Politico: Elissa Slotkin Is Sounding the Alarm. Will Democrats Listen?
By Tim Alberta
When one of Elissa Slotkin’s staffers passed along a New York Times report alleging that Russia had put bounties on the heads of American troops in Afghanistan—and that President Donald Trump either did not consume the relevant intelligence or did not act upon it—“my stomach,” the Michigan congresswoman says, “dropped to my knees.”
Slotkin spent the next 72 hours in an incredulous haze. A veteran CIA analyst before coming to Congress in the Democratic wave of 2018, she thought she had seen it all. She had served at length in the Middle East, lost friends and gained Top Secret clearance. She had personally briefed both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, in the White House situation room and in the Oval Office, on grave national security threats. And yet Slotkin’s imagination could not stretch far enough to accommodate either of the two scenarios now confronting her. How could something so sensitive not reach the president? Or, if it had, how could he have ignored it?
The congresswoman inhaled every bit of news coverage, watching carefully for conflicting details or any confirmation of the original Times story. She called former colleagues in the intel community in search of explanations. Finally, she took to social media, writing a series of uncharacteristically pointed tweets about Trump and Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. “Something has been off about that relationship since the beginning,” she wrote, “and Americans are quite literally paying in blood for his pandering to Putin.”
The irony was not lost on Slotkin. Here she was, four months out from Election Day, one of the most endangered Democrats in the country, representing a district Trump carried by 7 points, spending her Sunday morning doing precisely what she had vowed to avoid: picking a Twitter fight with the president of the United States.
There will be consequences—of this, Slotkin is certain. She cannot hope to win reelection this fall without persuading a significant number of voters in Michigan’s 8th Congressional District to split their tickets—four more years for Trump, two more years for her—and every feud with the White House is equivalent to a few more straight-party ballots being punched. Whether Slotkin can have it both ways, speaking her mind about the president and winning over some of his supporters, may well determine not only her fate but the fate of Democrats in swing districts and battleground states across the country.
Slotkin didn’t want it to be this way. She envisioned another hyperlocal campaign, like the one she ran in 2018, building consensus around kitchen-table issues and eluding perceptions of partisanship. But if her first two years in Congress taught her anything, it’s that sooner or later, everyone has to pick a side. There is no middle ground when it comes to Donald Trump.
“He’s forcing my hand,” Slotkin tells me a day after the tweetstorm, resignation dripping from her voice. “He’s doing things and saying things that call upon me to think about my fundamental oath of office.”
In 2018, even as the national water cooler was dominated by talk of Trump, some Democratic congressional challengers ran campaigns predicated on a strategic belief that only by ignoring the elephant in the Oval Office could they flip red districts nationwide. The idea was not so much to wish Trump out of existence as avoid the inevitable sting associated with siding with or against the most polarizing man in America. Rather than alienate progressives or offend conservatives, Slotkin and company ran a collective do-no-harm campaign, focusing insistently on job creation, on expanding health insurance and lowering costs, on working in a bipartisan way to lower the volume in Washington. They anchored their candidacies with sterling résumés that drew from experiences in business and national security, forcing Republicans to play defense in parts of the country they had controlled for generations.
It worked. Democrats seized control of the House of Representatives, flipping dozens of seats, like hers in southeast Michigan, that were ripe for political realignment. Stitching together a coalition that centered around suburban women—disaffected Republicans and mortified independents both—Slotkin, once viewed as a sacrificial lamb against Mike Bishop, the GOP incumbent, pulled away for a nearly 4 percentage point victory in a district Republicans had controlled for all of the 21st century.
Emboldened, Slotkin and her fellow freshmen felt certain they had fashioned a blueprint. They would come to Washington but not succumb to its one-character drama. It would be their responsibility to serve as a check on the executive, of course, but these incoming legislators believed they would do their jobs, and keep their jobs, with a relentless focus on the real issues affecting their constituents back home. They would not allow Trump to dictate how they went about their work—in Congress or on the campaign trail.
Two years later, it all sounds so naive.
