EAST LANSING, Mich. ― Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) wagered that her constituents would put patriotism before partisanship once before. And she won.
Now she’s making that bet again.
The last time was in late 2019, as House Democrats were gearing up to impeach President Donald Trump. Slotkin’s vote was critical to the effort, she hadn’t declared her intentions, and she was representing a Republican-leaning congressional district that in the 2016 election had voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton by 7 percentage points.
But Slotkin is a former intelligence officer who served in Iraq and went on to serve on the national security staffs of two presidents. She was convinced Trump had violated his presidential oath by pressuring a foreign leader to investigate a political rival and then attempting to cover it up. She announced that she was voting yes on impeachment, then a few hours later defended that vote at a raucous town hall where Trump supporters tried to shout her down.
In a performance that got national attention, Slotkin responded calmly and directly, saying that she wanted to hear from critics while making clear she wouldn’t be bullied or booed off the stage. She continued making her case and, although the hecklers kept at it, by the time she was done she had won over the crowd and gotten several standing ovations.
“I believe in the voters,” she told HuffPost afterward in an interview. “I believe in their decency.”
A year later, the voters rewarded that belief when they returned Slotkin to Congress.
Now it’s election time again, and Slotkin is locked in a tight race with Tom Barrett, a Republican state senator.
Polls suggest the race could go either way. Analysts across the country are watching it as a bellwether for the country’s mood, and both parties have it at the top of their priority lists, with so much advertising money pouring in that it is among the most expensive congressional races in America.
The constituencies in play have changed a bit. Redistricting in 2020 scrambled congressional lines, breaking up Slotkin’s old district. Her new one, Michigan’s 7th, is slightly more Democratic.
But it’s still a swing district. In 2020, according to the Detroit Free Press, voters in what’s now Michigan’s 7th split their tickets, voting for the Democrat (Joe Biden) in the presidential race but the Republican (John James) in the U.S. Senate race. In both instances, the final count was close.
Slotkin has some advantages from incumbency, but the voters are also familiar with Barrett, a former Army helicopter pilot and Iraq War veteran who has been in the state legislature since 2015. Slotkin is also running in a national political environment that remains, by most reckonings, difficult for Democrats, given voter concerns about inflation and crime.
The campaign has featured clashes on a number of issues, including abortion rights, which Slotkin supports and Barrett opposes. But as in 2019, basic questions about democracy and fair elections may ultimately be the issues that determine her political fate.
Only this time, the focus isn’t on impeachment. It’s on Barrett’s election denialism.
Slotkin’s Opponent Is A Republican Election Denier
In the immediate aftermath of the 2020 election, Barrett posted on social media about alleged ballot irregularities and was part of a delegation of Republican state legislators who traveled to Washington to confer with Trump.
In January 2021, one day before the insurrection in Washington, Barrett’s signature appeared on a letter from Michigan Republicans asking Congress to “pursue every available option” for investigating possible voter fraud.
An earlier version of the letter that circulated on social media called on Congress explicitly to delay certification. Organizers said later that version was a draft, not intended for publication, and Barrett said he never intended to sign that one.
But like so many Republicans around the country, Barrett has continued to raise questions about the election and, to this day, will not acknowledge that Biden’s win was clean and legitimate.
Just last month, Barrett told the Free Press that the outcome was “unknowable.”
In reality, the outcome is both knowable and known. Biden won; Trump lost ― in Michigan as in the rest of America, as multiple audits, investigations and courts have found.
Slotkin believes Barrett’s refusal to recognize that outcome is disqualifying for office and, late last month, she got a high-profile endorsement from Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), the Republican who has emerged as a fierce critic of Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election.
Cheney’s refusal to join the ranks of Republican election deniers has cost her standing in the party. The GOP caucus ousted her from leadership in 2021 and, in August of this year, Wyoming Republican primary voters selected her Trump-endorsed opponent to run for her House seat.
But Cheney, who co-chaired the House committee investigating Trump’s role in the Jan. 6 insurrection, hasn’t stopped trying to make her case. Earlier in the fall, when she ran into Slotkin on Capitol Hill, she inquired about Slotkin’s reelection campaign and offered to help.
That led to the endorsement, which Cheney said was her first-ever of a Democrat, and a visit to the district for a joint appearance last week.
Liz Cheney Is Echoing Slotkin’s Message
The event was nothing like the one three years ago when Slotkin announced her impeachment vote. This time, the audience was full of supporters, with no hecklers, and it was just Slotkin and Cheney speaking, rather than a town hall where Slotkin took questions.
Slotkin began her remarks by recalling the last time Cheney was in the Lansing area: GOP leaders had dispatched Cheney, then still in the party’s good graces, to criticize Slotkin. And the two still disagree on major policy issues, Slotkin made clear.
But those disagreements are precisely why preserving democracy and respecting election outcomes are so important, Slotkin said.
“I believe in two healthy parties that push and pull on each other to come up with durable change … debating the role of government in our lives,” Slotkin said. “But that is not what we are doing right now. When I look at the loudest voices, particularly on the other side of the aisle, including my opponent, it is not about policy. It is about denying the results of the 2020 election, throwing up fear and exclusion of other groups.”
Cheney echoed that sentiment and said it was why she felt so strongly about reelecting Slotkin: “We will never get to those debates if we do not elect people who respect the outcome of elections.”
Cheney made a direct plea to patriotism, arguing that the state of American democracy was “fragile” and dependent on who gets power after November.
“If we want to ensure the survival of our republic, we have to walk away from politics as usual,” Cheney said. “We have to stand up, every one of us, and say we’re going to do what’s right for this country. We’re going to look beyond partisan politics. If the people in our party are not doing the job they need to do, then we’re going to vote for the people in the other party.”
In her remarks, Cheney mentioned that her first work in politics came while she was a child, volunteering for Gerald Ford, the beloved Republican from western Michigan who served in the House, became vice president and eventually assumed the presidency when Richard Nixon resigned.
Though Ford served for less than three years, losing to Democrat Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential election, he is widely remembered as a statesman who restored integrity to the White House and American government during one of the nation’s most tumultuous periods.
“I think Jerry Ford would be supporting Elissa Slotkin,” Cheney said.
The event drew several hundred attendees, which is a lot for a weeknight event connected to a U.S. House race. But it’s not clear how many of the attendees were the kinds of independent or Republican voters Slotkin probably needs to win.
In a session with reporters after the event, Slotkin fielded questions about the political risks of alienating voters who agree with Republican election deniers.
“While I want every chance I can with every voter I can, I’m not going to compromise what I believe about democracy, so that I can [get] another vote,” Slotkin said. “I’m just not going to do it.”
Then, in a distinct echo of what she said in 2019, Slotkin struck a note of confidence. “I trust my voters,” she said. Now the question is whether they trust her back.