What It Was Like To Ride The Blue Wave On Election Day

DETROIT ― The email arrived a little after 9 a.m. on Election Day. It was an update from Lori Goldman, a Democratic political activist from the northern Detroit suburbs. She was so upset, she said, that she was feeling physically ill.

Just weeks before, Goldman had been confident of victory ― for an abortion rights initiative on the ballot, for Democrats running for the U.S. House and state legislature and, especially, for incumbent Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. But now Goldman was hearing from friends and neighbors unsure of their votes and, in the governor’s race, contemplating Whitmer’s Republican opponent, former right-wing commentator Tudor Dixon. 

“I hope I am wrong,” Goldman told me, “but I fear I am not.”

I was in no position to argue. At the time, I was at a polling place in Brighton, Michigan, in one of the state’s more conservative counties. It was the first of several I planned to visit on Election Day as I made my way from the state capital in Lansing, where Whitmer had held a launch event for door-to-door canvassers, to Detroit, where she would address supporters at the Motor City Casino Hotel. 

The campaign hoped it would be a victory rally. But Whitmer’s lead in the public polls had shrunk from double digits to single, with some surveys reporting a lead of just 1 or 2 percentage points. Dixon’s supporters were flooding social media with gleeful, sometimes taunting messages about the impending wipeout for Whitmer. 

They were difficult to ignore, especially with Democratic prospects across the country apparently diminishing at the same time. The party had fallen behind in the generic congressional polls, while modeling from outfits like FiveThirtyEight were predicting a Republican takeover of both House and Senate, as well as key state positions, for the first time in months.

But at 8 p.m., the polls closed in most of Michigan, as they did in many other states. And soon a very different storyline emerged. Around the country, it was about a red wave that never materialized. In Michigan, it was about a blue wave that made history.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks at a campaign rally Monday at Michigan State University in East Lansing, her last stop before Election Day.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks at a campaign rally Monday at Michigan State University in East Lansing, her last stop before Election Day.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks at a campaign rally Monday at Michigan State University in East Lansing, her last stop before Election Day.

The Democratic attorney general and secretary of state defeated their MAGA challengers easily. The abortion rights ballot initiative passed, and so did one to shore up voting rights. Rep. Elissa Slotkin and other U.S. House Democrats in tough reelection races eked out victories while another Democrat, Hillary Scholten, took a GOP seat. Democrats even won majorities in both the houses of the legislature, giving them full control for the first time since 1983.

As for Whitmer, a governor who’d faced vitriolic opposition from Republicans in Washington and Lansing, not to mention a kidnapping plot by right-wing extremists, she won with more than 54% of the popular vote and finished more than 10 points ahead of Dixon. That was bigger than Whitmer’s winning margin in 2018, the year of intense voter backlash against President Donald Trump. It was also bigger than President Joe Biden’s margin in 2020 or President Barack Obama’s in 2012, just three years after he’d saved the auto industry.

“It is hard to overstate the enormity of the Democrats’ victory on Tuesday,” Jeff Timmer, former director of the state GOP and longtime adviser to its candidates, told me afterward. “It was top to bottom, it was sweeping, it was generational in terms of its size and importance.”

It’s tempting to describe these results as stunning, especially given voter discontent over crime and inflation, fatigue from the COVID-19 pandemic, not to mention the usual “thermostatic” desire by voters to vote against the party in power. 

In reality, the outcome makes perfect sense. 

In Dixon, Republicans had nominated an inexperienced candidate whose ideologically extreme positions and Trumpy rhetoric thrilled the party’s base but alienated everybody else. In Whitmer, Democrats had a disciplined veteran of government whom the majority of Michiganders had come to trust over her first four years in office ― not because they agreed with everything she did but because they identified with her, believed she was on their side and saw her fighting to protect them. 

That was especially true when it came to reproductive rights.

It’s no stretch to say that the most influential force in Michigan’s election was the U.S. Supreme Court, whose decision in June to overturn Roe v. Wade made abortion rights the top issue in the election. It drove Democrats, independents and even some Republicans to the polls, in record numbers, where they voted in favor of the abortion rights amendment and for politicians like Whitmer who believed in it. Leading the coalition were younger voters and women who understood access to legal abortion was in jeopardy and refused to let it happen.

The signs of that backlash were there all along, even if the day-to-day noise sometimes made it hard to notice. And the signs were there on Election Day, too, in the college town of Ann Arbor and in the upscale suburb of Northville, in heavily Democratic Detroit and, yes, even in Republican-leaning Brighton. 

BRIGHTON, 9 AM

Brighton sits in the swath of rural Michigan between Detroit and Lansing, in a corner of traditionally conservative Livingston County. But there are pockets of Democratic voters here and there. On my way in, the first political sign I spot is a makeshift Elissa Slotkin billboard ― this is part of her district ― positioned to catch drivers as they exit the highway.