The rookie members of Congress were sworn in during a government shutdown of the president’s design and they realized very quickly they were merely the newest cast members on The Trump Show, forced into roles as the disloyal opposition that he defined for them. They would not be broadly evaluated by their efforts to regulate prescription drug costs or by their contributions to campaign finance reform. In normal times, individual efforts might have gained more traction in D.C., might have broken through the noise back home, might have influenced the perceptions of a legislator among her constituents. But these were not normal times.
Everything of significance that has transpired in the 116th Congress—oversight hearings with Trump allies and officials, reactions to Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian meddling in 2016, the Ukraine inquiry and subsequent impeachment proceedings, economic stabilization efforts to offset the impact of Covid-19, proposals to reform policing in America—is best understood through the prism of Trump, his vise-grip on America’s collective political subconscious and his campaign to win reelection. Politically, nothing else matters. This isn’t to say members of Congress won’t be assessed on their performance, but rather to say that the performance itself has almost everything to do with their relationship to Trump and their skill in navigating the minefields of his presidency.
Which brings us to Slotkin. Few members of Congress arrived in Washington with more nonpartisan street cred than the 42-year-old former intelligence analyst who served three tours in Iraq, who married a respected Army officer turned Pentagon adviser and who never gave any whiff of political leanings until posting the news of her run for Congress in the summer of 2017. (Friends called with alarm, thinking her Facebook account had been hacked.) It’s the type of background that traditionally would have insulated a lawmaker from accusations of partisanship. But, in the case of Slotkin, it’s that very background that has compelled her time and again to censure Trump in a way that inevitably is viewed as partisan.
Take the Russian bounties scandal. When I spoke with her over the phone, three days after the story broke, she had just been informed that she would visit the White House the next morning for a classified briefing. It made sense that Steny Hoyer, the House majority leader charged with leading a select crew of Democrats down Pennsylvania Avenue, would bring Slotkin along. She deserved to be there. She wanted to be there. And yet, being there meant not doing constituent calls. Being there meant skipping other meetings relevant to her district. Being there—and agreeing to appear on television as a serious, sober-minded, non-bomb-throwing spokesperson for the Democratic Party—meant talking for most of the week about Trump rather than about water quality fixes or defense authorization amendments or any number of other things she’d been consumed with.
Once again, Trump is blocking out the sun. Slotkin has come to terms with that reality. She knows that she, like every other candidate on the ballot this fall, is campaigning in his shadow. And yet, she holds out hope that just enough voters will measure her merits as an individual; that she will be judged by metrics other than her allegiance to the president or lack thereof.
“You know, late last year, I was asked every single day for three months—especially on TV, MSNBC, CNN, Fox— they all asked me, ‘Do you think you’re going to lose your job over this?’” Slotkin recalls, thinking back to her reluctant starring role in the impeachment of Trump. “And I said, ‘I might. I might.’ But I believe that voters in my state and in my district still care about having elected officials with integrity, even if they don’t agree with them.”
Slotkin barely pauses. “But we’re gonna find out.”
Deep Roots in a Divided District
Somewhere on the 400-acre Slotkin family farm in Holly, Michigan, up and over verdant hills, past the hulking pole barn where Elissa exchanged vows with Dave Moore, the dirt-and-gravel driveway no longer in sight, I ask a basic question: If the election were today, would she win?
Slotkin stops walking. Brushing away wisps of brown hair from her forehead, the congresswoman’s knuckles linger against her temple as she looks past me, silently, for a full 11 seconds, as if trying to solve a math equation in her mind.
“If the election was held today, before I’ve really gotten to work for it?” she finally manages. Another long pause. “I don’t know.”
She computes some more. “I think probably I would win. But for me, it’s really important to have neighbors talking to neighbors and we haven’t been able to do as much of that.”
And then, a candid assessment: “I think, without doing the work, a smart person’s money should be on a Republican candidate. … I can't take anything for granted given how this district was built.”
Fifteen minutes south of Flint and an hour northwest of Detroit, Holly is a quiet, scenic settlement, the sort of everyman’s resort town where people camp in the summer and ski in the winter. The Slotkin name is royalty here: Hugo Slotkin, who ran the family business, Hygrade Food Products, bought the farm in 1956, the year before his company gained eternal fame with the creation of the Ball Park Frank (“They plump when you cook ’em”) for Tiger Stadium in Detroit. His granddaughter, Elissa, was born in New York, but her mother’s breast cancer diagnosis forced the family to move to Michigan when she was 4. Raised between the farm and some nearby suburbs after her parents’ divorce, Slotkin says Holly was “always home base,” the rallying point for her family, and where she and Dave live today, along with their two dogs and, temporarily, a cousin and his wife.
