By Michael Martina and Ben Klayman
DETROIT (Reuters) – Republicans in Michigan escalated attacks Tuesday on Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s efforts to combat COVID-19, arguing her policies are unnecessarily straining the state’s economy even as the state saw a jump in deaths from the virus.
Michigan has faced one of the country’s fastest growing infection rates for the new coronavirus and has seen more than 1,768 residents die, including another 166 people in the past day, the second most of any day during the pandemic.
But critics of Whitmer, who media have speculated could be a possible running mate for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, have taken umbrage at what they call inconsistencies and overreach in her policies, including the more stringent extension last week of a stay-at-home order through the end of April.
That order barred Michigan residents from moving between homes in the state or using motorboats, and stopped stores from selling carpeting, flooring, furniture, garden supplies or paint.
Six Republican U.S. House of Representatives members from Michigan – Fred Upton, Paul Mitchell, Tim Walberg, Bill Huizenga, John Moolenaar and Jack Bergman – sent Whitmer a letter on Tuesday calling on her to amend the order instead of “needlessly shutting down large sectors of the economy and further restricting the lives of residents”.
Republican National Committee Chairman Ronna McDaniel tweeted that Whitmer was turning Michigan into a “police state.”
“Gretchen, stop auditioning for VP & do your job,” she said.
On Facebook, a group called “Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine,” seeking a “reasonable solution” to the COVID-19 crisis, had more than 318,000 members as of Tuesday afternoon.
The Michigan Conservative Coalition has planned a rally by car on Wednesday at the statehouse in Lansing called “Operation Gridlock” to protest the impact of Whitmer’s extended stay-at-home order.
Scott Hagerstrom, who ran Donald Trump’s Michigan presidential campaign in 2016, said many residents believe the governor had overreached.
“You can’t bring a motorboat on a lake, but you can bring a canoe. You can’t go to a bunch of stores, but you can buy marijuana,” he said.
Whitmer, 48, said at a news conference on Monday that she had done “everything in my power to protect people in this state,” adding that COVID-19’s growth curve there appeared to be flattening.
“I don’t do any of this lightly … and I know there’s a cost,” Whitmer said. But she said the re-engagement of the state’s economy would likely occur in phases and be driven by the data on the pandemic.
Whitmer, who also is a co-chair of Biden’s presidential campaign, had previously garnered national attention by trading jabs with President Trump over the spread of COVID-19 in the state.
The Democratic governor has been mentioned as a possible vice presidential pick for Biden, partly because Michigan is a crucial swing state that Trump narrowly won in 2016.
Trump has pushed for the U.S. economy to be reopened, but a top government health expert said the president’s May 1 target was too optimistic.
Some Michigan Democrats argue Whitmer has made the best of the situation after Trump was slow in recognizing the seriousness of the pandemic.
“I think a lot of what’s going on, including this protest in Lansing, is motivated by Republican concern that Gretchen Whitmer may be the vice presidential candidate,” said Mark Brewer, a former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party.
An opinion poll released on Monday showed 71% of respondents in Michigan approved of Whitmer’s coronavirus response. By contrast, the poll, which was conducted by Hart Research Associates days before the extension of the governor’s order, showed 51% of respondents approved of Trump’s handling of the crisis.
Sixty-four percent of the respondents also felt unfavorably about Trump’s political attacks toward Whitmer on Twitter and cable news shows in recent weeks.
(Reporting by Michael Martina and Ben Klayman; Additional reporting by David Shepardson in Washington and Jarrett Renshaw in Philadelphia; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)