There is growing anxiety among Democrats nationwide that outrage over the loss of abortion in more than a dozen states won’t be enough to push their candidates over the finish line in purple states like Michigan. Though the elimination of Roe unleashed a wave of energy on the left earlier this summer, carrying abortion rights measures and those who support them to victory in some primaries, high inflation and other cost-of-living issues have chipped away at voters’ enthusiasm for Democratic candidates.
Whitmer now has a 5-point lead over GOP rival Tudor Dixon, down from 12 points one month ago, according to 538. Her race is narrowing even as polls show strong support for the measure to enshrine abortion rights into the state constitution to which she’s closely tied her campaign.
With less than two weeks before Election Day, she, along with Attorney General Dana Nessel and other Democrats on the ballot in the swing state, are warning that workers will flee if the amendment fails and the state’s long-dormant 1931 anti-abortion law takes effect, making it harder for businesses — particularly those in tech, health care and the service sector — to recruit and retain employees.
“I hear from businesses all the time that they are feeling the weight of the ‘she-cession,’ meaning women leaving the workplace during Covid,” she said. “If we want women to come back into the workplace in Michigan, we better not take away their right to be full citizens and make decisions about their own health care. That’s what’s at risk here.”
Other Democrats around the country are touting a similar message — using the final days of their campaigns to argue abortion and financial concerns are inextricably linked.
Georgia gubernatorial hopeful Stacey Abrams said in a recent interview that protecting the right to terminate a pregnancy helps individuals make economic choices about the size of their families as inflation surges. California Gov. Gavin Newsom bought billboards this year in Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota and Texas trying to entice workers to come to his state, a “sanctuary” for abortion rights.
But Michigan’s candidates are testing a broader message aimed at employers and where they can best recruit and invest.
“All you have to do is talk to any business owner in the state and they’ll tell you, they don’t have enough people working for them. Everyone is desperate,” Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), who is in a tight contest to hold onto her swing district, told POLITICO. “So, are we going to be an open-minded state that believes in equality and rights? Or are we going to be a backwards-looking state? Businesses don’t like backward-looking states. That doesn’t help them attract young people. That doesn’t incentivize kids who go to U of M for four years to stay in the state when they graduate.”
Whitmer’s administration points to data they’ve collected showing a lack of affordable childcare is the top reason women have struggled to rejoin the workforce — particularly during the pandemic. Susan Corbin, who leads the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, added that protecting abortion rights will help stop the “brain drain” that has long plagued the state — graduates of Michigan’s top-tier colleges leaving for better prospects elsewhere. It’s a message Whitmer has pushed since at least this spring, when POLITICO obtained a draft opinion indicating the Supreme Court was poised to overturn Roe, and one she’s highlighted in interviews, speeches and at forums with business leaders.
But Whitmer’s Republican challenger, Dixon, who has voiced support for abortion restrictions and has criticized the governor for Michigan’s economic struggles, dismisses these arguments as unserious.
“I think that we can work on child care. We can work on family leave. We can work on making adoption less expensive — that will also bring people to the state,” she told POLITICO. “But we can’t be planning our economic development based on abortions — we have to have a more robust plan than that.”
Dixon has worked to distance herself from the unpopularity of the state’s 1931 abortion law, arguing that voters can support both her and a referendum on the state ballot that would protect reproductive freedom. Polls indicate many voters may do just that.
Meanwhile, anti-abortion groups that are investing heavily in electing Dixon and defeating the abortion-rights ballot measure predict these hard-nosed economic pitches from Democrats will offend voters and swing the results their way.
“It feels like a very callous thing to say,” said Christen Pollo, the spokesperson for Citizens to Protect Michigan Women and Children, which is leading the fight against the ballot initiative. “These are really difficult situations no one should be making light of, and to say that a woman having an abortion is good for business — I don’t like that.”
But for business owners like Chris Andrus, Whitmer’s argument resonates.
Andrus, who founded Mitten Brewing in Grand Rapids in 2012 and oversees the brewery and restaurant’s three locations, said his employees — who, like the rest of the hospitality sector, are overwhelmingly young and female — are alarmed at the prospect of the state’s 1931 ban going back into effect.