Even so, Holly, like the rest of Slotkin’s district, is a house divided—a house with a foundation that leans slightly, but noticeably, to the right. She won two of Holly’s four precincts in 2018. But the total vote from her hometown was Bishop: 2,588, Slotkin: 2,243.
The war for the White House in 2020 will come down to a series of smaller battles waged on unique fronts across the country, not simply at the statewide level but inside the towns, counties and congressional districts where the demographic trends are sharpest and the turnout margins are tightest. It is in these places—from the emerging sun-drenched barrios of Phoenix, to the historic and prosperous neighborhoods of northeastern Philadelphia, to the quaint, overlooked, suburban-meets-rural communities like Holly—that control of the White House, and likely the Senate and House of Representatives, will ultimately be decided.
Each of these hot spots will provide an answer—in some cases, multiple answers—to the essential questions of 2020: Will Black voters participate at higher levels than they did in 2016? Will the flight of college-educated women from the GOP accelerate? Will the Democratic Party bring any of its lost working-class whites back into the fold? Will young progressives stay at home to protest Joe Biden’s lukewarm liberalism? Will conservative seniors sour on Trump because of his response to Covid-19? And for that matter, what effect will the pandemic have on voter turnout across demographic lines?
These are the riddles each presidential campaign is gnawing on, relying on sophisticated voter outreach and data analytics programs to build models of an electorate they must persuade come November. But the truth is, the brightest minds inside these operations are often in the dark, usually for one reason: Their feet are not on the ground. Hillary Clinton’s failure to visit Wisconsin in 2016 and Mitt Romney’s absolute certainty that he would carry Ohio in 2012 are symptoms of the same illness, an approach to presidential year politics that is arrogant, top heavy and disconnected from average voters.
If presidential candidates occupy one end of the spectrum, obsessing over the big picture at the expense of granular realities, the other end belongs to members of Congress. Not all members of Congress, mind you. Many represent such absurdly homogenous districts that they could sleepwalk to reelection every two years, never bothering to shake a hand or smooch a baby. But if you study a member of Congress who puts in the work—who has no choice but to learn every inch of her district, to take every community leader’s call, to educate herself on every local issue—you can gain a wealth of understanding about not just what to expect from voters come Election Day, but why to expect it.
Slotkin is one such member of Congress.
Rather than rely on outside assessments, Slotkin bases every maneuver, every tactical decision, on what she’s seeing and hearing for herself.
This is the first installment of a POLITICO series that will examine the 2020 election through the eyes of Slotkin, an exceptionally ambitious and uniquely vulnerable congresswoman, as well as through the eyes of voters in Michigan’s 8th District, a strategically vital location for both parties in their quest for control of Washington next year and beyond.
An endangered incumbent, representing a purple district in the most competitive region of one of America’s premier swing states, Slotkin is not an accomplished political player. She is still raw, still at times wobbly on her feet, still learning the secrets of her new craft. What sets the congresswoman apart is a skill set few in her field have—a talent for investigating, researching, crunching data and challenging conclusions and adapting to findings. She is, in short, a shrewd observer of the carnage unfolding in her backyard, if not yet the most lethal combatant. This serves Slotkin well. Rather than rely on outside assessments, she bases every maneuver, every tactical decision, on what she’s seeing and hearing for herself. That means dismissing advice from the national party. That means distancing herself from nascent ideological demands on the left. That means, in the summer of 2020, with a torrent of polling fueling a narrative that Trump has fallen way behind in his campaign for a second term, warning Democrats not to trust what they’re being told.
“I don’t believe it,” Slotkin says matter of factly. “Listen, if anyone tells me they can accurately predict what major events are coming in the remainder of 2020, I’ll give them a thousand dollars. I mean, this has been the year of black swans. … I don’t for one minute think this [presidential] race is safe in anyone’s column. I’ve been literally begging people to ignore those polls. They are a snapshot in time. And if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we have no idea what’s coming next.”
