By Allison Donahue
“Michigan needs a social justice warrior,” state Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) announced to a crowd of Elizabeth Warren fans at a Detroit rally on Super Tuesday. “Warren is a lot like Detroit. She is scrappy; she never gives up; she hopes for better things — and like the phoenix, she will rise.”
And with that, the energetic crowd went wild.
While results from Super Tuesday were starting to roll in, Warren took the stage in a large shed at the Eastern Market, where more than 2,000 people waited to hear her say that there was still a chance to win the nomination.
Warren hadn’t won any states prior to Tuesday and would end up losing all 14 contests that night, but in her own famous words: “Nevertheless, she persisted.”
She stood in front of the crowd and assured them it wasn’t over for her: “I wasn’t born a politician, but I was born a fighter.”
But on Wednesday, Warren announced she was assessing her campaign after another disappointing night. On late Thursday morning, she confirmed she was ending her campaign.
But on that Tuesday night, there was still some hope left in the air. Chang, who endorsed Warren in January, said the progressive Massachusetts U.S. senator is the “best candidate in terms of advancing things from a place of values around opportunity, equity and justice.”
Warren’s race to be the presidential nominee looked a lot different than Chang’s Senate race in 2018, when her opponents in the primary and general elections were both women.
This primary season has been historic with a record number of female candidates running for the 2020 presidential nomination — Warren, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Author Marianne Williamson.
But Americans still asked if a woman can be the president of the United States, especially after Hillary Clinton, the first major-party female Democratic nominee, lost in 2016 to President Donald Trump.
That’s even after 2018, hailed as the second “Year of the Woman” after 1992, when more Democratic women than ever before ran to fill offices from school boards to gubernatorial positions. And in Michigan, many of these women won, starting at the top of the ticket with Gretchen Whitmer as governor.
Now less than two years later, with Gabbard left standing on the presidential stage, the success of women candidates that marked 2018 midterms seems like a faraway dream.
Sexism in 2020
The coverage, or oftentimes lack thereof, of female candidates in 2020 has been a hot topic in recent months, but it’s nothing women running for office haven’t seen before.
“We have amazing women running for president, and I want to make certain that we all do everything we can to make sure that their stories are told, as well, and their ideas and their thoughts about how to make this country truly great again,” Attorney General Dana Nessel said during an April 2019 conference hosted by Women Organize Michigan.
Political pundits and the mainstream media largely left Warren out of national polls and headlines since the Iowa caucuses, despite the fact that she was in the top tier since the early days of the election cycle.
After the Super Tuesday results started to roll in, however, the possibility of Warren winning the presidential nomination looked slim, especially after losing in every primary, including her home state of Massachusetts.
Upon departing the race on Thursday, Warren told reporters that women in politics often face a Catch-22.
“If you say, yeah, there was sexism in this race, everyone says, ‘Whiner,'” she said. “And if you say, ‘No, there was no sexism,’ about a bazillion women think, ‘What planet do you live on?'”
Horserace journalism also wasn’t kind to Warren.
After former Vice President Joe Biden won big in 10 of the 14 Super Tuesday states, MLive published an article well before Warren dropped out, saying it is now a “two-man race” between former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), completely erasing both Warren and Gabbard.
Following the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, Warren was left out of both the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll and the Emerson survey. At the time, Warren had the third-most delegates, behind Sanders and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. But in the poll results, only Buttigieg, Sanders, Biden, Klobuchar and billionaire Mike Bloomberg were tested for their viability against President Donald Trump.
In Michigan, the senator was endorsed by several officials, including Chang, U.S. Rep. Andy Levin (D-Bloomfield Twp.); former U.S. Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Royal Oak); state Rep. Jim Ellison (D-Royal Oak); state Rep. Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia); state Rep. Bill Sowerby (D-Clinton Twp.); state Sen. Rosemary Bayer (D-Beverly Hills); state Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor); and state Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak).
As we approach Michigan’s primary on Tuesday, candidates have been dropping like flies and flocking to endorse Biden. The contest has taken on new national importance as a test of both Biden’s newfound strength and Sanders’ ability to win the state after an upset here in 2016. Whitmer made national headlines by endorsing the former vice president shortly before Warren’s announcement.
Since the Iowa caucuses, when the first ballots were counted, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Bloomberg, billionaire Tom Steyer and businessman Andrew Yang have all dropped out of the race.
Warren came in fourth in New Hampshire and gave a speech afterward — which didn’t make it on to TV — praising Klobuchar for her third-place finish, while also taking the opportunity to call out the media coverage of female candidates.
“I also want to congratulate my friend and colleague Amy Klobuchar for showing just how wrong the pundits can be when they count a woman out,” Warren said.
