How Democrats disarmed a brewing Senate battle in Michigan

How Democrats disarmed a brewing Senate battle in Michigan

What looked at first like a Democratic free-for all for Michigan’s open Senate seat is nearly over already. Which is exactly what Debbie Stabenow and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer wanted.

The retiring Stabenow has personally steered several of those interested in taking her Mitten State seat toward different positions that will soon open up. And as a result, Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) has largely cleared the field in what could have otherwise been a messy Senate primary.

So while the primary itself is more than a year away, there’s a growing feeling that party leaders have avoided a pile-up in a race that Democrats absolutely need to win to keep their majority next fall.

“If we have lots of talented people and they’re all running for different positions, then we get the benefit,” Stabenow, the No. 3 Senate Democrat, said in an interview. “So that’s what I’ve been saying: ‘Think about how to best keep this great talent going in the state.’ And you don’t do it by everybody running for the same seat.”

Behind-the-scenes maneuvering by Stabenow and Schumer, a former Senate campaign arm chief himself, helped quell fears of a messy fight over succeeding Stabenow in a must-win battleground state. But it’s less likely that Democrats can or even want to similarly smooth internal headaches over other open Senate seats — simply put, the party is fine with a chaotic primary in deep-blue California but resolved early on not to let the GOP capitalize on a disorganized clamor in Michigan.

Without naming names, Stabenow explained that she directed other ambitious Democrats who might have been interested in replacing her toward alternative statewide offices, from the governor’s office on down, that will open up in 2026 due to term limits. She had given Schumer a heads-up on her retirement weeks in advance of the late February announcement, and Schumer conveyed to anyone that would listen that Slotkin was well-funded and forcing her to spend big in a contested primary would hurt the party, according to two people familiar with the senators’ work on the race.

It’s not all pretty for Democrats in potentially contested races, of course. Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) is running for Arizona’s in-cycle Senate seat after Sen. Kyrsten Sinema became an independent and declined to reveal her 2024 intentions, potentially setting up a three-way general election.

And there’s still plenty of time for Democratic candidates to enter the race before Michigan’s primary next year, though top-tier candidates like Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and state Sen. Mallory McMorrow have already taken themselves out of the running. None of those Democrats has outright endorsed Slotkin yet, but the quiet interventions and their decisions helped quell fears of a messy fight over succeeding Stabenow in a must-win battleground state.

Gilchrist, who cited a desire to keep on working in Michigan when he passed on a Senate bid, is instead eyeing a bid for mayor of Detroit, according to a person familiar with his thinking who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, notably, hasn’t taken herself out of the running as she weighs her options. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) hasn’t entirely ruled out a bid either, though she’s made few concrete steps towards running.

Yet at the moment Stabenow herself does not expect either of those big names to leap in.

“It appears that at this point [Slotkin is] the only House member [running],” Stabenow said. “And it appears none of the statewide electeds want to run. But we could certainly have people that aren’t in elected office now.”

Actor Hill Harper is also expected to mount a bid soon as a Democrat, though it’s unclear how strong a challenge he would pose to the battle-tested Slotkin.

No major Republican candidate has publicly declared a run for the seat yet, though former Rep. Peter Meijer and Reps. Bill Huizenga and Lisa McClain are in the mix.

Slotkin, who flipped her seat in 2018, is a prodigious fundraiser and a skilled campaigner. The contest between Republican John James and Democrat Sen. Gary Peters in 2020 smashed state records for campaign spending, and Slotkin’s 2022 battleground House race was among the costliest in the country. Her House campaign raised nearly $10 million in the 2022 race, and her Senate campaign said they raised $1.2 million in the first day after her announcement.

“It’s been almost two weeks, and we feel good,” she said in a brief interview.

If Slotkin becomes the nominee, the preliminary consolidation could strengthen her position heading into what will be an expensive general election.

“The real issue is making sure that whoever wins the nomination doesn’t win on the first Tuesday in August and be penniless going into November. That’s the issue,” Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) said, adding that Democrats should “not be afraid of a good race, but we just want to keep it civil.”

Slotkin’s fellow House lawmakers aren’t publicly taking sides yet in the race even as they laud her. Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Mich.) praised her as “a masterful storyteller, masterful campaigner.”

And Rep. Hillary Scholten (D-Mich.), who flipped a GOP-held seat last year after the district was redrawn to become bluer, met with Slotkin recently during a “listening tour” that came through her district but said she hadn’t endorsed yet.

Democrats have had mixed results in recent years with their oft-shifting Senate race strategy. For years the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee took a relatively heavy hand in races, endorsing in safe blue states like Maryland in 2016 as well as the battlegrounds of Maine, North Carolina and Iowa in 2020.

During last year’s midterms, however, the party took a publicly hands-off approach that culminated in barely competitive primaries in two purple states. John Fetterman beat former Rep. Conor Lamb so handily in Pennsylvania that there was never much doubt about who the party would nominate. And all of Mandela Barnes’s opposition folded ahead of the Wisconsin primary, anointing him as the party’s nominee.

Fetterman won the general election; Barnes lost narrowly.

“If we have a strong candidate status, it’s certainly really beneficial to avoid a primary. Then the candidate could be totally focused on the general election,” said Peters, who’s chairing the campaign arm for the second straight cycle. “If someone already has a proven track record in a really hotly contested race, and has been able to win? It’s a proven track lead, as opposed to someone who looks good on paper.”

Peters said “there’s no question” that Slotkin meets that bar, given her fundraising acumen and success in a battleground House race.

On the other side of the aisle, Republicans are weighing their own similar adaptation after enduring several tough primaries in 2022 that left their nominees with little money and factionalized party bases. The Senate GOP already has helped clear the field for Rep. Jim Banks in Indiana’s Senate race and is strongly signaling its preference for Dave McCormick in Pennsylvania and Gov. Jim Justice in West Virginia.

But it remains to be seen whether the GOP will have the same success as Democrats had in Michigan.

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Author: By Nicholas Wu and Burgess Everett