I stop Slotkin there. Is her gripe that these snapshots—the polling, both public and private, that shows Republicans bleeding support across the board—are accurate in the present, yet subject to so much volatility in the future as to be worthless? Or does she believe the snapshots themselves are inaccurate here and now?
“I think they’re inaccurate,” she replies without hesitation. “Here’s the thing. When I started to run and I had to hire a pollster, I interviewed a bunch of different folks and I decided to do what we do sometimes at the Pentagon, which is to take a ‘bad cop’ approach to the interview. … It was five or six folks that I interviewed, and I said, ‘You got something wrong. You screwed up in 2016. What did you get wrong? And how are you going to fix it?”
Only one pollster, Slotkin says, admitted that he got it wrong. That was the person—Al Quinlan of GQR, a large Washington-based firm—she hired.
“He told me that they fundamentally undercounted the Trump vote; that the Trump voter is not a voter in every single election, that they come out for Trump, so they’re hard to count,” she explains. “On a survey, if someone says, ‘I’m not sure I’m going to vote,’ you don’t usually continue the conversation. And some of them didn’t have any desire to be on those poll calls; they didn’t have the 20 minutes to talk to somebody. They didn’t want to do it. And so, they were fundamentally undercounted.”
Slotkin, ever the intel analyst—identifying trends, compiling a report, presenting a conclusion—tells me, with a high degree of confidence, “I believe that same thing is happening right now.”
Engineered to Win
To understand the realignment of American politics, and the sudden, capricious convulsions that have accelerated it, there are few places better to begin than inside Michigan’s 8th District.
Shaped like a mirror image of Oklahoma—panhandle to the right—the territory stretches roughly 100 miles. To the far west lies Lansing, the diverse and economically barren capital city, as well as East Lansing, home to the behemoth campus of Michigan State University and its tens of thousands of students. To the far east is a cluster of wealthy, majority white townships in Oakland County, the executive hub of suburban Detroit. And in the middle, a vast region that defies easy definition, affluent exurbs run up against forgotten farmlands, diverging areas that are bound by little except a shared consistency of culture: The areas are overwhelmingly white, deeply religious and reliably conservative.
What the district lacks in ethnic diversity—it is more than 80 percent white—it makes up for with a rare geographic mix. Slotkin, unlike most members of Congress, has constituents that are urban, suburban, exurban and rural.
“The district is unique because it’s really three districts—west, central and east,” says John Sellek, a local Republican consultant. “The west is Ingham County, a place that does not elect Republicans. Then, you’ve got Livingston as the anchor for Republicans in the center of the district, a conservative, high-turnout area. And then in the east, you’ve got the northern suburbs of Oakland County, which is still considered a Republican area, but without the hard-core conservative voters you find in Livingston.”
Sellek, who lives in Brighton, an idyllic, affluent bedroom community inside Livingston County, adds: “What scares Republicans is the change in Livingston. It’s a high-growth area, and that growth is coming from suburbanites who aren’t sure they identify as Republicans anymore.”
While many of the once-red districts that flipped in 2018 had witnessed considerable shifts in voting behaviors and were thus long overdue for a Democratic takeover, the 8th remains at its core a messy, self-contradicting political universe. Its red-to-blue conversion in 2018 was hardly a reflection of a lurch leftward; rather it was a unique repudiation of Trump and his new right, a verdict made possible by lopsided advantages in money, energy and, ultimately, turnout.
Top: Mt. Brighton, a ski hill in Rep. Slotkin’s district. Bottom right: Firewood for sale in Hell, Mich., a small rural township that is part of the 8th District. Bottom left: A sign at the gazebo in the town square of Pinckney, a majority white, rural town in Slotkin’s district, during a Black Lives Matter demonstration.
Top: Mt. Brighton, a ski hill in Rep. Slotkin’s district. Bottom right: Firewood for sale in Hell, Mich., a small rural township that is part of the 8th District. Bottom left: A sign at the gazebo in the town square of Pinckney, a majority white, rural town in Slotkin’s district, during a Black Lives Matter demonstration.
“This isn’t the story of a district that’s moving toward Democrats,” says Dave Wasserman, the ace congressional handicapper for the Cook Political Report. “It’s still a very polarized district between some of the true Detroit suburbs on one side, and a very liberal state capital and college campus on the other side, and a lot of deeply conservative areas in between.”
