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Dog bites and shark week: Whitmer talks about how to run a tough campaign in 2024

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Dog bites and shark week: Whitmer talks about how to run a tough campaign in 2024

May 18, 2024 | 12:29 pm ET
By Anna Liz Nichols
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Dog bites and shark week: Whitmer talks about how to run a tough campaign in 2024
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Gov. Gretchen Whitmer talks about how to campaign at a Fight Like Hell PAC training in East Lansing, Michigan on May 17, 2024. (Photo: Anna Liz Nichols)

What do candidates need in order to be prepared to run for office in November? 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer had simple advice for attendees of her Fight Like Hell PAC training in East Lansing on Friday: Door-knocking is important and make sure your tetanus shot is up to date.

“I got three dog bites my first campaign, so check your tetanus shot records,” Whitmer told former White House Communications Director Jen Palmieri as the pair talked in front of Democratic candidates for various offices in Michigan about several headline-making moments from Whitmer’s political career.

Having become a national name in politics since successfully running for the Michigan state House at age 29 in 2000, Whtmer now serves as one of President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign co-chairs. She previously was on Biden’s 2020 shortlist for vice president and has not ruled out the possibility that she might seek the White House in the future.

But the rise to prominence has not been without pushback, Palmieri said, recalling her first meeting with Whitmer in 2020. That was when the Democrat was facing vitriol from former President Donald Trump and right-wing Michiganders infuriated over her policies during the COVID-19 pandemic to slow the spread of the virus.

“I was like, ‘How is she going to react?’” Palmieri said. “She does not take it personally. She managed to not take attacks and criticism personally. Listen for the criticism to see if it’s relevant or not and if you can learn from it.”

Palmieri added that Whitmer saw what happened with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who unsuccessfully ran for president in 2016. Whitmer also learned from watching Michigan’s first and only other female governor, Jennifer Granholm, that what people say and do has everything to do with them and nothing to do with you.

Dog bites and shark week: Whitmer talks about how to run a tough campaign in 2024
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (left) and former White House Communications Director Jen Palmieri (right) talking about how to campaign at a Fight Like Hell PAC training in East Lansing, Michigan on May 17, 2024. (Photo: Anna Liz Nichols)

“You learn that this stuff is not personal. This stuff is about women breaking glass ceilings. This is stuff about candidates saying provocative things that people may not want to hear, but are true. It’s not about you,” Palmieri said.

Whitmer told the Advance as much after the conversation with Palmieri, saying that experiences like facing attacks as a young lawmaker in her first term while giving birth to her first child in office and taking care of her mother, who was dying from brain cancer, gave her the grit she needed to face off against personal attacks.

“Taking care of my mom at the end of her life and my daughter at the beginning of hers. … I often think that that’s really the time that forged who I am today, the ability to really, you know, handle all that stress, but also look the next 10 yards down on the field as opposed to getting overwhelmed by the 100,” Whitmer said. “I think that that perspective is really helpful as all the incoming and ugliness has happened over the last six years in particular in politics and for me, in particular.” 

In July, Whitmer is set to release a book, “True Gretch,” a twist on the famous film, “True Grit.”

Although governors and presidents can’t knock on doors and ask people what they need and what elected officials can do to make their lives better like candidates for other offices can, Whitmer told the Advance that authentic conversations about things that matter to people are really what campaigns are about.

And that’s why she’d like to talk to some of the men who plotted to kidnap her in 2020 over her COVID health orders.

“I really would,” Whitmer said. “I would like to do that because I know that they are human beings who something’s not working for them in their lives and I’m curious, you know, what really is happening to see if there’s something I could do that would be helpful.”

Hiding or dimming the traits or identities that define people as candidates aren’t the way to navigate aggressive opposition to your campaign, Whitmer told the Advance. What works for one candidate might not work for another, but it’s important to show up as exactly who you are.

Sometimes that authenticity can lead to a great moment that connects an elected official to constituents, Whitmer told attendees at the event Friday, pointing at her infamous “Shark Week” comment. In 2020, a hot mic caught her saying, “It’s Shark Week, motherf—er” before her Democratic National Convention speech. 

In her 2022 reelection campaign, Whitmer had someone dressed in a shark costume periodically show up to her events, especially those on college campuses.

Dog bites and shark week: Whitmer talks about how to run a tough campaign in 2024
The shark is back as Michigan Democrats attend a rally with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and other candidates in Ann Arbor, Mich. on Nov. 4, 2022. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)

Whitmer said a debate coach had encouraged her to keep a happy demeanor before her first debate when she was running for governor in 2018 and draw a smiley face on top of her papers when she was at the podium. But she didn’t like that, so she writes “SW,MF” on her papers, getting the idea from a joke she heard about menstruation from an opening act for the comedian Kevin Hart.

“Someone released the footage, and it was very clear that that’s what I had mouthed and I was like, ‘Oh, my God,’” Whitmer said. “It turned out to be something that people thought was funny.”

Looking ahead to the 2024 election, as Trump and Biden battle it out in battleground states such as Michigan, Whitmer said after the event that there’s a lot at stake. With the rising cost of housing and inflation increasing the cost of food, people are communicating exactly what they are dealing with and they expect elected officials to address those issues.

Biden is also losing support this time around from Arab-American voters and young voters over his support of Israel in the war in Gaza. Over 100,000 voters in Michigan’s Democratic presidential primary election voted “uncommitted” instead of for Biden. And some leaders in the movement have said they won’t vote for Biden in November, either.

Whitmer said keeping an open dialogue with both  Arab and Jewish communities in Michigan is important and she hopes to help people in the state feel safe. She supports a cessation of violence in Gaza and the return of Israeli hostages.

As for the November election, Whitmer said, “I’ve told everyone, don’t freak out over a poll where we’re down a few points and don’t celebrate one where we’re up a few points. This is going to be close and it’s going to be close all the way through the election. 

“I think it’s going to be really important that we are earning the support of people. We cannot take anyone for granted,” Whitmer added. “It’s going to be a long, hard slog, and that’s what Michigan is; we always are.”

Dog bites and shark week: Whitmer talks about how to run a tough campaign in 2024
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (left) and former White House Communications Director Jen Palmieri (right) talking about how to campaign at a Fight Like Hell PAC training in East Lansing, Michigan on May 17, 2024. (Photo: Anna Liz Nichols)