LANSING, Mich.. (AP) - Just three months ago, Rep. Elissa Slotkin was one of the most vulnerable Democrats in Washington, fighting an expensive campaign for reelection in a Michigan district that Republicans were sure they could retake.
That was all a distant memory recently as Slotkin sat beaming next to Sen. Debbie Stabenow at a Lansing luncheon commemorating Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Fresh off a surprisingly comfortable 5 percentage-point victory, Slotkin was eager to praise Stabenow, the dean of Michigan Democrats, whose Senate seat is suddenly open after the four-term senator announced her plans to retire.
"She knows what it takes to win and she is not going to let her seat flip when she leaves," Slotkin said of Stabenow in an interview. "She feels, I think, very connected to making sure her legacy is upheld by passing the torch to someone who can win it."
In what is quickly emerging as one of the most closely watched Senate races of the 2024 campaign, Slotkin is aggressively acting on Stabenow's call for "the next generation of leadership." The 46-year-old former CIA intelligence officer is taking steps to prepare for a Senate run, including forming a national campaign team, according to an aide close to the congresswoman who requested anonymity to discuss planning.
In the interview, Slotkin nodded to the plans, saying she was putting her "ducks in a row" before an announcement.
Slotkin would almost certainly face competition from fellow Democrats in one of the most politically competitive states in the U.S. The ultimate winner of next year's primary will be crucial in the party's effort to maintain the Senate, where Democrats hold a one-seat majority and are facing tough headwinds as they defend seats in Republican-leaning states from West Virginia to Montana and Ohio.
But Slotkin is gaining notice as someone who can help bring generational change to a party whose ranks on Capitol Hill are dominated by people several decades her senior. And the margin of her victory last year could offer reassurance that she's prepared for another tough campaign.
"Extremely hard-working. Great fundraiser. Has run in tough elections. I think she would be at the very top," Michigan Democratic strategist Amy Chapman, who was Barack Obama's state director in 2008, said in assessing Slotkin's primary prospects. Chapman is neutral in the Senate primary.
Slotkin's potential Democratic rivals include Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, Reps. Debbie Dingell and Haley Stevens, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and state Sen. Mallory McMorrow. Only one Michigan Republican has held a seat in the Senate in the past 40 years, Spencer Abraham, from 1995 to 2001. He was defeated for reelection by Stabenow.
Many of the possible contenders have their own unique background that could distinguish them in a primary.
Gilchrist is the only Black party prospect in a state where the Detroit area accounts for half of the statewide vote. Benson won reelection by a wider margin in November than Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who sailed to a second term. McMorrow made a national name for herself last year with an impassioned floor speech about her opposition to restrictions on race- and gender-related topics in schools. Dingell, whose late husband, John, was the longest-serving House member ever, represents suburban Detroit.
But for now, Slotkin appears to be the most aggressive in acting in light of Stabenow's Jan. 5 retirement announcement, which surprised much of the Michigan Democratic establishment.
Slotkin used her regular internal political meeting that day to begin discussing steps she would need to take to explore a bid, according to a person with knowledge of the conversation who requested anonymity to discuss private planning. Since then, she has talked to state and local Michigan Democratic elected officials and has been in touch with donors inside and outside Michigan who have helped establish her as one of the U.S. House's top campaign fundraisers.
Slotkin raised $10 million for her 2022 campaign, second among targeted Democrats only to Rep. Katie Porter of California.
Slotkin was elected in 2018 by narrowly beating two-term incumbent Republican Rep. Mike Bishop in a longtime Republican-leaning district. She also became Stabenow's congresswoman, representing the senator's home in Lansing.
The 72-year-old Stabenow, who represented the Lansing area in the House for four years before running for the Senate, took the junior Democrat under her wing on the campaign trail, guiding her to influential activists and groups, Slotkin said. Their relationship has stayed strong since, according to Slotkin.
"Sometimes she lets me borrow her little hideaway office near the House floor if I have votes until two in the morning," Slotkin added.
Stabenow has given no sign she plans to support any of the several prospects seeking to succeed her, except to nod to the list's several relative newcomers. "I'm really enthused about the the opportunity for the next generation of leadership," she said in an interview.
After Slotkin narrowly won reelection in 2020, new congressional maps divided her home in Holly just northeast of Lansing from the state Capitol, her district's population center and its Democratic voting base. In moving to Lansing to run in Michigan's new 7th District, Slotkin was viewed by Republicans as vulnerable because she would be new to about a third of the district's voters, many in rural GOP-leaning counties north of Lansing.
Democrat Joe Biden also had barely won in the new configuration, giving hope to Republican House strategists who wagered Biden's low job approval last year would help sink vulnerable House Democrats.
Instead, Slotkin beat Republican state Sen. Tom Barrett in a race in which the two parties combined to spend more than $40 million, making it the third-most expensive House race in 2022.
"She's had millions and millions of dollars spent raising her positive name ID throughout the current iteration of her congressional district and the prior iteration," said Adrian Hemond, a Democratic political strategist who is neutral in the primary. "That's why you've got to call Slotkin the favorite."
Slotkin, however, is little known among Michigan's Black voters, a liability considering nearly 78 percent of Detroit's population is Black, according to the 2020 U.S. Census.
Though she has advertised on Detroit television during her campaigns, she has never represented Detroit nor its exurbs with large Black populations such as Flint.
"I do believe she has her work cut out for her in the Black community in Detroit," said Alexis Wiley, the former chief of staff to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. "I don't think you can overstate the uphill battle there."
Slotkin entered Congress with nationally recognized freshmen such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who openly clashed with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She carved out a reputation in the House as quietly persevering, though vocal when necessary, said former Rep. Cindy Axne of Iowa, who entered Congress with Slotkin and calls her a friend.
"There's nobody better at strategy that I'm aware of than Elissa Slotkin," Axne said.
Last week, Slotkin traveled to Detroit and Grand Rapids, Michigan's two largest cities and both outside her district, to attend events commemorating King's birthday with Black leaders.
It was what she called part of an effort to "talk to opinion leaders" and "see what they think," though she stopped short of suggesting a deadline for an announcement.
Ever the strategist, she noted "first movers are important in politics," but that it's also a "countervailing wind against preparation and methodical planning."
"I could make an announcement, but then I don't have the team in place," she said. "So, I want to do it right."