Michigan governor run? Duggan, Benson, Gilchrist spur speculation

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Gubernatorial chatter is “all over” the island, Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley told Bridge Michigan. “Where have you been?”

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Though no one has officially declared for the race, observers said they are watching closely as high-profile Democrats position themselves for potential campaigns, including Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel.

Each attended this week’s Mackinac conference, where they met with influential business leaders, other politicians, potential donors and news reporters. 

Duggan spurred speculation by delivering a keynote address with a statewide focus. Benson announced a new “safe and secure elections” initiative with business leaders and Gilchrist was routinely in the spotlight at various Whitmer administration events and press conferences.

They’re “doing what they’re supposed to be doing this far out” if they’re going to run for governor in 2026, said Howard Edelson, a Democratic strategist who ran then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s 2006 re-election campaign.

“They’re getting out, circulating, talking about their vision for Michigan and lining up support,” Edelson added.

While Michigan voters have tended to gravitate toward change-candidates after eight years under a governor from either major political party, that may be less of an issue for Democrats in 2026 because public opinion polling suggests Whitmer remains “very popular and people like her,” Edelson said.

“If the popularity remains where it’s at, people will want more of a Whitmer approach to Michigan governance,” he said. 

In conversations on the sprawling porch of the Grand Hotel, Michigan Republicans mentioned U.S. Rep. John James and businessman Kevin Rinke as potential gubernatorial candidates. But neither attended the conference, and neither has publicly expressed interest in the race thus far.

“I don’t know who steps up,” said John Truscott, a public relations expert who previously worked as an aide to then-Gov. John Engler.

“Having a good, credible candidate is going to be a struggle,” Truscott said. “Nobody’s there right now locking up the early donors, and the Republican Party is so fractured, how do you build your structure?”

Republicans will need “somebody who’s got a little bit of old-school politicking, in terms of getting those coalitions together, but that can also reach out to the newer folks who have come into the party,” Truscott said. 

State House Minority Leader Matt Hall, R-Richland Township, said he’s focused on winning back the lower chamber this fall but noted that Benson seems to be “trying hard to be viewed as a contender” for governor come 2026.

Publicly, the possible Democratic contenders have remained coy. 

In an interview with Bridge Michigan, Benson said she’s “fully focused on 2024” and would share more about her future plans after administering the upcoming election. But she noted an interest in improving government efficiency and successfully attracting talent to Michigan.

“I certainly love the work that I’m doing and particularly have loved taking a state agency and transforming it to be more accessible for our citizens,” she said. “I am looking forward to exploring more ways to expand on that.” 

Duggan used his annual conference speech to call for a statewide focus on the interplay between law enforcement and mental health, a notable shift from his usual focus on Detroit. 

Duggan also endorsed Mary Waters for Congress in a Democratic primary against U.S. Rep. Shri Thanedar, but he declined to discuss his own political future, including whether he’s interested in running for governor. 

“I am totally interested in working hard for Joe Biden,” he told Bridge, referencing the contest between the incumbent Democrat and former President Donald Trump.

Hackel, who has flirted with a possible gubernatorial campaign before, said Wednesday that his interest in a gubernatorial run stood at about “a five” out of 10, but he noted that changes frequently. 

“You don’t really think of yourself in that role, but do you believe you can do it? I believe I can,” Hackel told Bridge. 

While the potential for a contested primary looms, Democrats are welcoming what they call a deep bench of possible gubernatorial candidates. 

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