After President Donald Trump delivers the 2020 State of the Union address Tuesday evening, many Americans will be introduced to a less-familiar face: Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who’s set to deliver the Democratic Party’s response to Trump.
Giving the State of the Union response speech is a coveted job. It gives Whitmer, not yet well known on the national stage, a chance to make herself known to a wider audience. And for the Democratic Party more broadly, it’s an opportunity to contrast their views with those of the President — and to signal their intended vision for the future of the party.
What might the Democrats be signaling as priorities with their selection of Whitmer as State of the Union responder? While running for governor in 2018 Whitmer’s priorities included infrastructure and healthcare reform — during her campaign, she told voters that she aimed to “fix the damn roads” and make it easier to access medical care. Whitmer will be giving the speech from East Lansing High School, which her daughters attend — perhaps signaling her commitment to public schools.
Whitmer herself told reporters Tuesday that she plans to highlight the accomplishments of her fellow Democrats, especially related to jobs, health care and infrastructure. She said that she thinks she was chosen as a result of her political beliefs and position in Michigan.
“I think [Speaker Nancy Pelosi] asked me because everyone in the world understands how important Michigan is in this year in particular, this election year. But also I ran on dinner table issues, and those resonate with people all across our country,” Whitmer said.
Whitmer’s home state of Michigan, meanwhile, is seen as a major battleground in the 2020 election. Although President Barack Obama won the state in 2008 and 2012, Michigan went for President Trump in 2016. However, Whitmer and other female candidates in the state reclaimed a number of seats for Democrats in 2018.
Headed into another election cycle, Democrats hope to repeat that success not only in Michigan, but also in other swing states, like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, says Aaron Kall, the director of debate at the University of Michigan.
“They’re looking to recapture some of the magic from the successful 2018 midterm elections, in hopes they spill over to the upcoming 2020 general election,” says Kall.
During her campaign, Whitmer also worked to appeal to blue-collar workers, who could prove a vital bloc for Democrats in 2020. She “won back a lot of Obama-Trump voters, in addition to maximizing Democratic turnout,” says Matt Grossmann, the director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University. “So she’s sort of politically representative of a lot of things Democrats are trying to accomplish in 2020.”
Simply being selected to give the Democratic State of the Union response elevates Whitmer’s status as an up-and-comer. And at 48, Whitmer is fairly young — especially compared to some of this year’s Democratic presidential candidates — and could be viewed as a future star for the party.
“If not this cycle, certainly in the future, I think there will definitely be talk about her as a vice presidential or presidential candidate, given [her] age, the electoral significance of Michigan,” says Kall.
However, Kall and Grossmann both note that giving the State of the Union response is a notoriously risky move for politicians on the ascent. Giving the response wound up propelling Former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton’s careers, but many other past responders have since faded into relative obscurity. “It’s just the only opportunity — the only first opportunity — for this kind of speech. You don’t really have a second chance,” says Kall.