Michigan 7: Leaving Lansing

by Erin Covey March 1, 2023 · 4:45 PM EST

Rep. Elissa Slotkin has spent her entire political career running competitive races. The Democrat’s moderate reputation and fundraising prowess have insulated her from Republicans' repeated attempts to defeat her over the past three election cycles.

But now that Slotkin is running to succeed retiring Sen. Debbie Stabenow, flipping Michigan’s 7th District becomes a more attainable goal for Republicans as they attempt to preserve their narrow House majority next November.

One of the five self-described “badass” congresswomen with national security backgrounds, Slotkin was first elected in the “blue wave” of 2018 when she defeated Republican Rep. Mike Bishop. Two years later, the former CIA analyst defeated local TV news anchor Paul Junge by nearly 4 points as more than a dozen of her colleagues lost to Republican challengers. And in 2022, with Democratic turnout in Michigan bolstered by a ballot initiative protecting abortion access, Slotkin defeated state Sen. Tom Barrett by 5 points.

According to Barrett’s top campaign adviser, the former state senator plans to run again, and at the moment he doesn’t appear likely to face much competition for the Republican nomination. The onus is now on Democrats to find a candidate who can replicate Slotkin’s success.

The Lay of the Land
The 7th is one of the most evenly-divided districts in the country — Joe Biden carried the mid-Michigan seat by just half of a point in 2020. Before she ran for the Senate, Stabenow represented an earlier version of this district. Republican Rep. Mike Rogers succeeded her in the House, holding this seat for 14 years before he retired and Bishop succeeded him.

The district is centered on Lansing, the capital city of Michigan and the third-largest city in the Wolverine State. Most of Lansing is within Ingham County, a blue bastion that Biden won by more than 30 points in 2020.

Its neighboring city, East Lansing, is home to Michigan State University, which was critical to Slotkin’s victory in 2022 as hundreds of students waited in line for hours to cast their ballots on Election Day. The students were largely motivated by Proposal 3, the ballot initiative that would enshrine “reproductive freedom” in the state’s constitution. 

The district also encompasses Clinton, Shiawassee, and Livingston counties, all of which lean Republican to varying degrees. Most of Eaton County, a purple county southwest of Lansing, is in the new 7th, along with a section of Oakland County, a suburban county northwest of Detroit that has rapidly become bluer over the past several years. It also includes a sliver of Genesee County north of Livingston.

The Democratic Field
Several Democrats from the district would be well-suited to succeed Slotkin, according to strategists who talked with Inside Elections. The party’s main concern will be avoiding a contentious, expensive primary that could leave the eventual nominee battered and broke going into a competitive general election.

“My expectation is that there will be a pretty decent-sized Democratic field,” Ryan Irvin, a Democratic strategist based in the district, told Inside Elections.

Right now, one of the first names mentioned by strategists is Curtis Hertel Jr., who served in the state Senate for eight years until he was term-limited out of office in 2022. 

Hertel succeeded Gretchen Whitmer in her East Lansing-based state Senate district in 2015 and became one of the Democratic governor’s “emissaries” as she negotiated with the Republican-controlled state Senate for four years. At the beginning of this year, he joined the governor’s office as Whitmer’s legislative director, a powerful role that puts him in charge of lobbying for the governor’s policy agenda.

The former state senator has been involved in Michigan state politics for over two decades; he was a member of Ingham County Board of Commissioners for several years before serving in then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s administration. His father, Curtis Hertel Sr., was the speaker of the Michigan state House in the 1990s, and his brother Kevin Hertel was elected to the state Senate in 2022.

Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum is another potential contender with a well-known last name in Michigan politics. She succeeded her mother, former House Minority Leader Dianne Byrum, in the state House and served there for six years before running for the county clerk position in 2012. 

The Byrum family is well-known in this region of the state. In 2000, Dianne Byrum lost to Rogers by 111 votes after an extended recount in the race to replace Stabenow in the House. In 2014, when Rogers left Congress, her daughter Barb was mentioned as a potential candidate but ultimately declined to run. This time could be different.

