit the week prior.

To claim the upset and win the nomination, El-Sayed will have to knock off Gretchen Whitmer, a former minority leader of the Michigan senate whose endorsements list on her website runs deep.

"Absolutely she's the establishment candidate," said Steve Mitchell, a Michigan pollster for over three decades. "She's got the endorsement of the mayor of Detroit, former governors, she's got the endorsement of the unions."

Complicating the chance of a progressive upset is Shri Thanedar, another anti-establishment progressive in the race. He may be Whitmer's key to prevent being outflanked from the left: The 63-year-old Thandear is self-funding his campaign, thanks to a fortune made in the chemicals business.

Mitchell said whatever momentum El-Sayed may have from the Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez endorsements and campaign appearances will likely be muted by a split vote between the two progressive candidates.

"We'll see whether or not the progressive candidates [El-Sayed and Thandear] combined get more votes than Gretchen Whitmer, and that will be a telling tale on this, because if they do then that's an indication a single progressive might have been able to win," Mitchell added. "If she gets 50 percent of the vote, it probably wasn't there anyway."

As with many of the establishment-versus-progressive intraparty battles across the country, one of the defining issues is health care. El-Sayed touts his support for a ‘Medicare for all' plan, while Whitmer's campaign website says she supports expanded Medicaid.

"It would have been interesting to see what happened with Whitmer on that issue of ‘Medicare for all' had she had only one opponent as to two," Mitchell said. "Her father was a president-CEO of Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Michigan at one point. So she also raised a large amount of money from executives at Blue Cross/Blue Shield, and needless to say, they're not supporting ‘Medicare for all.'"

"So far this year, multiple Blue Cross Blue Shield executives donated more than $48,000 to her campaign," a recent report from the Washington Post noted. "In total this year, Blue Cross Blue Shield employees have given her a combined $120,000."

The Post also recently reported that the "Medicare for all" push in many of the governor's races across the country has given the debate a higher prominence.

"Yet while Democrats running for the House and Senate talk about Medicare for all in aspirational terms, as a post-Trump national goal, liberal candidates for governor suggest that their states could quickly become laboratories for universal coverage," the Post report said. "After years of bristling at questions about higher taxes and ‘government-run health care,' they’re leading with their chins—and the proposals they invite voters to read on their websites."

Republicans, meanwhile, have been touting a recent report that pegged the price of a single-payer health system at $32 trillion over a 10-year period.

The GOP side of the ballot is believed to offer far less drama on Tuesday, where Bill Schuette, Michigan's current attorney general, is the presumed front-runner and is expected to win the GOP nod.

Michigan's current governor, Republican Rick Snyder, is term-limited.