Staring at the computer on Thursday night watching the Democratic debate for Michigan governor, a realization hit. Abdul El-Sayed could win this primary.

It’s not that Gretchen Whitmer hasn’t been a public servant with a strong record. Or that she’d be a terrible choice of governor if you’re a Democrat. She’s running up against forces out of her control, forces that the party and the country and part are wrestling with nationally. As there isn’t much policy daylight between the candidates, this race may come down to just how strong those forces are.

And Abdul El-Sayed might just be strong enough of a candidate to capitalize on those larger political winds.

For a variety of reasons, the reality is that the base of both political parties cares little for the moneyed establishment. The party’s decision-making power is waning, and primaries are about the base of the party and turning out folks to vote.

Let’s not forget. Bernie Sanders won Michigan in 2016 and the polls were spectacularly wrong. So my gut says traditional polls are not a great guide for picking up the whims of progressive voters — and there haven’t been many polls this cycle. In some cases, the polls were off 20 or 30 points here in 2016.

That’s not a margin of error. That’s a guess. 

Whitmer has a compelling and interesting story. Going through their policies, the candidates don’t have that many differences. But her campaign comes off as the definition of the establishment. She has almost every single endorsement of the unions and of other Democratic politicians in the party. She’s the party’s choice.

In past years that’d be a huge asset. I don’t know if it is a guarantee of victory in these times. Both political parties are struggling with the Iron Law of Institutions.

For the Democrats, it’s not just the Michigan Bernie victory in 2016. Another is the establishment and union pick for Attorney General went down in flames back in April, with Dana Nessel becoming the first openly gay candidate for Michigan statewide office.

Detroit is crucial.

Democrats can’t win a general statewide election without a strong African-American and Detroit turnout.

The Whitmer campaign has to know this. There have been a couple of reports of rising star Garlin Gilchrist II being vetted by the Whitmer campaign as Lieutenant Governor. The former Barack Obama campaign organizer and failed (only by a little bit) candidate for Detroit City Clerk, Gilchrist II is someone I pegged early to be more successful than people thought and has grassroots support.

The irony of that move — if true — is that the same energy I felt when I met Garlin, I felt that when I met Abdul.

Abdul’s Achilles Heel?

The suburbs and outstate voters are where Abdul El-Sayed’s Achilles Heel could be. Will Michiganders look past the fact he’s Muslim if nominated? Many Democrats openly talk about the fact they don’t think a Muslim can win in Michigan. That Whitmer is the right choice to win in the general. Or that Gretchen can bring more people into the tent.

And they have a point. Tension among the state’s general electorate is real, with places like Sterling Heights getting the nickname “Saudi Heights” and the spotlight on Hamtramck having a majority Muslim city council.

I’d expect the national spotlight on our worst prejudices if El-Sayed is nominated. Pundits and activists from around the country will swarm into the state. Money on both sides would flow into what could become an active battleground in America’s modern civil war of identity politics. Unlike Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York, this isn’t a House seat. This is a governorship responsible for millions of people.

One of the things about Abdul’s pitch I take issue with is that he asks, in relation to Whitmer’s 527 funding mechanism “Build A Better Michigan,” what deals were cut behind the scenes with Blue Cross Blue Shield.

Those donors to the 527 should be voluntarily disclosed. Most of the coverage around the campaign omits the very important detail that Gretchen Whitmer’s father is the longtime former CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, Dick Whitmer. I don’t think she had to cut a deal for support. She’s literally family. If they didn’t support her it’d be surprising.

Not to mention, Blue Cross Blue Shield’s executive team actively supported Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, and there’s no love lost between Duggan and El-Sayed over difference of opinion on corporate financing, water shutoffs and lead issues around the demolition program.

The fireworks of that relationship would be very interesting to watch with a El-Sayed primary victory.


Gretchen Whitmer’s best insurance of primary victory is the existence of Shri Thanedar. If he siphons off enough votes, it’s a very hard path for Abdul El-Sayed. 

I haven’t talked about him much in this piece, and I could eat a lot of crow later, but I don’t see a scenario where Thanedar wins right now. He hasn’t captured the national attention or support of the Democratic Socialist movement. This election will, however, raise his name ID for future endeavors — as it will for El-Sayed. This probably will not be the last we see of either man.

At the risk of sounding cliche, this race isn’t a lock. Which kind of Democrat shows up to the ballot box on August 7 may very well decide the nomination.

Share this post