Michigan’s Senate Battle Royale

After being endorsed by Liz Cheney, Elissa Slotkin is already being branded by rivals as the next Kyrsten Sinema.
After being endorsed by Liz Cheney, Elissa Slotkin is already being branded by rivals as the next Kyrsten Sinema. Photo: Sarah Rice/Getty Images
Tara Palmeri
February 27, 2023

Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin announced her candidacy for the Senate in Michigan today with an air of inevitability—and yet there’s a sneaking suspicion among Democrats that she could be headed for a brutal primary. The last thing the party wants is a civil war in a battleground state, especially at a time when Republicans are trying to prove that they can rally around an electable candidate, like Peter Meijer (even if they just elected an election-denier as their G.O.P. party chair). 

Slotkin is a veritable money-raising machine with the quiet support of retiring Senator Debbie Stabenow, who has been carefully trying to persuade potential challengers to look toward the open gubernatorial seat in 2026 instead of her open seat in 2024. Two potential challengers dropped away last week: State Senator Mallory McMorrow, Slotkin’s ambitious friend and a Lis Smith client, who went viral for her floor speech against school restrictions on gender and race topics; and the popular Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist, who said he wouldn’t run this weekend after old anti-Israel tweets surfaced, likely putting him in AIPAC’s crosshairs. 

Gilchrist, who is Black, had been aggressively courted by Cory Booker, perhaps the latest sign that leaders in the party fret over whether Slotkin, a white woman, can win over Black voters in Detroit. “We’re going to have a primary,” former congresswoman Brenda Lawrence (who could also run for the seat) told me. “This isn’t going to be a one person race. We’ll see who steps up to the plate. I for one am very motivated to see an African-American candidate.” 

Slotkin, a former C.I.A. officer, hails from the wealthier suburban Lansing area. After being endorsed by Liz Cheney, she’s already being branded by rivals as the next Kyrsten Sinema. But Slotkin’s real challenge would be another white woman, Detroit native and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, who is seriously considering running. Benson, with high name ID, has won state-wide, and even outperformed Gretchen Whitmer in the last election and Slotkin in her own district. 

And there’s more! Hill Harper, the CSI actor and Harvard law graduate, is also eying the seat. Meanwhile, Rep. Debbie Dingell, who has the highest name ID of all of the candidates, is also being encouraged to run, although I’m hearing she’s less inclined to jump in the race. Michigan, which may end up being fifth state in the Democratic primary calendar, is starting to feel like the center of political gravity for Democrats, especially since both Senate seats and the governor’s mansion are held by Democrats for the first time since 1984. Chuck Schumer presumably wants to keep it that way. After all, he already has West Virginia and Arizona keeping him up at night.

Slotkin can raise a ton of national money from her strong ties in Silicon Valley and New York. (She raised $11 million to win her swing district.) But as Booker and Lawrence suggest, she still has a lot of work to do with the African-American community, which is why all eyes are on the endorsements she can pull in the next few weeks.