Warren also seemed to have a hard time escaping the shadow of Clinton, whose loss in 2016 convinced a number of pundits and voters that the country just isn’t ready to see a woman be president.
Julia Pulver, a registered nurse who in 2016 founded the group Women Organize Michigan that supports women running for office, said there’s reticence about a female president because it’s never been done before.
“We are afraid of the unknown when we don’t have an example of something that’s worked out,” said Pulver, now a Democratic candidate in the 39th House District after an unsuccessful state Senate bid in 2018. “It’s very understandable to be afraid, but we can’t let that fear paralyze us.”
Cynthia Terrell, founder and director of RepresentWomen, Takoma Park, Md.-based group that advocates to increase female representation in elected offices, said that part of the problem that we see hesitation is because “we are only familiar with men in executive positions as president.”
But Terrell said that “Klobuchar and Warren have really been intentional about raising their hands, trying not to raise their voices, but staying in the debate and being a vital part of them.”
2018 didn’t end sexism (obviously)
One of the major differences between what we saw in the midterms and what we are seeing now in 2020 is that the “2018 Year of the Woman” wasn’t necessarily reinventing the wheel.
Women have held U.S. Senate seats, U.S. House seats and gubernatorial offices in the past, both in Michigan and across the country. But in 2018, there was a rush of Democratic women contenders like never before.
Women won three of the top statewide offices during the midterm election, including Whitmer, Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, all Democrats, making it the only state in the country with an all-female top executive lineup, including Chief Justice Bridget McCormack. Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist is the lone male in top executive leadership.
After the midterms, Michigan was boosted to sixth-best state in the country for women in office, according to the 2019 Gender Parity Index from RepresentWomen.
Not only did women claim the top offices in Michigan, but they started to close the gender gap in the Legislature after winning in 2018. Michigan women filled eight more seats in the state House of Representatives, bringing the total number of women from 33 to 41. In the Senate, women almost tripled their representation, from only four seats to 11.
Of the 11 women in the Senate, eight are Democrats and three are Republicans. And of 41 female representatives in the House, 25 are Democrats and 16 are Republicans.
In Washington, D.C., Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) was reelected to the U.S. Senate, and Haley Stevens (D-Rochester), Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) joined Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn) and Brenda Lawrence (D-Southfield) in the U.S. House of Representatives.
And the “pink wave” wasn’t just a phenomenon in Michigan; it was a national trend for women in politics. According to Politico, 102 women won in the U.S. House, 14 in the U.S. Senate and nine women were elected to gubernatorial offices.
In total, there are 26 women in the Senate — 17 Democrats, nine Republicans. And in the House there are 101 female representatives — 88 Democrats, 13 Republicans. Despite women winning in record numbers in 2018, less than one-quarter of the voting members in the U.S. Congress — 23.7% — are women, data from the Pew Research Center shows.
The last election was a big one for women in politics. But the women who ran in the midterm election have not forgotten the hard work and systemic barriers they had to overcome to get there.
Pohutsky, who flipped a longtime Southeast Michigan Republican seat in 2018, said the term “Year of the Woman” downplays the amount of work that went into winning in these races.
Following the election results, Pohutsky said her opponent called to congratulate her, but added, “It’s just a good year to be a woman.”
“I’m not saying that I didn’t get some support because there was this groundswell of support for women, but I worked my tail off for that election, as well,” Pohutsky said. “And to say, ‘Good work; it’s good to be a woman this year,’ that completely negates all of the effort that was put in by women all across the country.”
Many Americans may have wanted to believe that electing Barack Obama as the first Black president ended racism. But similarly, electing women to office didn’t end sexism in America, either.
It was a hurdle that many female candidates had to face and many still do.
When McMorrow ran for office two years ago, a poster-sized mailer was sent out from the Michigan Republican Party that showed McMorrow sitting on the beach and drinking a margarita, with silky fabric edited on top of her and a curling iron layered on the picture. The mailer said: “Vote no on McMorrow.”
When mailers went out against McMorrow’s opponent, Republican incumbent state Sen. Marty Knollenberg, McMorrow said it was about his voting record and he was pictured in a suit and tie.
“I heard from a lot of Republican women who said, ‘You know what, I don’t agree with everything that you’re doing, but I’m going to vote for you because this is not acceptable,’” McMorrow said.
But she also recounted times when women asked her if she planned on starting a family during her time in office or criticized the outfits she wore.
“So yes, women fundamentally supported women [in 2018],” McMorrow said. “But there was also that voice of, ‘Can she do it? Do we want a woman in this role? Or is there a man who can do it better?’”
