With Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez Backing Him, Abdul El-Sayed May Be on the Verge of a Stunning Upset

Riding a wave of left energy, gubernatorial candidate El-Sayed could follow the lead of Sanders in 2016 and score a shocking primary win in Michigan.

Theo Anderson

Abdul El-Sayed is hoping to follow the lead of fellow left challenger Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez by shocking the pundits. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

What does it mean when you can turn out over 1,200 people for your campaign rally in a midterm primary election in Michigan, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the newly famous democratic socialist from New York, is by your side?

In El-Sayed, voters have the choice of a candidate speaking directly to their major concerns—healthcare, corruption, inequality—and harnessing the energy of a building movement at a moment when it’s been driven by its highest-profile victory to date, with ripple effects still being felt across the country.

For one, it means you’re the new it” candidate, the one political observers across the country are looking to for signals of the Democratic Party’s future direction — and whether the political revolution is for real.

Such is now the case for Abdul El-Sayed, who would become the first Muslim governor in the nation if he wins the Democratic primary on August 7 and the general election in November.

Like Ocasio-Cortez, El-Sayed has the backing of the Left’s new electoral infrastructure, including Justice Democrats and Our Revolution. He’s also being supported by much of the digital media team from the Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, and has been endorsed by both Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders.

El-Sayed barely registered in the polls through early March, and he still trails his main opponent, former state Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, by double digits. But state-level polls are notoriously unreliable, and the El-Sayed campaign released an internal poll on July 31 showed him down just 5.8 points. The late-stage surge of energy behind El-Sayed could also help make the race a close one.

There were, for example, the raucous rallies last weekend featuring Ocasio-Cortez. In one typical scene, she told a boisterous crowd to leave it all on the field. We have to take personal responsibility for delivering the change that America wants.” A field director with the Whitmer campaign, on hearing that Ocasio-Cortez would stump for El-Sayed, summed up her potential impact on the race with a simple: Holy shit.”

El-Sayed pushed on the need to inspire the electorate to turn out for the midterm primary. Let’s remember democracy takes work,” he said at a rally at Wayne State University on July 28. People say there is no way to get people like in this room to vote. But if we are willing to take back our democracy, it will be reality for our future.”

There is also the history of Sanders’ historic victory in Michigan in March 2016, when he scored a stunning upset over Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary. Polls showed Sanders trailing Clinton by more than 20 points going into the election, and the win, which was deemed one of the greatest upsets in modern political history,” reenergized his campaign.

And there is a late spate of publicity for El-Sayed, including the endorsement by Sanders and stories focusing on this race in several mainstream outlets, including Vox, the New York Times, HuffPost and CNN. ABC called it a microcosm of a bigger fight.” The Washington Post said Michigan is a test of whether Democrats will lurch left.” Time called the race both a glimpse of the Democratic Party’s future” and a window into several national trends,” testing Democrats’ ability to field compelling candidates who can speak to both voters of color and working-class whites.”

Another Michigan upset?

El-Sayed, 33, has an M.D. from Columbia University and a doctorate in public health for Oxford. He was Detroit’s health commissioner from 2015 to 2017, and now lives in Macomb County, north of Detroit, which could be considered ground zero for Democrats’ recent struggles with working-class white voters.

In 1960, John Kennedy won the vote of its white population by 63 percent. Ronald Reagan won it by 66 percent in 1984. Similarly, Barack Obama won the county twice, but Donald Trump won it in 2016. Stanley Greenberg, a longtime analyst of Macomb County who recently talked with Obama-turned-Trump voters there, noted that in every focus group we hear more and more about the crippling cost of health care, especially among the women. They describe health care costs as ridiculous’ and crappy’ and something they increasingly cannot afford.”

El Sayed’s central issue, not coincidentally, is Michcare” — a single-payer healthcare plan that would cover everyone under 65. He also supports a wide range of robustly progressive policies, including universal pre-K and broadband internet, a $15 minimum wage, a support program for people released from prison, an end to for-profit charter schools, campaign finance reform and an expansion of early voting.

But for El Sayed, who has pledged to refuse corporate donations, the theme connecting all the dots is the corruption of politics and the public sphere by corporate money and privatization schemes.

President Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos got her start in school privatization in Michigan, and in many ways has left the state’s education system in dire straights. She has been a frequent target of El-Sayed’s on the campaign trail.

Both El-Sayed and Whitmer have decried an April decision by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to let the Nestle corporation pump 400 gallons of water per minute from a well in the state. The company pays almost nothing for the water, which it bottles and sells as its Ice Mountain brand. The giveaway of public resources looks particularly bad in light of Michigan’s high-profile failures to meet minimal quality standards for its public water supplies in Flint and elsewhere across the state.

The Nestle case was likely an easy call for Whitmer, since it provoked widespread anger. It’s the issue of healthcare that clarifies and highlights the distance between the two candidates. Executives at the insurance company Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) have organized fundraisers for Whitmer’s campaign, and while the company’s PAC hasn’t donated directly to her, she has benefited from over half a million dollars in untraceable dark money.” Whitmer, meanwhile, has called a single-payer system in Michigan not realistic.”

In a normal cycle, Whitmer may have run unopposed in this primary. She served in the state legislature for about 14 years, is well funded, has deep connections and has led by at least 20 points for much of the race.

But given the unpredictable nature of our politics over the past two years, El-Sayed believes an upset could be on the horizon. As he recently told Vogue, if you can pull more people out to vote, that’s how you win. And that’s what we’re doing. As Alexandria always says, the voter we’re going for is not the one who goes just from red to blue, it’s from nonvoter to voter. And that’s what we’re doing right now.”

In El-Sayed, voters have the choice of a candidate speaking directly to their major concerns — healthcare, corruption, inequality — and harnessing the energy of a building movement at a moment when it’s been driven by its highest-profile victory to date, with ripple effects still being felt across the country.

We’re offering a politics that the establishment hasn’t offered in a long time,” says Adam Joseph, the El-Sayed campaign’s communications director. We’re showing that really bold positions are possible, and we’re showing how we’re going to get it done. The establishment should be pretty worried about it. Because we are going to win.” 

Theo Anderson is an In These Times contributing writer. He has a Ph.D. in modern U.S. history from Yale and writes on the intellectual and religious history of conservatism and progressivism in the United States. Follow him on Twitter @Theoanderson7.
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.