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Trump vs. the Women Who Lead Michigan: A Battle With 2020 Implications

LANSING, Mich. — Beyond being the women leading Michigan’s state government, Gretchen Whitmer, Dana Nessel and Jocelyn Benson have a lot in common.

All three are Democratic lawyers and part of Generation X, with long lists of accomplishments. Ms. Whitmer was the first woman to lead the Democratic caucus in the State Senate. Ms. Nessel argued before the Supreme Court and helped pave the way for the legalization of same-sex marriage. And Ms. Benson, a Harvard Law School graduate, was the dean of the Wayne State University Law School in Detroit.

By 2018, the three were swept into statewide office on a wave that flipped much of Michigan’s leadership from red to blue and put three women — Ms. Whitmer, the governor; Ms. Nessel, the attorney general; and Ms. Benson, the secretary of state — in charge of running the state for the first time.

Now these women share another distinction: They’re all targets of President Trump.

Trailing in polls to Joseph R. Biden Jr. in this key battleground state, the president has taken aggressive aim at Ms. Whitmer — “that woman from Michigan,” in his words — and her counterparts, zeroing in on their mission to expand voting rights in a state where his 2016 winning margin of just 10,704 votes was the narrowest in the country.

The three women have in turn responded forcefully to Mr. Trump, denouncing his coronavirus response, suing his administration and tangling with him over his maskless appearance at a Ford auto plant. Ms. Whitmer, who has been in the national spotlight as a potential running mate for Mr. Biden, was also a potent foil to Mr. Trump in February, jointly giving the Democratic response to his State of the Union address.

Michigan Democrats believe that the state leaders are a not-so-secret weapon in the 2020 election. They see the president’s frequent barbs — he has called Ms. Nessel “the Wacky Do Nothing Attorney General” and Ms. Benson a “rogue Secretary of State” — as helping fuel the anti-Trump bandwagon in the state, which before 2016 had not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1988.

“We’re enraged. We’re exhausted,” said Lori Goldman, a Bloomfield Township realtor who started the group Fems for Dems with about a half-dozen suburban Michigan women after the 2016 election. “I’m a woman and I feel the sting of how these women leaders are being treated and called names.”

The group, which has grown to more than 8,000 members, worked to elect Ms. Whitmer, Ms. Benson and Ms. Nessel. It also helped flip two congressional seats, as well as five seats each in the State House and Senate, from Republican to Democrat in 2018.

“We are a bunch of dumpy, middle-aged housewives,” Ms. Goldman said. “That’s the one good thing about getting older, you don’t need to have people like you anymore. When you get pissed off, you’re ready to stand up and say something.”

The three elected leaders continue to push back against the Trump administration.

Ms. Whitmer has kept up her criticism of the lack of a federal strategy to fight the coronavirus, which has infected more than 76,000 people and killed more than 6,300 in the state, and spoke out against the president’s comments telling governors to “dominate” demonstrators protesting against police brutality and racial injustice.

On Tuesday, Ms. Whitmer said it was “incumbent on every one of us to mask up, from the White House to the State House,” adding, “the fact that we’re behind the rest of the world is a disgrace.”

Ms. Nessel has joined or filed dozens of lawsuits to reverse policies enacted under Mr. Trump, including one filed Tuesday against the secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, a former chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party, over a rule she instituted reallocating some public school funding to private schools.

Ms. Nessel called Mr. Trump “a petulant child” after he traveled to Ypsilanti in May and declined to wear a mask while touring a Ford Motor Company plant.

“I swear, some days I wake up and think Montgomery Burns is president,” she said, referring to the greedy boss in “The Simpsons.”

Mr. Trump accused her of scaring businesses away from Michigan with her language.

One of the president’s biggest concerns surrounding Michigan in November appears to be Ms. Benson’s actions to ensure voting rights amid the pandemic. She has sent out absentee ballot applications to all 7.7 million voters in the state.

Despite little evidence, Mr. Trump has repeatedly criticized absentee voting as an invitation for election fraud. He has particularly focused on Ms. Benson’s mailing effort, initially threatening to withhold federal money for coronavirus relief before backing off.

In an op-ed article published in Newsweek in late May, Ms. Benson wondered why the president had singled her out when at least six other states were also sending absentee ballot applications to all voters.