“My staff told me it’s going to weigh heavily on their decisions about where to move and launch their careers,” he said. “This is already a difficult landscape for getting young people back to work, but if Michigan becomes like Texas and other states known for restricted abortion access, we’ll be exporting a lot of young talent and there’s no way around that.”
Andrus said most business owners he speaks with have not wanted to take a public stance on the issue for fear of alienating conservative customers — particularly in his part of the state, where the Republican powerhouse DeVos family holds considerable sway.
“It’s a bag of lit dynamite for restaurant owners to speak up on, but I think it’s absolutely essential to recognize that this is an economic crisis in the making and the implications will be staggering if and when those rights are gone,” he said.
Despite the tensions and divisions in the state over the issue, some business and labor groups have entered the fray and issued public warnings to elected officials that anti-abortion policies could have economic repercussions.
“Abortion rights are certainly not a usual chamber of commerce issue,” the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce said earlier this year, “but as Michigan strives to attract skilled talent — especially young talent — to meet the demands of our ever more complex economy, the Detroit Regional Chamber urges Michigan lawmakers to consider economic competitiveness issues” as they debate whether to ban the procedure.
In early October, the group endorsed Whitmer, citing her work to “ensure Michigan’s competitiveness.”
The United Auto Workers, arguably the union that holds the most sway in the state, is also urging its members to both reelect Whitmer and pass the abortion-rights ballot initiative.
“When people are able to make decisions about their own reproductive health care, including whether and when to have children, they have more control over their health and their economic security,” the UAW said.
Other labor groups, including the American Federation of Teachers of Michigan and the state’s AFL-CIO chapter, have endorsed the referendum.
But Michigan’s Republican candidates and the anti-abortion groups supporting them say they see little, if any, evidence that the fate of the state’s abortion law will significantly impact the state’s economy.
While companies that employ thousands of workers have spoken out against new restrictions in more than a dozen states, they argue, those companies have yet to take action.
Titus Folks, an organizer with the group Students for Life who is leading teams of student volunteers to knock on doors to defeat the referendum, pointed to neighboring Indiana, which passed a near-total abortion ban this summer that remains tied up in court.
“The Chamber of Commerce came out against it, but no businesses have left the state yet or announced plans to do so,” Folks said. “Companies are willing to use the issue as a bargaining tool, and a lot of them are spending money to provide transportation for their employees to [leave the state for an abortion], but that’s about it.”
Since the June decision, other states that have outlawed abortion have seen few economic repercussions, and other Democratic officials’ abortion-rights-centered overtures to companies have fallen flat. While several major corporations have rolled out plans to help workers who live in states that have banned the procedure travel to a state that has preserved access, none has yet announced plans to relocate or cancel a planned expansion.
Whitmer has pointed to an August statement the Indiana-based pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly released warning that the state’s abortion ban would reduce their “ability to attract diverse scientific, engineering and business talent from around the world” and saying that because of the new law the company “will be forced to plan for more employment growth outside our home state.”
When POLITICO asked whether Eli Lilly would consider investing in Michigan if the abortion-rights referendum passes, the company declined to comment.
Still, Whitmer and other Democrats running this year are confident they have a winning message as they try to hold on to the state’s executive branch and flip the legislature for the first time in decades — aided by new maps drawn by an independent commission that make many state House and Senate districts more competitive.
Betsy Coffia, a former social worker and Democratic state House challenger in a bellwether northwest district, told POLITICO she’s stressing the economic consequences of abortion rights on the campaign trail, including at a recent candidate forum held by her local chamber of commerce.
Coffia — whose race is considered a “must win” by the state’s Democratic Party — says the argument “lands for folks,” even for those who oppose abortion.
“My district, which is more rural, is already struggling to have enough doctors — OB-GYNs in particular,” she said. “So this could be a health care and economic catastrophe if we ban abortion and drive more health care professionals out of this state. We could really turn into a backwater.”