Less than two hours after Slotkin announced her Senate campaign, the younger Byrum put out a statement acknowledging her interest in the seat. “I am very flattered to have already heard from friends who have asked what my future holds,” Byrum said in her statement. “And I will tell you what I told them: I simply want to serve the people in the best way that I can.”

Lansing Mayor Andy Schor is considering running as well. The former state legislator and Ingham County commissioner also has longstanding ties to the district, and told the Lansing State Journal that he would “seriously examine the race and make a determination soon.”

But now that Democrats control the Michigan state Legislature and the governorship for the first time since 1984, some ambitious local elected officials may be less inclined to go to Washington.

Two women who represent the Lansing area in the state Legislature — state Sen. Sarah Anthony and state Rep. Angela Witwer — now chair their respective chamber’s powerful appropriations committees. Both lawmakers have been named as potential successors to Slotkin, but might be reluctant to give up their gavels. 

Anthony, a former state representative and member of Ingham County Board of Commissioners, is the first Black woman to chair the Senate Appropriation Committee in the state’s history. She represents Lansing and Eaton County. Witwer represents a purple district in Eaton County that Barrett held before running for the state Senate in 2018.

State Sen. Sam Singh, who represents East Lansing, along with large portions of Clinton and Shiawassee Counties, told the Lansing State Journal that he wasn’t interested in running. Singh just took on a leadership role in the state Senate as the new majority floor leader. 

But State Rep. Julie Brixie, who represents Meridian Township, said that she’s considering running, and Lansing-based state Rep. Emily Dievendorf didn’t rule out a bid either.

The Republican Field
Unlike Michigan Democrats, Republicans don’t have a long list of potential candidates who could run for the 7th. So far Barrett, their 2022 nominee, is the apparent frontrunner for the nomination. 

The Army veteran was first elected to the state Legislature in 2014, when he unseated Democratic state Rep. Theresa Abed by just over 300 votes. After serving in the state House for four years, he was elected to the state Senate in 2018.

Despite Barrett’s 5-point loss to Slotkin last November, Republicans are fairly optimistic about the former state senator’s odds.

The 2022 cycle was uniquely difficult for Michigan Republicans, thanks to the pro-choice ballot initiative that spurred Democratic turnout and Whitmer’s 11-point victory over Tudor Dixon. Republican candidates in competitive U.S. House races ran anywhere from 1 to 5 points behind Trump’s margin in 2020. 

Barrett ran about 2 and half points behind Trump, though he ran several points ahead of Dixon, who lost the district by 10 points.

Barrett’s greatest challenge last year was his inability to compete with Slotkin in fundraising — the congresswoman raised nearly $10 million to Barrett’s $2.8 million.

His campaign resorted to sending out misleading text messages to supporters, telling them “your child’s gender reassignment surgery has been booked” and linking to the candidate’s fundraising webpage. (The campaign adjusted the message after the Michigan Advance reported on the text.)

Slotkin’s fundraising machine enabled her to spend $7.4 million on TV and radio ads, according to data from Kantar Media/CMAG, while Barrett spent about $1.5 million on the airwaves. Outside groups on both sides of the aisle spent more than $21 million in this district, more than in all but one other district nationwide. 

Other Republican elected officials in the district have yet to comment on whether they’re interested in running. Bishop, who lives in a part of Oakland County outside of the 7th, told Inside Elections that he isn’t interested in running for the seat.

“I don’t live in the district,” he said. “I know it’s the trend lately to run in districts where you don’t live, but I have no interest in that.”

The Bottom Line
Whoever Democrats nominate isn’t likely to match Slotkin’s fundraising abilities — and might have to devote more resources to win a competitive primary — and so the spending gap between Democrats and Republicans likely won’t be as pronounced as it was in 2022. 

Michigan’s state primary likely won’t be held till August of 2024. At that point, both the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees will be decided and will have an inevitable impact on the outcome in swing districts like Michigan’s 7th.

But regardless of what the national political environment looks like next November, this purple district is guaranteed to feature a competitive race.