Michigan's governor: The 2020 candidates are 'missing an opportunity'

Ben Werschkul
DC Producer

Last week, Michigan’s governor gave the Democrats’ response to President Trump’s State of the Union address. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer focused her remarks on Democratic accomplishments at the state level.

On Sunday, she expanded on her speech in an interview with Yahoo Finance’s Rick Newman – and she had some choice words for the field looking to replace the president.

“When I watch the debate and people run down the rabbit hole on one particular issue that isn't salient to people at their dinner tables,” she said, “they're missing an opportunity to connect with people in the focus on things that really are going to improve people's lives.”

Trump carried Michigan in 2016 by just over 10,000 votes, among almost 5 million cast. Whitmer swept into office in 2018 with a nearly 10-point victory to put the Michigan statehouse back into Democratic hands.

The governor’s comments pointed to a divide between some for her gubernatorial colleagues, who gathered this weekend for the annual National Governors Association winter meeting in Washington, D.C., and the 2020 presidential campaigns. Several governors made runs for the White House but failed to gain traction. Only former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick remains in the field and he generally polls below 1%.

Gretchen Whitmer ran for Governor as a friend of the auto industry. She toured the 2019 The North American International Auto Show in Detroit in 2019 (TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)

“We're governors, we're partial to people who run things, other executives,” said Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo in another interview with Yahoo Finance. Raimondo has thrown her support behind Mike Bloomberg and organized a meeting this weekend between the former New York City Mayor and her colleagues on the sidelines of the event.

A focus on infrastructure

One of the biggest topics during the weekend’s events was infrastructure. It came up again and again in interview after interview and from the stage. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo even joked during a panel with Speaker Nancy Pelosi that they needed a new word. "That word doesn't have the appeal we need to seduce all our partners," he said.

Infrastructure was never discussed in Friday’s presidential debate, according to a transcript.

“I ran on fixing the damn roads, and I didn't coin the phrase because it was poll tested,” says Whitmer. “That's just how everyone talks about our roads.”

Part of the challenge for the 2020 field in talking about the issue might be the price tag and the need for additional taxes. Whitmer is hoping to get a new gas tax instituted in her state to pay for improvements but she has run into resistance.

“People are very suspicious that when you send dollars to our state capitals, they don't actually get to the problem they're supposed to solve,” she said.

Mulling their choices

Democrats control 24 governorships around the country and, by and large, have stayed out of the presidential race thus far.

Raimondo has endorsed Bloomberg. Joe Biden has gained the endorsements of governors in New York, Delaware, and Connecticut. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar has gained the support of her home state governor, Tim Walz.

Three current or former governors ran for president last year before dropping out: Steve Bullock of Montana, John Hickenlooper of Colorado, and Jay Inslee of Washington. None of the three have chosen to endorse.

Whitmer, likewise, has not picked a candidates and didn’t sound focused on the race. Yahoo Finance asked different governors a series of questions. One key question was: what’s the number one thing you need from Washington?

Whitmer had a very specific answer that had nothing to do with the 2020 race.

“I think we need investment to protect the Great Lakes,” she said, adding, “the Soo Locks is one aspect of ensuring that our Great Lakes are able to be such an important part of our national security, and our ability to move steel and iron.”

Ben Werschkul is a producer for Yahoo Finance in Washington, DC.

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