The unexpected Michigan Senate race that could determine control of the chamber

Matchup between Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin and GOP’s Mike Rogers could shape up as crucial, with Israel-Hamas war looming as one potential campaign focus point

Rep. Elissa Slotkin speaks to reporters March 2, 2023, in Detroit, about her candidacy for the US Senate in 2024. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)
Rep. Elissa Slotkin speaks to reporters March 2, 2023, in Detroit, about her candidacy for the US Senate in 2024. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)

LANSING, Michigan (AP) — Elissa Slotkin had less than half an hour to reckon with a retirement announcement that would reshape Michigan’s political landscape. Debbie Stabenow, the state’s senior senator and the third-ranking Democrat in the chamber, was about to reveal that she would retire in 2024.

Rep. Slotkin, a Democratic congresswoman from Holly, soon met with her team to mobilize for a run at a US Senate seat that Democrats had not expected would be hard to defend in the narrowly divided chamber. A powerhouse fundraiser who had won in one of the country’s most contested House districts, Slotkin quickly emerged as the Democratic Party establishment’s top choice and began to set a torrid fundraising pace.

It took Michigan Republicans longer to find their frontrunner. Buffeted by turmoil between pro-Trump Republicans and the old guard of the state GOP, they eventually lured former US Rep. Mike Rogers out of retirement to contend for the unexpected opening. The endorsement of former president Donald Trump gave Rogers a clear shot at winning his party’s primary without drowning in the intra-party conflict that has plagued the Michigan GOP in recent years.

Both Slotkin and Rogers have opponents in the August 6 primary, but they also have advantages that make a second November showdown likely in a key swing state. With Trump and President Joe Biden poised to slug it out for the state’s indispensable 15 electoral votes at the top of the ticket, the unexpected fight for Michigan’s open Senate seat could say a lot about what the winner will be dealing with once he’s sworn in for a second term.

“This race is going to go down to the wire,” said former Michigan Republican Rep. Fred Upton. “This is going to be two heavyweights, in a positive way. They really know the issues and will go toe to toe on them.”

Hill Harper, an actor known for his roles on “CSI: NY” and “The Good Doctor,” and businessman Nasser Beydoun will challenge Slotkin for the Democratic nomination. Slotkin has maintained an advantage of more than $8 million in cash reserves at the end of March over both, along with support from several prominent Democrats.

Republican US presidential candidate former president Donald Trump listens as Michigan Senate candidate former Rep. Mike Rogers speaks at a campaign rally in Freeland, Michigan, May 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

National Republicans had hoped Rogers would have a similarly easy path to his party’s nomination. But the campaigns of former US Reps. Justin Amash and Peter Meijer, who ended his bid last week, as well as businessman Sandy Pensler, made his task a little more complicated.

Rogers’ primary advantage is Trump’s endorsement, which came in February and has been met with pushback from some hardline Republicans due to Rogers’ criticisms of Trump in the past. Rogers took the stage with Trump at a campaign event in Michigan on Wednesday, further aligning himself with a former president he had criticized after the Trump administration tried to challenge the results of the 2020 election, when he compared their actions to “Third World dictatorships.”

Trump on Wednesday said Rogers “is going to be a warrior in the United States Senate, and more importantly he’s just going to be a winner.”

Trump’s endorsement has proven decisive in Republican nominations in Michigan recently, but questions linger over whether it will hurt or help in the general election.

It’s a red line for voters like Tom Patton, a longtime Lansing area resident who has been represented by both Rogers and Slotkin in Congress and even volunteered for Rogers’ first state Senate campaign.

“I liked Mike Rogers very much back then and in some ways I still do. He’s a serious person and has wonderful credentials. But his support of Trump has completely turned me off,” said Patton, who voted for Nikki Haley in the state’s February primary. “You cannot be for somebody like Trump who doesn’t accept the outcome of a fairly held election.”

In this September 18, 2014 file photo, US House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers questions witnesses during a full committee hearing on the threat posed by Islamic extremists, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

The endorsement has not helped Rogers’ fundraising, either. In the first quarter of 2024, he raised slightly more than $1 million — just a quarter of Slotkin’s haul in the same period.

