GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Gretchen Whitmer remains the only candidate so far to declare a gubernatorial run to replace term-limited Gov. Rick Snyder in 2018.
But Whitmer, who formerly served 14 years in the state legislature, including a term as senate minority leader, is not shying away from sizing up her anticipated competition.
The Democrat officially filed paperwork to begin her campaign at the beginning of January. She said jumping in early gives her an advantage to start travelling to communities across the state in what she describes as an aggressive ground game plan with "engagement levels we've never seen before."
"There is an energy that people want to be a part of something positive," Whitmer told FOX 17 on Sunday. "We thought it was important — given this is such a huge state with diverse populations and so many issues and so much literal ground to cover — to get in, to be unequivocal, and to really build the kind of campaign and vision we need to be successful.”
Whitmer reiterated what is already becoming a familiar campaign message, telling FOX 17 the people of Michigan need a governor who will "level" with them.
"Michigan needs leadership that is really focused on solving problems," Whitmer said when asked about what sets her apart from her likely Republican challenger Attorney General Bill Schuette.
"I think that too often we see our leaders playing politics with our problems, whether it’s the Flint water crisis, or issues of environmental protection, or marriage equity, and I think we’ve seen leaders use the power of their office to further their political careers and not do the right thing."
Schuette told FOX 17 in December, when asked about a potential gubernatorial run, he wanted to "be a part of the conversation."
Lt. Governor Brian Calley might also run on the Republican side. It is widely speculated that U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint, will also soon announce a run for governor.
Whitmer also made a case for why she would be able to bring people and the parties together by pointing to her bipartisan upbringing.
"I was raised by a (William) Milliken Republican father and Frank Kelly Democrat mother — they served in those administrations — and I’ll tell you the similarity is that those were leaders who really put the public interest above their own personal interest or above any special interests," she said.
Milliken served as governor of Michigan from 1969-1983. Kelly served as state attorney general from 1961-1999.
Republicans have already come out hard against Whitmer, calling her a "career politician" while comparing her to Democratic former Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
“Whitmer, a staunch Granholm-ally while in the Legislature, would be a step backward for our state,” GOP Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel said in a statement shortly after Whitmer declared her candidacy.
Whitmer is quick to bite back at the claims made by Republicans and Gov. Rick Snyder, who frequently tout Michigan's economic turnaround after a decade-long decline, citing a much-lower unemployment rate and the addition of hundreds of thousands of private sector jobs on his watch.
She acknowledges the unemployment rate has fallen — from 14.9 percent in 2009 to 4.9 percent in November — but contends it is not the true measure of success in the state.
"Does the average person believe their paycheck can cover their bills and they can count on it, or do they believe their kid is getting the support and education they need?" Whitmer questioned. "It’s my hope and belief the people of Michigan are going to be ready to demand better, to acknowledge we deserve better."
Turnout among Democrats was lackluster during Snyder's 2014 re-election and the 2016 presidential election, when Donald Trump became the first Republican presidential nominee to win Michigan in 28 years. But after what will have been eight years of GOP control in Lansing and two years of a Trump presidency and a Republican-led Congress, Democrats could be poised to make gains in 2018, when popular Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow also will be up for re-election.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.