Question 1): U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who has represented Michigan in the U.S. Senate for more than two decades, stunned Michigan’s political world last week by announcing that she would not seek another term in 2024.
Stabenow, 72, of suburban Lansing, was the first woman to be elected a U.S. senator from Michigan in 2000 when she defeated Republican incumbent Sen. Spencer Abraham. Since then, she has won three more six-year terms and serves as chairman of the Agriculture Committee and of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee. If she sought a fifth term in 2024, she almost certainly would be re-elected.
Stabenow said she had been planning to run until the 2022 election, when she was “inspired by a new generation of leaders” who convinced her that it’s time for “the torch to be passed.” Besides, she has a 96-year-old mother who needs attention.
The announcement has already set off a flurry of speculation about who will vie to succeed her. The last time Michigan had an open Senate seat was in 2014, when then-U.S. Rep. Gary Peters, also a Democrat, beat Republican Terri Lynn Land, a former Secretary of State, to replace the late Carl Levin, another Democrat who served a Michigan record six terms as a U.S. Senator.
So, from a multitude of possibilities, who is the most likely to emerge as the Democratic nominee to succeed Stabenow in 2024? And do the Republicans really have a chance to flip this open seat their way after so many failures during more than half a century?
Answer 1): The slimmest of chances, based on the GOP’s abysmal track record during the past seven decades and their current weakened and splintered status.
As for a prospective Democratic nominee, a number of possibilities have already taken themselves out of the running — Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, U.S. Reps Dan Kildee (D-MI 8) and multi-millionaire Shri Thanedar (D-13), and U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttegieg, who now calls northern Michigan home. Immediate attention has focussed on Gretchen Whitmer, who could run in the middle of her second term as governor and, if she lost a Senate bid, remain in the governorship through the end of 2026. That’s highly improbable, however, based on everything she’s said so far, both before and after Stabenow’s announcement. Furthermore, while a Whitmer candidacy would likely clear the field for her in a Democratic primary, she wouldn’t necessarily be the strongest Dem nominee in a general election if she faced a credible Republican, however unlikely that might be. That leaves the usual suspects — Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, Attorney General Dana Nessel, and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, all of them term-limited in their current jobs; U.S. Reps. Haley Stevens and Elissa Slotkin; and state Senator Mallory McMorrow, who gained a national fund-raising following her floor speech in the state capitol last spring ‘pushing back’ against charges that she and her party were guilty of ‘grooming’ school children.
Of all these possibilities, Slotkin appears to be the one Democratic power-brokers are ‘grooming’ in a different way — for higher office, similar to the way Michigan’s other U.S. Senator, Gary Peters, was boosted in the run-up to his 2014 election. Slotkin has won three straight elections, including knocking off an incumbent Republican Congressman in 2018, in marginal districts, all the while relying on a national fund-raising network bent on elevating her to the highest reaches of the federal government. If her patrons tell her she must take the next step and give up her seat in the new 7th CD to run for the Senate, she will, just as Peters did in 2014.
Republicans? The most obvious possibility would have been, once again, Candice Miller, a former Secretary of State, former seven-term member of Congress, and now Macomb Co. Public Works Commissioner, a job she professes to love. But she’s already taken herself out of the running. The political chattering class will have a chance to bring up her name again as a possibility for governor, when she would be running in the middle of her presumably third term in county office and wouldn’t have to give up her seat if she lost a race for governor, as she would if she had to choose between running for the Senate as opposed to seeking re-election to her PW shtick. But Miller is now 68 years old, and time may run out for her in a bid for higher office after this year.
That leaves a gaggle of Republican lesser lights, including high-quality potential nominees with foreign policy chops like former Congressmen Fred Upton and Peter Meijer, both of whom are anathema to the Donald Trump faction of the GOP. That alone probably assures neither would run, because both would elicit a fierce Republican primary challenge. Their only hope might be if only one of them runs against a pack of more conservative opponents who would split the vote amongst them — that’s the way businessman Rick Snyder was able to win the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 2010.
Who else? Names raised vary between obvious prospects and others whose names signal just how weak the Republican “bench’ really is. First in the ‘obvious’ category would be newly-minted U.S. Rep. John James (R-MI 10), who lost two relatively close races against Stabenow and Peters in 2018 and 2020. He will have to decide whether he wants to seek re-election in a CD where he won in underwhelming fashion against an underfunded opponent last November. Democrats will surely be gunning for him in 2024, so why not take a chance on the U.S. Senate to see if the third time is a charm?
Also in the mix are U.S. Rep. Lisa McClain (R-MI 9); Republican National Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel, Mitt’s niece and George’s granddaughter, who can probably run for another term as head of the RNC if she wants it and who has never before sought elected public office; and — however implausible it might be — defeated 2022 GOP gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon; Kevin Rinke, a deep-pocketed Metro Detroit businessman who finished a distant second behind Dixon in the Aug. 2, 2022, Republican primary; multi-millionaire Perry Johnson, who was knocked off last year’s ballot in a petition-gathering scam; former Attorneys General Bill Schuette and Mike Cox; and even ex-Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, now a state senator. She beat Benson for SoS back in 2010.
Bottom line: In 23 elections for the U.S. Senate in Michigan since 1952 (that’s seven decades, folks!), Republicans have won only three times (13%) — Bob Griffin twice, in 1966 and 1972, and Spencer Abraham in 1994. Both men won in Republican national ‘red wave’ years, and Griffin won initially as an incumbent (he had been appointed to the job early in 1966 by then-Gov. George Romney). Furthermore, both Griffin and Abraham benefited from strong coattails from the heads of their tickets (Romney in 1966, President Richard Nixon in 1972, and Gov. John Engler in 1994).
None of that is going to happen in 2024, so Republican prospects are bleak at best.