Two Democratic women helped their party take back control of the U.S. House in 2018 by winning Southeast Michigan seats in areas that backed President Donald Trump and were long considered Republican territory.
But two years later, Haley Stevens (D-Rochester Hills) and Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly), both appear to have the upper hand in their reelection bids, thanks, in part, to the fundraising edge traditionally enjoyed by incumbents. Their victories in a tumultuous presidential election year would assist in preserving Democrats’ midterm takeover of the House.
Oakland University political science professor David Dulio said Stevens and Slotkin have multiple advantages over their GOP opponents in the upcoming elections. Both have focused on centrist, pragmatic issues that resonate with local voters and have shied away from more divisive partisan issues in Washington, he said. They also have both benefited from disenchantment with Trump, particularly among suburban women, he said.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, also won Stevens’ 11th District spanning Oakland and Wayne counties in 2018, indicating growing Democratic inroads there. However, Whitmer did not win the redder 8th District represented by Slotkin, which covers a slice of northern Oakland County, as well as Livingston and Ingham counties.
Meanwhile, the measures taken to stop the spread of the coronavirus have hampered campaign operations for everyone.
Slotkin’s campaign, for example, has replaced door-knocking with leaving handwritten sticky notes at front doors. She is hosting small, socially distanced town hall events that she streams live online, rather than big rallies.
Her Republican opponent, Paul Junge, is still sending volunteers door-to-door to talk with voters, although he has had to scale back live events.
But the restrictions have a disproportionate effect on challengers who are still trying to get traction, Dulio said.
“It is a really tough environment for challengers to campaign in,” Dulio said. “These races can be fought out on TV and through the mail, but door-to-door and in-person contact can be important in a congressional race. And you can’t do that now.”
Of course, relying on TV ads or mail pieces can get expensive. But COVID-19 restrictions also make it harder for candidates to raise money, because traditional fundraising events can no longer be held.
Slotkin and Stevens, however, got an earlier start to raising money for their campaigns, are better known and draw attention because they are incumbents.
The result is that the Democrats have a substantial fundraising advantage over their Republican rivals, although outside groups could alter the balance.
Slotkin had raised more than $6 million and had $5 million still in the bank by mid-July, according to her most recent filings with the Federal Election Commission.
Junge, on the other hand, had taken in nearly $1 million and had more than $600,000 on hand. But unlike Slotkin, Junge faced a contested primary on Aug. 4. He beat out four other candidates for the GOP nomination.
Likewise, Stevens had more than $3 million available in mid-July, compared to more than $200,000 for GOP challenger Eric Esshaki, who also defeated four opponents on Aug. 4.
A Democrat in a Trump district
National political handicappers say neither party is taking the races for granted.
Slotkin, a former CIA analyst and high-ranking Defense Department official, is hoping to win reelection in a traditionally conservative district. Voters there supported Trump’s election by a margin of 6 percentage points in 2016. In 2018, GOP gubernatorial nominee Bill Schuette won the 8th by 4.5 points over Whitmer.
Meanwhile, Michigan State University has moved largely to remote learning, meaning the students that helped Slotkin win her first term may not be around campus to vote for her this year.
Slotkin often talks about her mother’s struggles to keep insurance coverage at the end of her life, as she stresses the need for health insurance companies to cover patients with preexisting conditions. Barring insurance companies from denying people coverage for preexisting conditions was one of the key components of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) signed by President Barack Obama, and one that could be in jeopardy as the result of a Republican legal challenge to the law that is now before the Supreme Court.
The Holly Democrat has also pushed for legislation to curb the use of chemicals known as PFAS, which have been found polluting several waterways in her district. The “forever chemicals” have been used in industrial products from firefighting foam to non-stick pans, and are linked to kidney and testicular cancer, pre-eclampsia, liver malfunction and weak immune responses.
Gordon Trowbridge, spokesperson for the Slotkin campaign, said voters in the district want someone in Congress who can work in a civil fashion with lawmakers of both parties. He pointed out that Slotkin has passed several pieces of bipartisan legislation, and worked with the Trump administration to help small businesses struggling during the pandemic.
On the campaign trail, Slotkin has focused much of her outreach on politically competitive areas of her district or even more Republican-leaning neighborhoods, knowing that many may vote for other Republicans including Trump.
“She is an enormously strong candidate in particular for districts like this, because she has a career of service to the nation for presidents of both parties, irrespective of party or politics. That matters. And it matters that she’s gone to Washington and operated in the same spirit in her first two years of Congress,” Trowbridge said.
Junge is a former TV anchor in Lansing, who served as an immigration official in the Trump administration and a staff member for U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican. Junge also worked as a prosecutor in California.
He is running on a platform of trying to restart the economy by making the 2017 Republican tax cuts permanent and by scaling back federal regulations. He has pushed for measures to bring jobs that have been outsourced to China back to the United States. Junge also backs tax credits for education and training for people learning skilled trades.
But in his messaging he’s also lumped Slotkin in with other Democrats.
“She is not the independent minded person she promised as a candidate. Instead she votes 96% of the time with Nancy Pelosi,” Junge campaign manager Rob Wagener told WHMI-FM.
Stumping in the 11th District
In the suburban Detroit 11th District, Stevens is vying for reelection in a district that favored Trump by 4 percentage points in 2016. But two years ago, Whitmer took the district by 6 points.
Stevens worked as the chief of staff for the Obama administration team that engineered an auto industry rescue package, and she has focused much of her work in Congress on manufacturing issues.
“Congresswoman Stevens hears directly from her constituents about the issues affecting working families in Michigan’s 11th congressional district,” said Blake McCarren, spokesperson for the Stevens campaign.
“That’s why she’s laser-focused on working toward pragmatic, common sense solutions to rebuild the economy, lower the cost of prescription drugs, protect the U.S. Postal Service and provide a safe and high-quality public education for Michigan students.”
Esshaki is an attorney and former nurse who has criticized the ACA for being too onerous for health care providers.His campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
Esshaki also successfully sued Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, over a stay-home order that, he said, made it too onerous for candidates to collect signatures to qualify for the ballot. He also has criticized Whitmer for her handling of the coronavirus outbreak more generally, as many Republicans have.
“We know that COVID-19 is a serious and deadly virus, and that it is most serious for about 20% of our population. Yet, we shut down 100% of our nation while failing to protect the most vulnerable 20% that faced the highest risk,” his campaign website states. “This was the wrong response and it demonstrates failed leadership on multiple levels.”