One of a series of reports looking at Joe Biden's potential running mates
As the coronavirus spread across the country in March, President Trump held a conference call with the nation's governors and reportedly told them they should try to find their own supplies of ventilators and respirators.
Gretchen Whitmer, Michigan's Democratic governor, said she couldn't believe it.
"To hear the leader of the federal government telling us to work around the federal government because it's too slow is just kind of mind-boggling, to be honest," Whitmer told MSNBC.
Trump fired back on Twitter, saying "'Half' Whitmer ... doesn't have a clue." And later, as the death toll in Michigan mounted, Trump said he told Vice President Pence to ignore governors who don't show enough appreciation. "Don't call the woman in Michigan," he said from the White House briefing room.
The back and forth thrust Whitmer — a former Michigan Senate minority leader who has only been leading her state since early 2019 — into the national spotlight.
It also previewed an ongoing theme of this pandemic — a debate over who should take the lead in managing the crisis.
Now, Whitmer and another governor confronting the pandemic at the state level, Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico, are two of the candidates reportedly said to be on Joe Biden's vice presidential shortlist. The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee said Tuesday that he plans to announce his pick next week.
Lujan Grisham was New Mexico's health secretary before three terms in Congress, where she was chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and then became governor in 2019.
Lujan Grisham had dealt with a flu outbreak as health secretary, and so she started preparing for the coronavirus when it spread abroad in January, rushing to secure testing supplies. She also issued early lockdown orders when there were just a few cases in New Mexico.
Still, she said she was surprised by the lack of a national strategy.
"In my wildest dreams I would not be spending my own specific time finding testing supplies, and the right manufacturers, getting swabs and then chasing PPE," she recently told The Washington Post.
The dynamic was unprecedented, said Kathleen Sebelius, the former Kansas governor who was secretary of health and human services under former President Barack Obama and was vetted for the vice presidency in 2008.
"All governors found themselves in a very unique position, with a federal government who didn't want responsibility, so over and over again, governors have stepped into this vacuum," she said.
Governors seen "taking action"
Former Michigan Gov. Jim Blanchard said that's why it's the perfect moment to put a governor on Biden's ticket. He is close with the Biden campaign and has advised several vice presidential searches for Democratic nominees.
"You know, until the virus, governors were in the shadows of government," he said. "It's been the senators who get all the attention because they're on all the cable shows every night."
But Blanchard said that's changed. He said Whitmer and many other governors have shown calm under fire that has projected a stark contrast with Trump — one that could be useful for the Biden campaign.
"Because it shows they're doing things," he said. "They care. They're taking action. They're not sitting around abdicating responsibility and finding someone to blame."
Dr. Shauna Ryder Diggs, one of Michigan's representatives to the Democratic National Committee and a regent at the University of Michigan, said her patients have noticed the disconnect.
"People are starting to think more about leadership at the top," she said, "so they see the leadership they had from Gov. Whitmer and the state of Michigan, and now they're wondering if the same leadership out of Washington had taken place, perhaps [coronavirus outbreaks] wouldn't have been in these other states in July, almost August."
On top of the pandemic, governors have faced an economic crisis and protests over police brutality and racial injustice. The protests have amplified calls for Biden to select a Black woman for his running mate.
Ryder Diggs said Whitmer, who's white, responded to the protests with empathy.
"I'm an African American woman and Gov. Whitmer, she's able to have honest conversations on race, and I think those interpersonal relationships she's able to have with all people, to feel that pain, and understand what those protests were really about," she said.
Seeking advantages with a running mate
In battleground Michigan, approval of Trump's handling of the coronavirus is under water. Whitmer's, though, has remained high despite protests and lawsuits over social distancing orders and her use of emergency powers.
According to a recent survey, 63% of Michiganders approved of Whitmer's handling of the coronavirus, compared with 41% for Trump.
Whitmer flipped the governor's mansion blue in 2018, winning by 9 percentage points, and some Democrats think she could help bring home Michigan and other "blue wall" states.
But Zach Gorchow, executive editor of Gongwer, a news service that covers state politics in Lansing, said he is doubtful that adding a Michigander to the ticket would have the kind of impact on Midwestern voters that some Democratic strategists hope.
"Michigan Democrats already seem to be ready to walk across hot coals to unseat Trump, and I don't think adding Gretchen Whitmer to the ticket really changes that," he said.
Whitmer has faced blowback from Republicans for spending too much time taking interviews in the national media — a critique that would only be exacerbated if she were to seek higher office.
For both governors, campaigning while managing crises on multiple fronts could also prove both politically and practically challenging. Plus, they carry the baggage of having ordered sometimes-unpopular closures and social distancing rules.
Stephanie Garcia Richard, the New Mexico commissioner of public lands and a Lujan Grisham ally, said the governor has made the right decisions, even when they're unpopular. Recently, Lujan Grisham had to walk back reopening indoor dining as cases of the coronavirus rose again. The New Mexico Restaurant Association sued, but the state Supreme Court has so far upheld the closures.
"And not to say that was an easy thing for her to do," Garcia Richard said. "There will be businesses that will not recover, that we will lose, permanently, but Americans look to their leaders to do the right thing under pressure."
While Whitmer could bring a geographic advantage to the ticket, Lujan Grisham could attract another bloc of voters. She's the first Democratic Latina governor in the country.
Gabriel Sanchez, a professor at the University of New Mexico and principal at the research group Latino Decisions, said Democrats often overlook Latino voters.
"I think this is also an opportunity not just to address 2020, but the long-term electoral map," he said. "Having a Latino on ... the ticket might solidify Texas flipping not only soon but potentially for the long term."