Whitmer Disavows ‘Draft Grech’ Movement

When Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer telephoned a senior official with President Biden’s campaign on Friday night, she wanted to convey a clear message: She hated the way her name was being floated as a replacement for Biden and she wasn’t behind the chatter.

Whitmer’s conversation with the official, campaign chair Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, was cordial but awkward by its very nature. In the aftermath of the president’s disastrous debate performance last Thursday, no would-be replacement has been the recipient of more wish-casting among despairing Democrats than the second-term Michigan governor.

Whitmer, recognizing as much, disavowed the Draft Gretch chatter. She used the call to reiterate her commitment and willingness to help the president but also voiced her concern about how much more difficult the campaign would be now for Biden, I’m told by a person familiar with the call.

Even more revealing is how word of the call reached me: from someone close to a potential 2028 Whitmer rival for the Democratic presidential nomination. This person said Whitmer had phoned O’Malley Dillon with more of an unambiguous SOS: to relay that Michigan, in the wake of the debate, was no longer winnable for Biden.

That such political bladework is already taking place illustrates how badly her rivals want to wound Whitmer, by portraying her as being disloyal to Biden in his hour of need. Yet it also captures what an extraordinary, and extraordinarily precarious, moment this is for the well-stocked bench of Democratic governors who are eager to succeed Biden.

No Democrats, at least this side of Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, have more at stake in the president’s fate than the governors.

If Biden does take the (highly unlikely) step of dropping out of the race, a group of them would assuredly join the lightning-quick contest to replace them.

Yet if any of them dares speak up now about their concerns over his debilitated candidacy, when nearly every elected Democrat is publicly rallying to Biden, it would be construed by the president and his defenders as an act of self-interested treachery. And it would surely be hung around their neck if they ran in 2028.

Oh, and if Trump wins he may well use his administration to exact revenge on Democratic governors, whether personally, via his Department of Justice, or by withholding aid to their states.

It’s a crisis that has left the Democratic governors deeply frustrated this weekend. Their ranks are full of talent, ambition and, now, gnawing panic about Biden. Only a handful of them would likely turn down the opportunity to replace him on the ticket. But none of them, of course, want to be the one brandishing the political murder weapon.

“The temperature is high,” one Democratic governor told me Sunday about sentiment among the party’s state executives. “A lot of anxiety, a lot of folks at the edge of their seat.”

This governor said the party was likely best off sticking with Biden, but reserved the right to revise and extend that assessment based on the president’s polling and fundraising by mid-July.

Other governors and their aides also said they were in the same holding pattern, feeling no choice but to publicly defend Biden but privately furious at the president and his inner circle.

Yet there was a broad recognition that they were constrained by their ambition; that if one of them urged the president, even in private, to step aside they’d be outed and portrayed as trying to “take their shot,” as one adviser to a Democratic governor put it.

Asked about the governors, a Biden adviser all but affirmed as much, telling me “they’d all love an easy sprint,” but they couldn’t get past Harris if they even had that shot.

“And none of them are ready for this,” the Biden adviser added, “especially her.”

That “her” would be Big Gretch.

Since the debate, the Democratic donor class has swooned for Whitmer.

Here’s one example, a blast email that was written to contributors by Chet Atkins, a former Democratic member of Congress from Massachusetts who’s now a lobbyist in Boston.

“How can you not love a Governor who is affectionately called ‘Big Gretch’ by Detroit rappers, a Governor who faced down a kidnap attempt, and passed gun safety legislation in response,” Atkins wrote in the email, adding that the election is going to hinge on Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania and “no one knows and understands these voters the way she does.”

Atkins’s pitch, at least for the moment: Flood Whitmer with contributions.

“Over the next several weeks, party leaders and the press will be looking to see who has the momentum and the ability to beat Trump,” he wrote. “A massive outpouring of small and large dollar donations to Gretchen Whitmer’s political committee will send a strong and clear message. It will also allow her to be ready on day one when the nomination opens up.”

Whitmer, I’m told by the person who shared the email, did not know about it let alone okay it.

What Whitmer is quite cognizant of and is carefully planning is the debut of her new memoir: “True Gretch.”

Whitmer’s early-July book release was exquisitely timed – at least if she wants to sell copies and stir more chatter among the party’s swells about the great summer switcheroo of 2024.

The governor is scheduled to travel this month to a list of book-buying venues that double as regional capitals for Democratic donors: San Francisco, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. In Nantucket, she’ll also have a fundraiser at the summer home of Ben Barnes, the legendary lobbyist and former Texas lieutenant governor, I’m told.

Particularly if Biden’s polling sags later in July the Go Gretch Go pleas will be deafening. Well, at least they will be within earshot of the canapes.

Should the highly unlikely event happen, Whitmer would be wise to jump in and make her case to the Democratic delegates. Yes, she may never defeat the vice president. And, yes, some of the pro-Whitmer chatter among Democratic insiders owes to the notion that a woman could more plausibly overcome the first Black female vice president than a white man.

But the history of presidential politics favors the bold. You know the examples: Bill Clinton in 1992, when so many Democrats didn’t want to challenge a seemingly unbeatable incumbent Republican; Barack Obama in 2008, even though he had less than four years in the Senate and was running against the first family of Democratic politics.

An abbreviated 2024 race may be Whitmer’s best and only chance at her party’s nomination. I know, she is 52. She could run for years to come. Yet when else will she have this much energy behind her candidacy and the possibility of such diminished competition for the nomination?

That certainly won’t be the case in 2028. By then, another cadre of Democratic governors and senators who have been elected since Whitmer won the governorship in 2018 will be raring to run.

She may not get her shot this year. However, there may not be a better one later. Because the history of presidential politics is also littered with those who didn’t act boldly when they should have and missed what turned out to be their only opening.

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