There’s a particular polling place that I’ve staked out before because county records show voters have split evenly in the last few cycles. In the past I’ve collected a sizable sample of partisans from both sides.

Not today. 

Jessica Wier, 48, works in insurance. She is worried about prices rising faster than her paycheck ― “food, insurance has gone up, gas obviously.” She says that “election integrity” is also a big concern, and though she doesn’t specify what she means by that, she adds that she is “pro-life” and that she votes for candidates whose values line up with hers.

Sean Marks, 54, works for a trucking accessory company. He describes himself as a conservative on economic issues and shares the worries about inflation. He’s not just here to vote. He’s also campaigning for his wife, who is running for school board on a platform to get back to basics, which he explains means avoiding “all the politics” that have seeped in.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon gives a thumbs up during a
Republican gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon gives a thumbs up during a

Republican gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon gives a thumbs up during a "Save America" rally on Oct. 1 in Warren, Michigan. Trump endorsed Dixon, secretary of state nominee Kristina Karamo and attorney general candidate Matthew DePerno, who all lost their races. He also endorsed Republican House candidate John James, who narrowly won.

Jo Collar, 61, talks about her children and grandchildren ― and her fears for them, whether it’s tied to stories she’s heard about COVID-19 vaccines causing deadly blood clots or the threats of “pedophiles and the sex trade,” as well as illegal drugs.

Collar concedes that she was suspicious of Whitmer from the get-go because “her daddy with all of that money got her put into office.” (Whitmer’s father served in government and then became a top executive at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan). But, Collar says, Whitmer “was even worse, she did so much harm to our state.” 

I’ve heard variations on these sentiments before, at Dixon campaign events and a Detroit area rally that Trump held in early October ― from attendees and, especially, from the candidate. Inflation and crime have been big themes of Dixon’s campaign, as they have been for Republicans around the country. So has the state of the public schools, especially in the closing weeks when Dixon fused her long-running attacks on Whitmer over COVID-19 closures with a new set of attacks about alleged “indoctrination” and sexualization of students by “radical gender and sexual activists.”

She did so much harm to our state.Jo Collar, Brighton voter, on Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

Dixon has been trying to tap into some widespread concerns over what children are learning ― and not learning ― in the public schools, not to mention lingering unhappiness over the effects of Whitmer’s pandemic orders. And those arguments have certainly played well at the GOP rallies.

The question then, as now, has been whether they appealed to voters who aren’t die-hard supporters. And it’s getting hard to tell that sort of thing on Election Day, because Democrats are a lot more likely to take advantage of Michigan’s new early voting possibilities ― meaning, they’re not available to talk with journalists hanging out at the precinct.

But then I meet John Harrington. He’s 57, a lawyer and describes himself as middle of the road politically ― eager, he says, to see “sensible” people in government. He’s not seeing that in the Republican candidates, he tells me, because they are espousing QAnon conspiracy theories and refusing to recognize the 2020 presidential election as legitimate. 

“The most important thing to me is keeping the radicals out of office,” Harrington says. “People like Tudor Dixon and the other people running, they’re just too extreme for me.”

Later I will learn that Dixon won Livingston County, as expected, but by only 13 percentage points. Two years ago, Trump won here by twice as much.

ANN ARBOR, 2 PM

I head to Ann Arbor, about 20 minutes to the south and onto the campus of the University of Michigan, where students are waiting for same-day registration at the university’s art museum.

They have formed a line that stretches for about 50 yards, and it’s actually longer than it appears because it also snakes inside the building, where a pair of faculty members and their students have created a voting-themed exhibit. As the students sit on benches in front of art preaching civic values, the students are sitting with their laptops open, fiddling with their phones, chatting or staring into space with headphones on. 

The ones at the front say they have been waiting for longer than three hours. Others will wait longer. The last student in line will arrive just before 8 p.m. ― and vote at 2 a.m., according to a report from the Michigan Daily

Kyndal Hernandez, a first-year student, says she is in line to votefor Proposal 3, the state constitutional amendment that would protect reproductive freedom, as well as on climate issues, because “I’m a woman and I wouldn’t want government taking away our rights.” Emma Sternquist, a sophomore, says she is here “mostly for Prop. 3 and all the pro-choice candidates.”

The students have support. Jordan Acker, a Democrat who is an elected member of the university’s Board of Regents, arrives with pizzas around lunchtime. Along with fellow Democratic regent Michael Behm, he’ll replenish the supply throughout the day. 

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Debbie Dingell, the longtime Democratic U.S. House member whose district includes the university, sends water. Later she tells students she can write letters for them, asking professors to excuse any who had to miss class, assignments or tests.

