Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) has been promoting her state as a place that respects freedom ― as in, the ability to control what happens to your body, who you love, or how you identify yourself.
Now Whitmer is taking that message directly to some states where those freedoms are under assault.
Last week, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) launched a digital ad campaign touting the state’s commitment to inclusiveness and personal liberty. Its target is a half-dozen mostly Southern states where Republicans are in charge and have passed laws restricting abortion, LGBTQ+ rights or both.
MEDC is a public-private partnership that works with the governor’s office to boost in-state business ― in this case, by appealing to high-skilled workers who tend to cherish those personal freedoms, along with the companies that covet those workers as employees.
But this isn’t just another attempt to lure money and people into the state. This is also part of a broader attempt to mount an aggressive defense of abortion and LGBTQ+ rights by putting them together under the banner of “freedom.”
And there’s reason to think that appeal can work.
The MEDC campaign currently features three digital images, including one with two women on a small boat who appear to be a couple. “In Michigan, all are welcome,” a caption says. “Discover the benefits of living in a state that protects your rights.”
Another image has three young women walking on what looks like a college campus. Its tagline reads, “Enjoy your right to reproductive freedom.”
Digital images from a new pro-Michigan economic development campaign that promotes the state as welcoming to all, and protective of personal liberty. Michigan Economic Development Corporation
MEDC says it has spent $30,000 on the ads, which the agency described as an “initial buy” with the possibility of more to come. The intended audiences are online readers in Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Tennessee, Texas and South Carolina ― a list that’s hardly random, according to Robert Leddy, Whitmer’s director of communications.
Leddy told HuffPost that MEDC and the governor’s office picked those states because they satisfied two key criteria. They are competing with Michigan to woo large new employers, and their officials “have taken action to restrict people’s rights, or have legislation currently in the works, or have talked about doing so.”
Leddy wouldn’t elaborate on which specific efforts Whitmer and her advisers had in mind. But they might have been thinking of initiatives like the new restrictions on drag shows or discussion of sexuality in school ― or the abortion restrictions that have prohibited the practice in some parts of the country.
Whitmer, working with Michigan’s first Democratic-majority legislature in nearly 50 years, has taken her state in the opposite direction. They have added LGBTQ+ protections to the state’s civil rights statute and formally repealed a near-total abortion ban that had been on the books since 1931 but not enforced while Roe v. Wade was still the law of the land.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the Michigan Democrat seen here discussing abortion at a 2022 roundtable discussion in Detroit, has added an economic pitch to her longstanding defense of reproductive rights. Sarah Rice for The Washington Post via Getty Images
Whitmer has a long, well-chronicled record of defending LGBTQ+ and reproductive rights. But since last year, she has been adding an economic pitch, arguing that “bigotry is bad for business” ― a line, according to Leddy, reflects what she and her advisers have heard from employers.
“When it comes to very competitive business deals, this may be the tipping point,” Leddy said, “because we are hearing from companies who are saying that, where we are looking, it’s not feasible for the next-generation workforce.”
It’s hard to know how pervasive such sentiments are. Plenty of managers and executives have their own more conservative views on these issues, and certainly, plenty of workers feel that way too. Plus, it’s not clear ultimately just how much corporations weigh employee preferences anyway ― especially if, say, the states less hospitable to abortion and LGBTQ+ rights also offer lower taxes.
Still, there’s no question that tight labor markets have employers scrambling to find workers with more skills and education credentials ― who, according to the polls, tend to be the most supportive of abortion and LGBTQ+ rights. Over the last year, surveys have picked up signs that workers, especially women, will choose (or not choose) where to work depending on abortion availability.
The trend lines in politics seem even clearer. The Republican push to ban abortion has proven spectacularly unpopular, even in relatively conservative states like Kansas and Ohio, where an attempt to block an abortion rights amendment through constitutional amendment failed by double digits.
Overall, about two-thirds of Americans think abortion should be legal most of the time, according to a July poll from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, seen here campaigning in Iowa for the 2024 presidential nomination, made his war on "woke ideology" the foundation of his candidacy. His poll numbers have been plummeting. Stefani Reynolds via Getty Images
The polling on LGBTQ+ issues produces a more muddled picture, depending on the specific issue and question wording. But the right’s focus on the visibility and rights of the LGBTQ+ community may have limited appeal, even among Republican voters.
Just ask Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Florida Republican who made his war on “woke ideology” the foundation of his 2024 presidential candidacy ― and whose campaign now seems to be in deep trouble.
His poll numbers are in what looks like a freefall, his organization in apparent disarray. Recently he said that he has “moved on” from his infamous fight with Disney, which was over LGBTQ+ rights. And he tries hard not to discuss the six-week abortion ban he signed in the spring.
Whitmer, by contrast, is eager to talk about these topics ― in her speeches and interviews and when promoting the state as well. Last week she posted on X (formerly known as Twitter) about one of the MEDC digital ads, saying, “I wasn’t kidding when I said bigotry is bad for business. If you live in a state trying to restrict your rights and freedoms, move to Michigan.”
Whitmer would likely defend reproductive and LGBTQ+ rights regardless of poll numbers, given what she’s said over the years about her views on dignity and personal liberty ― and how much each of those issues means to her personally.