LANSING, Mich. – When U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin announced plans to run for a critical Senate seat in Michigan, many Democrats were pleased.
The three-term Lansing-area congresswoman was among the stars of last year's midterm election, handily winning one of the nation's most expensive contests. The magnitude of her victory in what was expected to be a narrow contest has largely dissuaded other prominent Democrats from challenging her for the Senate nomination and so far, no high-profile Republican has stepped forward.
Slotkin's entry into the race has helped reassure Democrats that in a year when they are defending twice as many seats as Republicans are, their standing in Michigan may be safe. That may be good news for the effort to protect Democrats' fragile Senate majority, but it's complicating the party's bid to retake the House in 2024. Democrats need to gain just five seats to return to power and it's not clear whether anyone else can repeat Slotkin's success in one of the most competitive districts in the United States.
“It is sort of a blessing and a curse,” said Michigan Democratic strategist Amy Chapman, who was Barack Obama’s state director during his first presidential campaign in 2008. “Senate Democrats have gotten a good candidate but the curse is, obviously, what do you do about the House district?”
Slotkin is running to succeed Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who is retiring at the end of her term. The same dynamic is unfolding elsewhere. In California, for example, Rep. Katie Porter's decision to enter a crowded Democratic primary for the seat held by retiring Sen. Dianne Feinstein has opened the competitive 47th Congressional District.
Losing either seat could put the majority out of reach for Democrats and expand the Republicans’ cushion in the House. It also could complicate Democrats' efforts to raise money for House races. Slotkin is one of the party's most prolific fundraisers, having pulled in $10 million for her 2022 campaign. Among Democrats seen as vulnerable last year, she was outraised only by Porter.
Democrats, including Slotkin, insist they aren't abandoning the districts as they eye the Senate.
"I am really dedicated — to the point of obsession — in keeping this district because we can flip the House in 2024 with the seat being held,” Slotkin said in a recent interview.
In the House race, Michigan Republicans have already found their top candidate in Tom Barrett, who challenged Slotkin in 2022 and plans to run again in 2024. A former state senator and an Army veteran, Barrett has long been seen as a rising star in the party but lost by more than 5 percentage points to Slotkin last year.
Michigan’s 7th District, which was redistricted just before the 2022 midterms, is a blend of seven counties. It encompasses Republican-dominated counties such as Clinton and Shiawassee and Democratic strongholds like Ingham, which is home to the state Capitol and Michigan State University. The district’s voters range from farmers and lawmakers to undergraduates.
Barrett will benefit from name recognition after his race against Slotkin last year. The National Republican Campaign Committee, the campaign arm of House Republicans, has said it plans to go “all hands on deck” to win the district in 2024.
Michigan Democrats have yet to find their replacement for Slotkin. While no candidates have officially come forward, former state Sen. Curtis Hertel and Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum are both seriously considering campaigns.
Hertel represented Lansing and East Lansing from 2015 to 2022 before being term-limited. He is now Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s legislative director and comes from a family of officeholders. His father, a brother and two uncles served in the Legislature and another uncle was in the U.S. House.
Byrum, who represented part of Ingham County in the state House from 2007 to 2012, has grown a following on social media by countering election misinformation as a local clerk.
The clock is ticking for Democrats, with neither Byrum nor Hertel having the connections or campaign infrastructure of a candidate like Barrett who has run for Congress before.
“The longer we don’t have a candidate, the less amount of time they have to raise money,” Byrum said in an interview. “Within the next few months, we should have a candidate running for this seat.”
As both a state senator and representative, Barrett has represented more of the district in the past. But Hertel and Byrum would each have the advantage of having represented parts of Ingham County, which holds close to half the district's population and which Slotkin won by nearly 36 percentage points.
Slotkin has pledged to work with the nominee to ensure Democrats keep the seat. She promised constituents at a Senate campaign kickoff in Lansing last month that her “first responsibility” would be to “make sure this district stays in Democratic hands.”
“To be honest, I had always thought to myself, I’m not going to be here forever,” Slotkin said. “So how do you bring up the next group, the next crop of potential candidates? How do you take folks who have been in the state legislature and prepare them to run federally?”
Democrats up and down the ballot in Michigan last year benefited, in part, from blowouts at the top of the ticket and a historic abortion rights ballot initiative. Michigan had the highest youth turnout of any state in the country at 37%, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, which studies young voters.
This year could be different, said Lansing-based Democratic strategist Adrian Hemond, with favorability in the presidential election potentially influencing a battleground district with no strong incumbent. While President Joe Biden won the state in 2020, three of the four main counties in Michigan's 7th District voted heavily for then-President Donald Trump.
“In some parts of this district, the former president is popular," Hemond said. "In other parts, he is poison and a turnout driver for Democrats."
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