Abdul El-Sayed is a Muslim American of Egyptian descent running for governor in a state won by Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. If these seem like long odds to you, you’d be right. Until this week, polls placed El-Sayed last among the three candidates competing in the Democratic primary: Former state Senate Democratic Leader Gretchen Whitmer led with about 39 percent of the vote, while businessman Shri Thanedar captured 17 percent. El-Sayed brought up the rear with 12 percent.
But this week, everything changed.
Last Saturday, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., endorsed El-Sayed, leveraging his considerable popularity in the state to El-Sayed’s benefit. And that weekend, democratic socialist superstar Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined El-Sayed on the campaign trail, hitting four stops in two days and helping to fill venues up to and over capacity.
These efforts seem to have worked.
On Wednesday, results from a new poll by Change Research showed that El-Sayed has captured second place with 27 percent of the vote, while Whitmer’s overall share has dwindled to 33.2 percent. Thanedar — who has been dogged by rumors that his progressive veneer is a sham, and shamed by news reports that his chemical testing company abandoned dozens of dogs — has finally seen a dip in his poll numbers: He now has only has 15.1 percent of the vote. Notably, the new poll isn’t limited to landline calls, which tend to skew older and miss out of younger, more progressive, voters. Also worth noting: the poll was conducted before Sanders endorsed the campaign.
This is good news for Sanders fans in the state. El-Sayed, a doctor, Rhodes scholar, and former director of the Detroit Health Department, is poised to break a lot of glass ceilings in the state of Michigan. But the primary identity he’s running on is “progressive.”
His campaign has put together a uniquely comprehensive suite of policy proposals, including a commitment to establishing a $ 15 minimum wage; tuition-free college for Michiganders with family income under $ 150,000; aggressive criminal justice reform; and the most detailed state-level single-payer health care plan ever.
This policy suite is the work of Rhiana Gunn-Wright, also a Rhodes scholar, who originally hails from Chicago’s South Side. “We take what I call an intersectional approach to policy,” she says in a video explaining the campaign’s approach. When policymakers craft policy, it often fails to address the problems faced by a diverse constituency, says Gunn-Wright. By taking into account the full diversity of Michiganders’ lives, the team sought to craft policy that would resolve inequalities across the board while avoiding costly errors. “Overall, it just costs everyone a lot less energy,” she says.
Just implementing statewide single payer, which has never been done before, would make El-Sayed one of the most impactful governors in contemporary U.S. history. But can he win?
El-Sayed faces off against Whitmer and Thanedar on Tuesday, August 7. Unlike Thanedar, El-Sayed doesn’t have $ 11 million of his own money to loan the campaign, nor does he have the financing that Michigan’s labor unions and some corporate interests have generated for Whitmer. And if he wins, he will still have to face off with the yet-to-be-determined Republican candidate — though it will likely be Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, who has the advantage of being seen as a relatively moderate Republican in a swing state.
But after joining El-Sayed at a pair of campaign events last weekend, it became apparent that El-Sayed has one thing the other candidates don’t have: sheer voter enthusiasm.
That enthusiasm was captured in a new video the campaign released featuring last weekend’s rallies.
In the spot, El-Sayed counters an argument he has heard throughout his campaign: that a Muslim cannot win statewide in Michigan. “If you’re like me, you’ve heard the language of the impossible,” he said. “We hear it loudest in the deeds of neglect of the politicians and the corporations who have power. … That language of the impossible, it’s there when they say to us, ‘You’re too young, you’re too brown, too black, too foreign, too female, too Muslim, to lead.’”
He posits that the primary is an opportunity to put these fatalistic arguments to bed: “On August 7, we quiet them. We show them what is possible.”
Nearly 500 people packed into a small coworking space in downtown Flint to see El-Sayed on July 28. At the Detroit campaign stop at Wayne State University, the number of attendees swelled to 1,200. The size, energy, and age of the crowd — attendees trended younger by a massive margin — were more reminiscent of a concert than a political rally.
Even the speakers were young: Mari Copeny, also known as Little Miss Flint, the 10-year-old who’s become an icon for her Flint water crisis advocacy, was one of the first to take the floor. She was followed by 20-year-old Councilman Santino J. Guerra, who noted that not a single speaker supporting the candidate at the event was old enough to run for U.S. Senate. (El Sayed, 33, just clears the 30-year age minimum.)
Bringing up the average age was 28-year-old wunderkind Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated 10-term incumbent Joseph Crowley in New York’s 14th Congressional District in June. Her remarks seemed directed less against other candidates, and moreso against conventional wisdom — wisdom that says age, influence, compromise, or corporate money are required ingredients for political success. “We kept going not because this is the politically winnable thing to do,” she said of her campaign. “We kept going because it was the right thing to do. We are here today because you know and I know that voting and supporting Abdul El-Sayed is the right thing to do.”