This polarization is embodied by Ingham and Livingston, adjacent counties, both of which are contained fully within the 8th District. Ingham County is 75 percent white, has a median household income of roughly $53,000 and a poverty rate of 21 percent; Livingston County is 97 percent white, has a median household income of more than $78,000 and a poverty rate of less than 6 percent. One county has virtually no recent history of electing Republicans; the other, virtually no recent history of electing Democrats. If these are the political extremes, the middle is represented by a narrow strip of Oakland County, the last piece of the district’s puzzle. It’s a competitive, if right-leaning, stretch of mostly affluent suburbs, meaning it’s all a matter of margins: Whereas a Republican blowout all but guarantees a Republican win in the district, a relatively close race there gives Democrats a chance. (Slotkin lost Oakland County by some 14,000 votes in 2018, which allowed her to win the district by 13,098 votes thanks to huge turnout in Ingham County; during the previous midterm, in 2014, Bishop carried Oakland County by some 32,000 votes and won the district by roughly 30,000 votes overall.)
At the turn of the 21st century, when the seat was vacant due to then-Rep. Debbie Stabenow’s campaign for U.S. Senate, Michigan’s 8th played host to the tightest congressional contest in the country. It was decided by 160 votes—out of nearly 300,000 cast. The winner was Mike Rogers, a Republican state senator and former FBI agent.
Rogers would go on to become a powerful member of Congress, chairing the House Intelligence Committee and distinguishing himself as one of the GOP’s most authoritative voices on foreign policy. Less appreciated was his political prowess. The son of two local officeholders—the Rogerses were dubbed “the first family” of Livingston County—Rogers worked his congressional turf relentlessly, earning a reputation for delivering elite constituent services and hunting down votes in even the unfriendliest precincts. Leaning on his national security background, Rogers branded himself a center-right institutionalist who put country over party, results over ideology. The formula was magic: He won reelection six times, each margin by double digits, the last one in 2012 by a spread of 21 points.
Rogers’s dominance obscured the competitive balance of the 8th. When he retired in 2014, the district, now widely perceived to be prohibitively red, was barely contested by Democrats. The result was a coronation of Mike Bishop, a well-liked Republican state legislator, who won the seat by double-digit margins of his own in 2014 and again in 2016.
Even with a backlash building against the new president, and Democrats mobilizing nationwide to take back longtime Republican seats, the 8th was hardly an obvious target. It would take a special kind of Democrat to turn out the liberal base in Ingham County, hold down losing margins in Livingston County and convert a critical mass of soft Republicans in Oakland County.
Enter Slotkin. She had barely resettled in Holly after leaving Washington at the end of Obama’s presidency. She was not politically connected. She was not recruited to run. Rather, it was the Republican attempt in early 2017 to repeal Obamacare that got Slotkin into the game. Her mother, who died in 2011, had gone years without insurance due to preexisting conditions from breast cancer. Slotkin believes the law very well might have saved her life. Enraged at seeing Bishop flex for the cameras during a Rose Garden ceremony after the House voted for repeal, Slotkin began cold-calling local politicos, asking how to get a congressional campaign off the ground.
“She might as well have been grown in a laboratory to win this district,” says Adrian Hemond, a Democratic consultant who lives there, just south of Lansing. “The moderate persona, the national security credentials, the family farm in Holly—it just checks all the boxes.”
Hemond chuckles. “Elissa Slotkin is Mike Rogers in a dress. She’s running the Mike Rogers playbook better than any Republican could.”
A Powerful Enemy
Chuck Hagel can still remember the briefing.
It was 2006. The war in Iraq was at a crossroads. President George W. Bush’s troop surge was being met with staunch opposition domestically and fierce resistance from insurgents on the ground. Hagel, the Republican senator from Nebraska and a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee, was visiting Iraq yet again, hoping for the clarity that had eluded him on so many trips to the country since the 2003 invasion. He had long since grown distrustful of assessments from a parade of slick-speaking American officials who dodged and pivoted like politicians. Which made his encounter with Slotkin, a 30-year-old CIA analyst, all the more refreshing.