“We’re going to run a better campaign. We don’t have to match dollar for dollar,” said Rogers. “All we’ve got to do is have enough money to make sure people understand the differences.”

The race is expected to take on similar dimensions to the presidential campaign, with Slotkin pressing the case for reproductive rights and Rogers slamming Biden on border security and inflation. It may also include a strong element from both sides about the war in Gaza, with Rogers invoking his foreign policy credentials and looking for ways to criticize Slotkin and Biden on an issue that divides Democrats.

Wayne County, which includes Detroit and has the largest Democratic voting base in the state, has become the epicenter for opposition to Biden’s handling of the war between Israel and Hamas, and some have said they would sit the election out.

Slotkin, who is Jewish and has extensive foreign policy experience as a former CIA analyst and Department of Defense official, has at times faced criticism for not being harder on Israel.

“There have been few issues that keep me up at night more than this issue. There are few issues that are more contentious in my own district, in my own state,” said Slotkin. “But the job of a leader is to take themselves out of just how they’re personally feeling and do what’s best for the people they represent.”

US House Homeland Security Committee member Rep. Elissa Slotkin asks a question during a House Homeland Security Committee hearing on ‘Worldwide Threats to the Homeland,’ at the Capitol in Washington, November 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib, File)

Support from Arab Americans could prove crucial to Slotkin’s chances in November, but her relationship with at least one of that community’s leaders has remained troubled. Shortly before announcing her Senate campaign in early 2023, Slotkin met with Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud, the top elected official in one of the nation’s only majority-Muslim cities. The conversation soured when Hammoud took offense at the implication that the community wouldn’t support Slotkin because of her Jewish heritage, which has not been a deterrent in the past with other Jewish candidates.

Slotkin’s campaign declined to comment on the exchange, but the two have not spoken since.

Slotkin earlier this month voted for a package that sent more aid to Israel but said in an interview that Israel must allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza and explain what its military strategy is going forward. “If they don’t, then I am willing to have a conversation about putting conditions on offensive aid, not defensive,” she said.

Jerusalem’s stated war goals are to dismantle Hamas’s ruling abilities following its October 7 massacre and return the 132 hostages the Palestinian terror group is holding in the Strip.

Opposition to Slotkin in the community seems unlikely to translate into support for Rogers. He has remained staunchly pro-Israel and said the country is justified for its actions in Gaza because “they have a right to defend themselves and they have a right to go get those hostages.”

Despite turmoil within the Democratic base, the party hasn’t lost a Senate race since 1994 and has exceeded expectations in recent Michigan elections.

In 2022, Democrats gained complete control of Michigan state government for the first time in decades, in part due to a ballot initiative that enshrined abortion rights in the state constitution. Slotkin says abortion rights are still a winning issue in what may be the nation’s ultimate swing state.

“What we need now in 2024 is at least a 10-year plan to get back to the federal right to an abortion,” she said during an April 24 campaign event. “I’m so done waiting for the next shoe to drop. And part of the reason I want to be your next senator is because we need a new generation that thinks about our plans, our strategy.”

Rogers dismisses the idea that abortion rights are still on the ballot in Michigan. He said he would not vote in favor of a national abortion ban if it came up during his time in the Senate, although he did vote in favor of a 20-week abortion ban while serving in the House.

“I’m a states’ rights guy. I’m not going back to Washington, DC, to undo what the people of Michigan decided to do,” said Rogers.

Republicans welcome Rogers as a moderate, sensible voice who has a legitimate chance to seize the unexpected opportunity that arose with Stabenow’s retirement, in a state where they haven’t been winning much lately. Democrats, meanwhile, think Slotkin could emerge as a leading voice of the next generation of party leaders.

That makes for an intriguing matchup that no one saw coming.

“The Senate’s on the line,” said Jason Roe, a Republican strategist in Michigan. “And Rogers and Slotkin could be a clash of the titans.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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