El-Sayed echoed that populist sentiment.
“I grew up in my public school learning about a government for the people and by the people. Not for corporations and by corporations,” he told the crowd in Flint.
El-Sayed supporters in Detroit told me that they trust El-Sayed because, like Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders, he is running a campaign that rejects corporate dollars. Kaitlyn Carr, a 29-year-old who came to the rally with an “El-Sayed/Ocasio-Cortez 2024” sign, described El-Sayed’s no corporate political action committee pledge as central to her support.
“He’s not taking money from corporations. It’s an entirely grassroots-funded campaign, which I’m super excited about,” she said. “The biggest difference between Whitmer and El-Sayed is just that he isn’t accepting corporate money.”
Indeed, Whitmer has been dinged for her association with corporate interests — particularly her ties to the insurance industry.
Her father, Richard Whitmer, was the head of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. And in a 2015 interview, she credited her friend Dan Loepp — the current head of the company in Michigan and former senior House staffer — as being the first person to suggest that she enter politics.
Earlier this year, The Intercept broke the story that lobbyists at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan were throwing a fundraiser for Whitmer, where she got nearly $ 144,000 from senior Blue Cross staff in one day.
Of the three primary candidates, Whitmer is the only one who does not support a state single-payer health care system in Michigan, calling it unrealistic. She recently claimed that criticism for her connections to Blue Cross are “extremely sexist,” citing the fact that the bulk of her campaign contributions are from donors giving $ 100 or less. She does support a federal single-payer plan, but Michiganders, who face a unique health crisis in Flint, may want more of a commitment.
Her relatively moderate stance may hurt her among other constituencies too. While El-Sayed and Thanedar would outlaw for-profit charter schools, Whitmer would opt instead for more oversight. On July 20, J.C. Huizenga, the founder of the charter school chain National Heritage Academies, kicked $ 5,000 toward her campaign. Huizenga is one of the largest political donors in the state of Michigan, and is a major donor to the state’s GOP committees.
Deanne Fisher, a teacher in Michigan’s Macomb County, carried a sign that read “Bernie <3 Abdul.” She cited her disgust with the policies of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a charter school advocate whose family hails from Michigan.
“I’m interested in the education policies that Abdul is supporting. We love Bernie … and Bernie supports Abdul, so we support Abdul,” she said. “I think children need to be coming first, and over the years, it’s corporations that have been put first instead of our education.”
Sanders’s popularity in Michigan shouldn’t be underestimated. After all, this is a state where a grassroots effort won Sanders a presidential primary — despite polls which put him 20 points behind Hillary Clinton in 2016. El-Sayed has staffed his campaign with veterans of Sanders’s presidential campaign, including deputy campaign manager Claire Sandberg, who has experienced the electoral benefits of Michiganders’ progressiveness firsthand.
A senior staffer told us that over the course of the past few months, the campaign has made approximately 400,000 phone calls to Michigan voters and has knocked on 130,000 doors. As part of its outreach strategy, the campaign offers tools for supporters to self-organize and contact voters from anywhere in the United States. On any given day, volunteers are active in Michigan, but also around the country. In the volunteer map, posted on July 30, one can see that there are phone bank events as far away as Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Eastside of Los Angeles.
I joined Whitmer on a warm July morning in Detroit, as volunteers at her campaign headquarters prepared to canvass the surrounding neighborhoods. Despite the fact that the candidate herself was there, the crowd was light, with about 20 volunteers and staffers total.
Cody Barnhart, a gay Army veteran, took a break from putting together canvassing sheets and campaign signs to explain that he had known Whitmer since he worked as a page in the state legislature. He said he appreciated how she always attended gay rights events.
“She was at every pride festival we had in Lansing. She led the parades in Lansing. That meant a lot to me as a gay person in Michigan,” he said, adding that she wrote him a recommendation when he joined the military. “She cares about her people, and that’s something you don’t see in a lot of individuals.”
Barnhart’s page-to-protest relationship with Whitmer encapsulates her main campaign pitch: I’ve been in government for years, I know how it works, and I’ve always shown up when you needed me.
Democratic state Sen. Morris W. Hood III, a Whitmer surrogate, emphasized Whitmer’s experience.
“Would you want a heart surgeon who has 16 years of service or no service?” Hood said. “I”ll take the one who has 16 years of service, because they know how to do it. They’ve experienced it.”
Whitmer served in Michigan’s legislature between 2000 and 2016, first in the House of Representatives and later in the Senate. During that time, she built deep relationships with many of the movers and shakers in Democratic politics, including Michigan’s historically influential labor unions. More than a dozen union locals are supporting her bid, and unions have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into a 527 group backing her.