Jason Morgan, 33, is a Democratic county commissioner running for State House. He also got here a little before noon with campaign material, in the hopes of catching students on their way to the polls. He’s handing out slices, too, using a flipped-over campaign sign as a serving tray. 

“This level of enthusiasm, it’s just amazing,” he says.

Nobody is surprised that college students are voting Democrat or feel strongly about abortion rights. But especially in the last few weeks of the campaign, as polls showed Democrats slipping, pundits and political professionals across the country were second-guessing Democrats who had made reproductive rights such a focus.

And probably none made it more of a focus than Whitmer, a longtime advocate for reproductive rights who spoke frequently about her experience as a rape victim fearing a pregnancy ― and she reminded voters at every turn that Dixon believed in banning abortion, even in cases of rape or incest. For one of their televised debates, Whitmer showed up wearing a “Roevember” shirt.

Now it looks like Whitmer and the other Democrats prioritizing abortion made a smart decision. Two of her biggest crowds were at universities ― an appearance at UM on the Friday before the election that drew an estimated 1,000 people and then a final campaign rally at her alma mater, Michigan State.

MSU has big lines on Election Day, too. The votes that students cast there will be enough to account for a big chunk of Slotkin’s eventual winning margin, which will be just 20,000 votes.

As for UM, local officials will later report that 3,000 students registered and voted on Election Day alone, accounting for one-fifth of the 15,000 who did so statewide. 

NORTHVILLE, 4 PM

The story of Whitmer’s 2018 win was in many ways the story of Oakland County, which forms the northwest, most upscale quadrant of Detroit’s metropolitan area. Oakland was a Republican stronghold as recently as 2014, when it backed Rick Snyder in the governor’s race over Democrat Mark Schauer.

But Snyder was a businessman and party outsider. Since then, Oakland has been part of the national transformation of American politics, with its relatively well-educated, disproportionately professional population increasingly backing Democrats against an increasingly Trump-centric Republican Party.

In 2016, Oakland voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton for president; in 2018, it backed Whitmer for governor. Lori Goldman, the panicked Democratic activist who had emailed me in the morning, was part of that process. She helped establish a group called Fems for Dems that rallied women to support Democrats as a bulwark against the agenda of Trump-era Republicans.

The backlash that resulted didn’t just put Whitmer into office; it elected a whole slate of women, many new to politics. Slotkin was part of this wave, as was Haley Stevens, who won an adjacent House district. Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson were part of this group. And then there was a list of new state legislators, probably the best known of whom is Mallory McMorrow, who gained national attention and now appears regularly on cable news after giving a stirring floor speech responding to a Republican who had attacked her support of LGBTQ rights.

It is hard to overstate the enormity of the Democrats’ victory. It was top to bottom, it was sweeping, it was generational in terms of its size and importance.Jeff Timmer, consultant and former director of Michigan's Republican Party

Nobody thinks Dixon can actually win Oakland County. But she could soften Whitmer’s support there, either by depressing turnout or winning converts, especially among those unhappy about the schools or how Whitmer handled the coronavirus pandemic.

To test that proposition, I make my way to Northville, a city that straddles Oakland and adjacent Wayne Counties and that Democratic strategists have told me they are watching for signs of enthusiasm. Louise Travis, 89, provides one, excitedly telling me that she’s voting for Whitmer because “she doesn’t back off … she’s strong.” 

Travis is old enough to remember what a difference the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision made. “It would not be my personal choice,” Travis says of abortion. “But I believe every woman has a right to choose. And I don’t believe there’s any member of the male community who should have any say about what a woman does with her body.”

Reproductive rights is also the top issue for Suzanne LaFrance, 39. “With Proposal 3, if you vote against it, you’re taking away rights from women, and in my opinion that should not be a political issue. It’s very personal, very private.”

I ask about Whitmer’s pandemic management and whether it was making anyone have second thoughts. 

“People criticize her for how the pandemic was handled, but no one knew what to do with that, so she did what she felt was the right to do,” LaFrance says. “She’s even come out and made statements that, yes, some things could have been done differently. And it is very important for a leader to admit, OK, we learned from that. No one’s perfect the first time around.”

In 2018, Whitmer carried Oakland by a little more than 100,000 votes. 

In 2022, the margin will be 150,000.

DETROIT, 6 PM

A Democrat can’t win Michigan without a strong showing in Detroit. But Whitmer is from Lansing and spent much of her childhood on the western side of the state. In the 2018 Democratic primary, she actually came in second among the city’s voters. And while she did fine in the general election, many Detroit voters didn’t really know her yet. She was a face they vaguely recognized from ads, or maybe just a name with a (D) on the ballot.

Outside a precinct in the city’s historic Virginia Park neighborhood, it doesn’t take very long to see how much that has changed.

