LANSING, Mich. (AP) – Just three months ago, Rep. Elissa Slotkin was one of Washington’s most vulnerable Democrats, waging a costly re-election campaign in a Michigan district where Republicans were sure they could win her back.
That was all a distant memory as Slotkin sat beaming next to Sen. Debbie Stabenow recently At a Lansing luncheon commemorating the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Fresh after a surprisingly comfortable 5-point win, Slotkin was keen to praise Stabenow, the dean of the Michigan Democrats whose Senate seat is suddenly open after the four-year senator announced it plans to retire.
“She knows what it takes to win and she won’t let her seat tip over when she leaves,” Slotkin said of Stabenow in an interview. “I think she feels very connected to making sure her legacy is preserved by passing the torch to someone who can win it.”
In what is quickly emerging as one of the most closely watched Senate races of the 2024 campaign, Slotkin aggressively responds to Stabenow’s call for “the next generation of leaders.” The 46-year-old former CIA intelligence officer is taking steps to prepare for a Senate nomination, including forming a national campaign team, according to an aide close to the congressman, who asked not to be identified to discuss the planning.
In the interview, Slotkin nodded to the plans, saying she would line up her “ducks” before an announcement.
Slotkin would almost certainly face competition from other Democrats in one of the most politically competitive states in the US. The ultimate winner of next year’s primary will be critical to the party’s efforts to hold onto the Senate, where Democrats hold a one-seat majority and face stiff headwinds while defending seats in Republican states from West Virginia to Montana and Ohio.
But Slotkin is gaining attention as someone who can help bring generational change to a party whose ranks on Capitol Hill are dominated by people several decades older than them. And the margin of her win last year could give reassurance that she’s prepared for another tough season.
“Very hard. Great fundraiser. Had tough elections. I think she would be up there,” said Michigan strategist Amy Chapman, who was Barack Obama’s director of state in 2008, in assessing Slotkin’s primary prospects. Chapman is neutral in the Senate primary.
Slotkin’s potential Democratic rivals include Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn BensonRepresentative Debbie Dingell and Haley Stevens, Lt. gov. Garlin Gilchrist and State Senator Mallory McMorrow. Only one Republican from Michigan has held a Senate seat for the past 40 years, Spencer Abraham, from 1995 to 2001. He was defeated by Stabenow in re-election.
Many of the potential candidates have their own unique background that could set them apart in a primary.
Gilchrist is the only prospective black party in a state where the Detroit area accounts for half of the statewide vote. Benson won re-election in November by a larger margin than Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who was sailing to a second term. McMorrow made a national name for himself last year with an impassioned speech on the floor about their opposition to restrictions on race and gender issues in schools. Dingell, whose late husband John was the longest-serving member of the House of Representatives of all time, represents suburban Detroit.
But for now, Slotkin appears to be the most aggressive amid Stabenow’s Jan. 5 resignation announcement, which surprised much of Michigan’s Democratic establishment.
Slotkin used her regular internal political meeting that day to begin discussing steps she would need to take to consider an offer, according to a person with knowledge of the call, who requested anonymity to discuss private planning . Since then, she has spoken to state and local Democrat-elected officials in Michigan and reached out to donors inside and outside Michigan who have helped establish her as one of the top fundraisers in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Slotkin raised $10 million for her 2022 campaign, second only to Rep. Katie Porter among targeted Democrats from California.
Slotkin was elected in 2018 by narrowly defeating two-term Republican Rep. Mike Bishop in a long-standing Republican district. She also became Stabenow’s congresswoman, representing the senator’s house in Lansing.
Stabenow, 72, who represented the Lansing area in the House of Representatives for four years before running for the Senate, took the young Democrat under her wing on the campaign trail and introduced her to influential activists and groups, Slotkin said. Their relationship has remained strong ever since, according to Slotkin.
“Sometimes she lets me borrow her little hidden office near the house if I have voices until 2am,” Slotkin added.
Stabenow has given no sign that she intends to back any of the many prospects seeking to succeed her, other than to nod to the relative newcomers to the list. “I’m really excited about the opportunity for the next generation of leaders,” she said in an interview.
After Slotkin narrowly won re-election in 2020, new congressional maps separated her home in Holly northeast of Lansing from the State Capitol, her district’s population center and its Democratic voting base. When she moved to Lansing to run in Michigan’s new 7th Circuit, Slotkin was seen as vulnerable by Republicans because she would be new to about a third of the district’s voters, many in rural GOP-dependent counties north of Lansing.
Democrat Joe Biden Barely won in the new configuration either, giving hope to Republican House strategists, who last year bet Biden’s low job approval would help sink vulnerable House Democrats.
Instead, Slotkin beat Republican Sen. Tom Barrett in a race that saw the two parties spend more than $40 million combined, making it the third-most expensive house race of 2022.
“She’s spent millions and millions of dollars increasing her positive name identification during her congressional district’s current iteration and the previous iteration,” said Adrian Hemond, a Democratic political strategist who is neutral in the primary. “That’s why you have to call Slotkin the favourite.”
However, Slotkin is little known among Michigan’s black voters, a commitment considering nearly 78 percent of Detroit’s population is black, according to the 2020 U.S. Census.
Although she has advertised Detroit television during her campaigns, she has never represented Detroit or its suburbs with large black populations like Flint.
“I think she has her work in Detroit’s black community ahead of her,” said Alexis Wiley, former chief of staff to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. “I don’t think you can overdo the tough fight there.”
Slotkin entered Congress with nationally recognized newcomers like New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who openly clashed with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She’s earned a reputation in the House for being quietly persistent, if necessary vocal, said former Rep. Cindy Axne of Iowa, who entered Congress with Slotkin and calls her a friend.
“As far as I know, there’s nobody better at strategy than Elissa Slotkin,” said Axne.
Last week, Slotkin traveled to Detroit and Grand Rapids, Michigan’s two largest cities and both outside of their borough, to attend events commemorating King’s birthday with black leaders.
She called it part of the effort to “speak to opinion leaders” and “see what they think,” though she didn’t suggest a deadline for an announcement.
As a strategist, she noted that “first movers are important in politics,” but that there is also “a headwind against preparation and methodical planning.”
“I could make an announcement, but then I don’t have the team in place,” she said. “Well, I want to do it right.”