“Elissa stuck out immediately. She was just very, very impressive,” Hagel says, recalling the intelligence briefing she delivered to him and other visiting members of Congress. “She was very straightforward, very direct, very knowledgeable. She didn’t waste words and she didn’t play to anybody’s feelings. She answered the questions and didn’t care if we liked the answers.”
Over the course of three tours in-country and countless briefings delivered to high-ranking U.S. officials, Slotkin gained a reputation for shooting straight and suffering no fools. Soon enough, the Bush administration brought her back to Washington, placing her in charge of the Iraq portfolio on the National Security Council. The story was the same: Against a canvas of seasoned, cautious, career-long wallflowers, the young Iraq expert, fluent in Arabic and Swahili, burst with color. When Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, and his transition team acted first to assemble his national security roster, Bush officials made it known: The new guys would need Slotkin around.
“She inspired confidence in everyone. She knew what she was talking about and wasn’t afraid to stand up for her opinions. Elissa is very confident in her views,” says Stephen Hadley, Bush’s national security adviser and Slotkin’s former boss.
He added, “She’s also got personal courage. We were trying late in 2008 to negotiate a status of forces agreement with Iraq, and she was part of our team we sent to Baghdad to negotiate. It wasn’t going well, and I called the team back here—and that’s when the Iranian militias began shelling our embassy. But it didn’t faze her a bit. Trust me, she’s just a very formidable person.”
The NSC job had been new terrain for Slotkin, who was recruited by the CIA essentially straight out of her graduate program at Columbia University. But with Obama in office, Slotkin was on the move again, first to the State Department and eventually to the Pentagon, where she held a number of roles related to intelligence and Middle East policy. By the time Hagel was appointed secretary of Defense in 2013, Slotkin “was a very significant player in our overall intelligence,” he said. She would give regular briefings to him, the military heads and the president himself. When Hagel’s chief of staff was given an ambassadorship, he interviewed Slotkin for the job. The notion that she was a Democrat never occurred to him.
“We never had any kind of a political conversation, and she never made any kind of political calculation or commentary on the job,” Hagel says. “All I knew about Elissa was that she was the consummate professional: She was direct, succinct and never wasted anybody’s time. She also had a great personality. Everybody liked her. Everybody except—”
Hagel pauses, then lets out a hearty chuckle. “Except John McCain.”
Indeed, Slotkin’s clashes with the late Arizona senator, in committee hearings and behind the scenes during her intelligence work, are the stuff of lore in some quarters of the Pentagon. After a series of disputes over Iraq policy—fairly summarized by Slotkin declining to agree with McCain’s diagnoses of events—the senator blocked her promotion at the Defense department, calling her “totally unqualified.”
It’s no surprise that McCain’s words wound up in a television ad attacking Slotkin during the 2018 campaign. What’s more interesting is how the showdown between the two—one a fabled war hero and prominent lawmaker, the other an unknown staffer with a future in Congress—framed Slotkin’s political brand in a way so similar to McCain’s. Independent. Straight-talking. Cantankerous. A pain in the opposition party’s neck one day and her own party’s neck the next.
“What Americans want to see in their elected representatives, as much as anything, is someone who tells it like it is. That is missing in today’s political world, and that’s what Elissa does,” Hagel says. “So, she blew back on John at hearings when he disagreed with her, and he held up her nomination. She knew that she was jeopardizing her [nomination] but she wasn’t going to give in. John got his ire up and called her ‘arrogant.’ The last way I would describe Elissa Slotkin is ‘arrogant.’”
He chuckles again. “But she is tough. Just like John was.”
Threading the Needle ... Again
Slotkin didn’t go full “maverick” in her 2018 campaign, but the political newcomer was highly effective in charting a path distinct from the ideological extremes in both parties.
Deploying the cunning self-label of “a Midwestern Democrat,” Slotkin showed a preternatural ability to triangulate against things she believed to be insane, unrealistic or both. She would not support the push for “Medicare for All”; rather, she supported bolstering the Affordable Care Act and expanding access to more Americans. She had no time for “Abolish ICE,” the fast-burning cry on the far left provoked by family separation at the southern border; instead, she peddled her expertise in protecting Americans and upholding the nation’s core values. She wasn’t going to take the bait on psychoanalyzing Trump, much less impeaching him; to the contrary, she wanted to go to Washington with an open mind and a willingness to work with anyone who had ideas to help her constituents, the president included.