“The obvious answer is that Michigan is one of several states that will heavily influence the outcome of this year’s presidential election,” she wrote. “We cannot let misinformation — whether it comes from the White House, the Kremlin or anywhere else — sow seeds of doubt in our elections.”

Others have pointed to another reason for Mr. Trump’s attacks: his history of demeaning prominent women.

“In some ways, it’s not surprising that you’ve got this trifecta of women in leadership, all of whom are Democrats,” said Debbie Walsh, the director at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “All of whom have been exercising leadership in making sure that the state remains healthy and have elections that function.”

She added, “He sees this all as hostile acts against him.”

The three state leaders are not the only women in Michigan whom the president has targeted. He has also repeatedly criticized Mary Barra, the chief executive of General Motors, over her decision to close American auto manufacturing plants and what he perceived as a slow transformation of some plants to make ventilators for virus treatment.

“Women are sharply viewing it as anti-female,” said Richard Czuba, the founder of the Glengariff Group, a nonpartisan polling firm in Lansing. “I can see him going after Whitmer if he’s worried about her being on the ticket. But he has systemically attacked every prominent female politician in Michigan.”

The state and national Republican parties have adopted Mr. Trump’s campaign against the three female leaders, bashing Ms. Whitmer’s handling of the virus, suing her over her use of emergency powers and slamming her frequent appearances on cable news, which they have called an “audition” to become Mr. Biden’s running mate.

G.O.P. leaders have also seized on a comment by Ms. Whitmer’s husband, Marc Mallory — a failed attempt at humor, according to the governor — in which he reportedly tried to exploit his wife’s position to get the family boat put in the water at their northern Michigan vacation home before Memorial Day. Republicans had blue-and-gray beer koozies printed up: “Whitmer Yacht Club … Lockdown for thee, Open waters for me.”

The Republican-controlled Michigan House of Representatives and Senate have threatened to cut funding from Ms. Nessel’s office. A group affiliated with the Michigan Freedom Fund, a conservative advocacy group funded primarily by the DeVos family, has sued Ms. Benson over the absentee ballot and independent redistricting commission issues, both of which were overwhelmingly approved by Michigan voters in 2018.

So far, the courts have rejected the lawsuits, although Republicans are appealing those decisions.

And according to polls, Michiganders are siding with the women.

Stuck at a 43 percent approval rating at the start of 2020, Ms. Whitmer had weathered a difficult 2019, unable to deliver on her signature campaign issue of “fixing the damn roads,” and having lost several crucial budget battles with Republicans in the legislature.

But then the first confirmed coronavirus cases hit the state on March 10, and Ms. Whitmer’s response to the pandemic, including a statewide lockdown announced on March 23, turned the tide in voters’ views of her. Four separate polls taken in April, May and June have shown rising approval ratings, despite several raucous protests against the stay-at-home order at the State Capitol. By June, she was at 60 percent, while Mr. Trump was stuck around 42 percent nationally.

“In a crisis, people rally around their leaders,” said Mr. Czuba, the pollster. “What is unique is that the president is the only leader who hasn’t been rallied around. In one fell swoop, the president helped her consolidate her support.”

The Twitter fights have helped at least one business in Michigan, too.

When the virus hit the state, Ivette Lopez thought she’d have to permanently close the Outdoor Beerdsman, her five-year-old coffee and gift shop in northern Michigan.

But then Mr. Trump’s Twitter war with Ms. Whitmer began, and Ms. Lopez started churning out T-shirts with the slogan “That Woman From Michigan” in her Boyne City home. She has now sold more than 8,000 of them for $20 a pop, including one that Ms. Whitmer wore during an appearance on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah.”

“Without these shirts, I would have closed my business,” Ms. Lopez said. “There’s no way I could have made it through the winter.”

Now, Ms. Whitmer and Ms. Nessel are turning at least some of their attention to defeating Mr. Trump in November. Because of her role as the state’s chief elections officer, Ms. Benson won’t endorse or work for a candidate in the presidential race.

Ms. Whitmer said on a recent campaign call, “We’re all that woman from Michigan, and by the end of this, Donald Trump is going to know not to mess with these women from Michigan.”

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