Radio Atlantic: Rebuilding the Blue Wall

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel talks about what it will take for Democrats to win back the industrial Midwest.

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DETROIT—A white moderate man can win statewide in Michigan, sure, but so can a progressive Jewish lesbian. And that, says state Attorney General Dana Nessel—who was elected last year on a statewide ticket that featured four women and one young African American man—should be on the minds of Democrats when they’re debating which of their presidential candidates can win next year. Democrats will need to recapture Michigan to have any hope of beating President Donald Trump in 2020.

Yesterday morning, standing with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Representative Debbie Dingell of Michigan, former Vice President Joe Biden said firmly, “I can win Michigan. They know me. I’ve worked my whole life. I come from the middle class. I understand it. I know what’s going on. I promise you, if I get the nomination, I will win Michigan, I will win Pennsylvania, I will win Ohio.”

Nessel, who hasn’t endorsed a candidate, told me in an interview for the latest episode of Radio Atlantic that other candidates can win her state, too.

“I don’t think you have to have him to win Michigan. I think there are so many candidates out there that are inspirational. And once we see the field sort of whittled down a little bit, I think we’ll see more people coalescing behind another candidate,” Nessel said.

Biden will face opposition from progressives, Nessel added, but not just progressives. “I think younger voters … just sort of feel like they want somebody younger and that they don’t want to see a race between two white men in their 70s,” she said.

Nessel, who faced pushback from many in the state Democratic establishment to the idea that an almost all-female ticket could win in Michigan, said she thinks that the presidential election in her state will come down to the basics, after a 2016 campaign marked by low turnout in the state and close to 300,000 people who either voted for a third-party candidate or chose to fill out ballots for every office except president.

“[What] people want to see is somebody that excites them, that energizes them and inspires them. And that’s the kind of candidate that I think everybody’s looking for,” she said.

She credited Trump indirectly for getting her energized to run herself, after just criticizing the work of the office as a respected civil-rights lawyer. (Among other things, she helped bring the Michigan case that was one of those combined into Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court case that legalized gay marriage.) “Then Donald Trump becomes president,” she said. “If Donald Trump can be president of the United States, then I sure as hell can be Michigan attorney general, right? I’m not less qualified for my job than he is for his.”

Nessel—the granddaughter of European Jews who fled from the Holocaust, and who has many extended family members who were killed then—said another part of Trump that inspired her to run was seeing what she called similarities between the president and the Nazis: “I always said, ‘Well, what would I do if I was living in Hitler’s Germany?”

Comparing Trump to Hitler will likely make many potential voters recoil, feeling like a Democrat is comparing them to Nazi supporters. So how, I asked Nessel, would she make the appeal to those Trump voters to come back to a Democrat?

“I would like to say to them, ‘Hey, all the reasons that you voted for Donald Trump—how’s that working out for you?’”