Her signature policy is, if nothing else, pragmatic. “Fix the damn roads,” she says in her videos, a slogan that graces many of her yard signs. Sure enough, about a block away from her Detroit office, a phalanx of traffic cones marks the spot where a sinkhole has opened up in the road. Anyone who drives around Detroit or the surrounding areas instantly recognizes that Whitmer’s complaint about streets and highways is justified. And local infrastructure issues have been known to resonate: Virginia Democratic Del. Danica Roem, whose historic win as a transgender candidate made national headlines last year, deployed a similar tactic in her race, promising to fix the troublesome Route 28.
Still, pragmatism wasn’t enough to protect Michigan Democrats from major losses in 2016, when Sanders trounced Clinton in Michigan’s primary — during which Clinton won only 10 of 83 counties in the state — and when Trump unexpectedly defeated Clinton in the state during the general election.
It would be easy to portray the primary as simply a rematch of Sanders vs. Clinton, a populist insurgent vs. the quintessential establishment candidate, but this race has a major wild card that those races didn’t: businessman Shri Thanedar.
Thanedar is a self-made millionaire who emigrated to the United States from India in 1979. Having made his fortune in the chemical industry, Thanedar has largely self-funded his foray into Democratic politics. He has used his immense wealth to finance ubiquitous TV ads that portray him as “the most progressive” Democrat in the race. He claims that, like El-Sayed, he will establish a $ 15 minimum wage and a single-payer health care system in the state. Unlike El-Sayed however, who has issued a state single-payer plan of unprecedented detail, Thanedar recently confused single payer with a public option in an interview with The Intercept.
Earlier this year, a number of prominent political consultants told The Intercept that Thanedar came to them and mused about running as a Republican instead. Thanedar angrily denied the claims, but I later uncovered C-SPAN footage of Thanedar smiling and clapping along with Marco Rubio at an Iowa rally, including after Rubio said “Hillary Clinton cannot be the commander and chief of the United States.”
Despite all this, Thanedar maintained a second place position in polling until recently. His strategy has been to focus on Detroit, and he hired a prominent African-American activist and pastor, David Alexander Bullock, to run his campaign. So far, that strategy has been effective. After flooding the area with ads and mailers, polls show he has developed a massive lead among African-American voters.
There’s a more cynical explanation for how close El-Sayed and Thanedar have been in the polls. Some voters may simply look at the three candidates and confuse the two brown males with non-Anglo names. At the Whitmer event, Army veteran Barnhart angrily referenced a story about how one of candidates had abandoned some dogs that his company had been using as lab animals after the firm went bankrupt. But he was unsure whether El-Sayed or Thanedar was the subject of the piece. (It was Thanedar).
El-Sayed’s faith has been referenced as another potential barrier to his success, although he doesn’t see it that way. Michigan is home to the largest Muslim population in America, and although he has had his detractors, the primary has avoided some of the ugliness that swirled around Barack Obama’s candidacy.
Hood, the Whitmer backer, pushed back on those who would argue El-Sayed’s faith is an obstacle to winning. “Someone, their faith and what they believe in, doesn’t take away from the person. That’s the American right to be able to worship whoever you want to worship. We shouldn’t be biased because someone believes a certain thing or doesn’t believe a certain thing,” he said.
But not everyone shares Hood’s sanguine view of Michiganders’ religious tolerance. Michigan Democratic Rep. Debbie Dingell suggested to the Huffington Post last month that El-Sayed’s faith may prove to be an obstacle. When asked if his faith may make him less electable, she replied, “I don’t want to say that, because I think [El-Sayed’s] fabulous, and I represent one of the largest populations of Muslims in the country,” she said. “But there are people trying to divide us by fear and hatred, and [Trump] is one of them.” Moreover, confrontations like one with far-right activist Laura Loomer, suggest that anti-Islamic sentiment isn’t anathema to voters.
In an interview with Vogue, El-Sayed said the attacks on his faith are a distraction from what he believes in. “I think they use the excuse of my faith and identity as a reason why they should not support me or they could not support me. Which is just sad and sorry. Because what they’re saying is that people in the state of Michigan aren’t open enough. They’re not betting against me; they’re betting against the good people in the state.”
Osama Siblani, the publisher of Michigan-based Arab American News, hopes that, win or lose, El-Sayed will ultimately help break the glass ceiling on Muslim American and Arab-American candidates so that voters will start to judge them on the content of their characters and not the method of their prayers.
“You have to look beyond how do I pray, to see what do I pray for,” he said of the crop of Muslim candidates. “We pray for the same thing.”
El-Sayed, he thinks, is managing to bridge that gap.
“He came from nowhere to be a contender in this race that needs to be reckoned with. That shows that people are paying attention, and I think, you know, we have to break the ceiling. We have to show that the Muslim and Arab-American can run and can get beyond the religious factor and get beyond the ethnic factor — that people start looking at Arab-Americans and American Muslims as people who are qualified or not qualified to run, not based on their religion and their ethnicity.”