This exercise in needle-threading will be a staple of Slotkin’s first campaign for reelection. One recent Saturday afternoon, after watching her mingle with a mostly white crowd at a suburban farmer’s market, I asked Slotkin about the killing of George Floyd, the social protests engulfing the nation and the calls from the left to defund police departments. She spoke passionately about two demonstrations she had joined—one with the NAACP in Lansing, the other with a bunch of young white activists in Holly—and how “stunning” it was to see so many people, particularly white people, “really turning inward and feeling this stuff at a real visceral level.”
Then, turning to the issue of defunding the police, Slotkin appeared to physically recoil upon uttering the phrase. “I do not support Defund the Police,” she frowned. “I do support having a serious conversation about policing and what can be done potentially fundamentally differently. And I include in that conversation talking about resources.”
Whether Slotkin comes under pressure to be more specific—on “talking about resources” for police departments or any other difference she has skillfully split—will depend in part on the talents of her Republican challenger. The GOP primary is August 4 and national Republicans failed to land a blue-chip recruit. That said, the frontrunner, a telegenic self-funder named Paul Junge who has dabbled in everything from crime prosecuting to television anchoring, doesn’t figure to be a pushover. If he’s the nominee, Junge will have one critical tool at his disposal that Mike Bishop didn’t have in 2018: Slotkin’s record.
As a candidate, Slotkin pledged to elect a new speaker of the House—and then voted “present,” a legislative cop-out that helped Nancy Pelosi reclaim her old job.
As a candidate, Slotkin swore she had no interest in battling Trump—and then, after co-authoring the fateful Washington Post op-ed that set in motion the proceedings to impeach the president, cast her historic vote to impeach.
As a candidate, Slotkin promised not to accept donations from corporate PACs—and then cashed giant checks from leadership PACs and party committees, which themselves are heavily funded with corporate PAC money, becoming one of the best-financed members in the House.
And unlike in her first campaign, when Slotkin was an outsider who could brush aside the attacks as evidence of why the system is broken, this year she is the system, an incumbent who has no choice but to suffer for voters’ anger with the government.
The realities of these situations are, of course, nuanced and complicated. But the sinister 30-second TV ads write themselves. And unlike her first campaign, when Slotkin was an outsider who could brush aside the attacks as evidence of why the system is broken, this year she is the system, an incumbent who has no choice but to suffer for voters’ anger with the government.
“Her biggest strength was her background and her biography, and she was very disciplined, very cautious, when it came to talking about anything else,” says Stu Sandler, the longtime Republican consultant who helped pilot Bishop’s 2018 campaign. “She always stayed away from Trump, never wanted to make him an issue, because she knew she had to win Trump voters to carry the district. That’s her biggest challenge now: She told us she would avoid partisanship; are voters going to hold her accountable in that regard?”
Sandler adds: “Remember, Trump won this district by 7 points, so there’s definitely a pathway for Republicans to take it back. In 2018, Slotkin wasn’t a politician. Now she’s a politician, she’s got a voting record, and that voting record includes some very aggressive party-line votes.”
In June, Rep. Slotkin hosts a Service Academy Reception on Zoom for high school graduates from her district who will be attending military academies for college.
Will swing voters in purple districts punish Democrats for impeaching the president?
Perhaps. But anyone upset about an impeachment vote was likely voting for Trump—and likely punching a straight-party ballot—in any regard. Here and now, in the 8th District, there are other, more pressing questions. Will massive numbers of Trump supporters who sat out 2018 return to the game in 2020? Will disillusioned Black voters, particularly young disillusioned Black voters, vote in greater numbers than they did in 2016? Will suburban women with college degrees accelerate their mass exodus from the GOP? Will college students, whose campus routines are being disrupted, turn out in record-low numbers? And will Covid-19 continue to ravage American communities this fall, scaring untold masses of voters away from the polls?
Slotkin does not know. But she does know the answers produced by the 8th District will echo across Michigan, the industrial Midwest and the nation’s decisive battleground states.
“This is a microcosm,” Slotkin says. “All of the crosswinds of the country in one district that’s an hour and 30 minutes across.”