Latasha Harrington, 49, says she has Whitmer to thank for lower auto insurance rates (Whitmer signed a high-profile, bipartisan auto insurance reform bill in 2019) and has noticed badly needed construction on the streets she takes to work (Whitmer’s signature campaign promise was to “fix the damn roads”). 

Whitmer has talked about these sorts of kitchen table issues a lot, while the campaign has run ads touting her as a steady, reliable steward of the state’s economy. Aides keep saying the message resonates with voters, even though it rarely gets buzz in the press. Exit polling will eventually show voters found Whitmer both more likable and more likely to solve problems, according to the Detroit Free Press.

Robert Hillery, 50, is a Detroit public school teacher. He mentions a visit to his school that Whitmer and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist made early in their administration and says new state programs have meant more learning resources for his kids. 

Hillery adds that he appreciates the way Whitmer handled COVID and doesn’t have a lot of patience for critics who protested her decisions or still hold them against her. “It was a situation where no one knew exactly what the right answers were,” Hillery says. “And I was always taught to err on the side of caution.” 

I feel like she knows what our lives are like.Shandar Snow, Detroit voter, on Whitmer

That reservoir of goodwill toward Whitmer is something strategists have said is among her best political assets and what has kept her personal favorability ratings above 50%. And though it’s impossible to pinpoint why some voters give her the benefit of the doubt, many seem to identify with her in one way or another ― and believe the governor identifies with them.

“I just know that she’s been helping us out, here in the community, and making sure that we keep our rights as women,” says Shandar Snow, 29, who is a student at Central Michigan University. “She’s a woman with children, and she’s familiar with that. I just appreciate that about her. I feel like she knows what our lives are like.”

For the Whitmer campaign, the big concern about Detroit has always been making sure supporters go to the polls. In 2016, lower-than-expected turnout among Black voters left Hillary Clinton without the cushion she needed to sustain Trump’s surge elsewhere in the state. 

To avoid a repeat, Democrats this year made sure Obama included Detroit on his itinerary of campaign stops ― and then, on the weekend before Election Day, brought in actor Kerry Washington to lead a get-out-the-vote effort. But even with those efforts, turnout as of late afternoon is looking “soft,” one Democratic operative tells me.

The Democrats send out one last wave of door-to-door canvassers, part of an operation that has been able to focus on lower-propensity voters because Democrats ― unlike Republicans ― encouraged their most committed supporters to vote early. 

As polls close, reports suggest turnout has picked up again ― although, by then, it’s becoming clear Whitmer may not need such a big boost from the city after all.

DETROIT, 8 PM

In precinct after precinct, Democratic officials are seeing the same story: Whitmer is ahead of Dixon by larger margins than she beat Republican Bill Schuette by in 2018. 

Over the course of the next few hours, the question at headquarters and among supporters changes, from whether Whitmer will win, to whether she’ll win big, to whether Democrats in close U.S. House races will prevail, to whether Proposal 3 will pass, to whether the Democrats will take control of the state Senate (long thought possible) and House (long thought nearly impossible).

The answer to every single question will be yes. And it’s emblematic of what’s happening all across the country ― with voters rejecting Republican conspiracy theorists and election deniers, and electing Democrats who will protect reproductive rights.

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer celebrate at an election night watch party early Wednesday at a Detroit hotel. Whitmer defeated Republican challenger Tudor Dixon.
Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer celebrate at an election night watch party early Wednesday at a Detroit hotel. Whitmer defeated Republican challenger Tudor Dixon.

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer celebrate at an election night watch party early Wednesday at a Detroit hotel. Whitmer defeated Republican challenger Tudor Dixon.

Back in Michigan, the Whitmer campaign faces one last dilemma. Fox News has called the race for Whitmer. The rest of the networks haven’t. With Dixon refusing to concede, they aren’t likely to make a pronouncement well into the morning. 

Whitmer and her staff agree: They can’t ask supporters to stick around any longer. She’ll address the crowd and treat it like a victory speech, without declaring a win just yet.

Around 1 a.m., she and Gilchrist walk onto the stage with their families, with a giant American flag draped behind them and supporters waving campaign signs cheering from below. 

Whitmer is wearing a bright pink blazer with a “Bans off our bodies” lapel pin from Planned Parenthood for America. The entrance song is “Fighter,” by Christina Aguilera. The song was her choice, aides will tell me later.

It’s a defiant song, with a chorus that begins: “Makes me that much stronger, / makes me work a little bit harder. / It makes me that much wiser, / So thanks for making me a fighter.” 

Maybe Whitmer was trying to send a message. Or maybe the song is on her Spotify rotation because just likes the beat. Her aide wouldn’t say. 

Either way, it seems to capture the way her supporters think of her ― and why, on Election Day, they gave her four more years.

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