McMorrow, who flipped a seat in her district, endorsed Warren in November, and said she sees a lot of herself in Warren’s progressive ideas and straightforward plans.
She said that Warren could have been an asset on the ballot for many of her own constituents who “might have been lifelong Republican voters, but don’t necessarily see themselves in the current Republican Party and are looking for somebody else.”
The number of women who ran in the midterms helped give the female candidates their own voice without the singular comparison of their predecessor, McMorrow said.
“I think a benefit for us in 2018 was that there were so many women running that we could all run on our own personalities,” McMorrow said. “We were allowed to be different.”
Haunted by the ghosts of female leaders past
Beyond the amount of coverage the female presidential candidates received, the way they have been depicted also has been very different than their male counterparts.
Warren is commonly compared to the failures of Clinton, who lost in 2016 to now-President Donald Trump, using it as proof that she couldn’t beat the now-incumbent either.
This is a struggle that Whitmer faced during her 2018 election, too. Whitmer is the second woman to serve as governor in Michigan, following Democrat Jennifer Granholm, who held the office from 2003 to 2011.
In August before the midterm election, the Republican Governors Association ran a TV ad that said “Gretchen Whitmer is just like Jennifer Granholm. And Michigan can’t afford to lose another decade.”
During a gubernatorial debate, Whitmer’s Republican opponent, then-Attorney General Bill Schuette, confused her name with Granholm’s and said the two are “easy to get confused.”
Despite her own qualifications, Whitmer faced criticism about her father’s career as CEO of Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Michigan, which was unlike any of the attention her opponents were receiving.
“I am a 47 year old woman. I’m a lawyer; I’m a former prosecutor; I was the top Democrat in the Legislature for four years. And when I declared my candidacy for governor, it still was being written where my father had worked,” Whitmer told the Advance in December 2018.
As a lawmaker during Granholm’s time in office, Whitmer watched how a female governor was treated by the media and her fellow legislators.
“I know that the ugliness that was directed at the last Democratic governor [Jennifer Granholm] is a very real possibility [and] that there will be people that treat me just as disrespectfully,” she said.
Ranked choice voting?
As the presidential candidates have dwindled down to three, conversations about which candidate is the most electable or best prepared to take Trump head on in the general election has been a major focus for voters and pundits.
But Sen. Stephanie Chang said it’s “frustrating when people try to get in the minds of other voters.”
“One of the things that’s been so frustrating to watch is that there’s so much data that shows that actually a lot of people really like Elizabeth Warren,” Chang said. “But for some reason they’ve got this weird voter psychology where they think other people might not like a woman president so then they think: ‘Oh, then she’s not electable.’”
Terrell said that a possible solution to this problem could be ranked choice voting in our primary elections.
Ranked choice voting is a system in which voters rank their candidates by preference, and the candidates with the fewest first-preference votes are eliminated until a candidate wins a majority of the first-preference votes.
This system is used for some local and state level elections, including in Eastpointe for its City Council elections. Nevada was the first state to use this system in the presidential primary this year for absentee early voters.
According to data from RepresentWomen, the system also has proved to help women get elected into office. The data show that 50% of mayors elected with ranked choice voting are women and 49% of all City Council members elected by the system are women.
But as it stands, McMorrow said our primary system “promotes going to the extreme.”
“I would love to see us adopt a ranked choice voting system because I think you would see much more nuanced results that would satisfy a lot more people. I’m sure a lot of people would feel good if their No. 2 choice got elected,” McMorrow said.
And for Chang, breaking the obsession with electability could give candidates like Warren a shot at the presidency in the future.
“But in electability, it’s about who every single one of us votes for, and if everyone voted for who they thought would make a good president and who they actually like, maybe Elizabeth Warren would win,” Chang said.
On her staff call Thursday morning, Warren was both resolute and hopeful.
“You know, I used to hate goodbyes. Whenever I taught my last class or when we moved to a new city, those final goodbyes used to wrench my heart. But then I realized that there is no goodbye for much of what we do,” the former professor said. “When I left one place, I took everything I’d learned before and all the good ideas that were tucked into my brain and all the good friends that were tucked in my heart, and I brought it all forward with me — and it became part of what I did next. This campaign is no different. I may not be in the race for president in 2020, but this fight — our fight — is not over. And our place in this fight has not ended.”
While speaking to Michiganders just a week before they head to the voting booths, she had made one last pitch, encouraging voters to forget about punditry and polls.
“Cast a vote that will make you proud,” Warren declared in Detroit Tuesday night. “Cast a vote from your heart. And look for the person you think will make the best president of the United States.”
A lot of her committed voters have a tough choice before them now.