The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Michigan, Democratic women are rising. Now some are weighing a Senate run.

The electoral success Democratic women have had in Michigan stands out among battleground states. In the wake of a senator’s retirement, several are eyeing their next steps.

Rep. Elissa Slotkin, seen by many Democrats as a potential early front-runner to replace Debbie Stabenow in the U.S. Senate. (Emily Elconin for The Washington Post)

When Democrat Debbie Stabenow began her political career in 1974, fewer women were running for office. In a recent interview, she recalled hearing that her male opponent in that first race had dismissively referred to her as “that young broad.”

Nearly half a century later, Stabenow, who won that county election and went on to become the first woman to represent Michigan in the U.S. Senate, is retiring from Congress. Her decision has set off a scramble for her seat in a state where Democratic women have become a dominant political force, propelled by a new generation of officeholders.

Several prominent Democratic women are now deciding whether to run for the seat in 2024. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D), 46, is moving swiftly toward a run, calling party leaders across the state to tout her victories in hard-fought House races as evidence of her ability to win statewide, according to half a dozen Democrats with knowledge of her activities. These Democrats, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations, said they expect her to announce her candidacy in the near future. Slotkin has said publicly that she’s “seriously considering it.”

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, 45, who became the face of Michigan’s defense against then-President Trump’s false claims in 2020 that the presidency had been stolen from him, is looking at the race. Benson oversaw the election and afterward, she defended the election systems, even as she faced armed protesters. Democratic Reps. Haley Stevens, 39, and Debbie Dingell, 69, are looking too.

“I’ve told people I won’t say no yet,” Dingell said in an interview. “There are a lot of people with a lot of thoughts about this … I’ve had a lot of phone calls.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D), 51, fresh off a decisive reelection and seen widely in the party as a potential future presidential candidate, has ruled out a run for Senate. State Sen. Mallory McMorrow, 36, who became a national figure in 2022 with a viral speech denouncing a Republican colleague’s incendiary personal attacks, hasn’t fully closed the door on the idea, but said in an interview that she’s eager to see what a Democratic majority in state government will accomplish during the next two years.

The success Democratic women have had in recent elections in Michigan stands out among battleground states. Five of the seven Democrats serving in the U.S. House are women. A majority of Democrats in both chambers in the state legislature are women, including the majority leader of the state Senate. Along with the governor and secretary of state, the Democratic attorney general is also a woman. So is the chair of the state Democratic Party.

In interviews, Michigan Democrats pointed to a system that recruits and encourages women to run for office. When women rose up in anger during the Trump presidency in 2018, the party embraced them, they noted. And in November, Michigan voters decisively chose to codify abortion protections in the state constitution, another signal of the influence of Democratic women the state.

It wasn’t always that way, recalled Stabenow, who entered politics as a 24-year-old in the 1974 race for the Ingham County Board of Commissioners. Gordon Swix, the Republican she defeated, said he has no recollection of calling her a “young broad” and that’s not how he talks. Now in his 80s, Swix praised Stabenow’s work ethic and drive, but said he never voted for her.

When she was elected to the state House a few years after that campaign, one of only eight women at the time, Stabenow said she fought back a male leader’s desire to group them on a committee of “constitutional revisions and women’s rights.”

“At that point, I really had to break down doors myself, and there were very few women involved in elected office,” Stabenow said in an interview. “At that time, there was a lot of attention for being the first, but you know, if you’re the first, if you’re the only, and there’s not a second, third or fourth, another way to look at that is we are the token, and so from my perspective, the real power and representation comes from having many, many women involved.”

Today, many Democratic women in Michigan are controlling the levers of government, and perhaps the most prominent among them is Whitmer. After a double-digit reelection win last year, she has said she intends to serve her entire term, ruling out a run for the Senate. Whitmer was considered by Joe Biden’s campaign to be his running mate in 2020 and is frequently mentioned among the Democrats who might run for president in the future.

Whitmer was also the target of a failed kidnapping plot by far-right extremists in 2020.

During her governorship, Whitmer and other top officials have confronted sexist remarks. In August 2021, Michigan Republican Party Chairman Ron Weiser was caught on video calling Whitmer, Benson and state Attorney General Dana Nessel “three witches” who should be burned at the stake. Amid widespread condemnation, Weiser released a statement of apology “for the flippant analogy.”

The next year, as the three women ran for reelection — all were first elected to their posts in 2018 — Benson posted a photo of them on Twitter doing “Charlie’s Angels” poses with the caption: “We are fierce, we are fearless, we are ready to win.”

Right now, the open Senate seat is seen as the strongest opportunity for a political promotion in the state, as Stabenow’s retirement caught many by surprise. Democrats face a difficult Senate map in 2024, putting their narrow 51-49 majority at risk. Michigan, where the last two presidential elections have been close, is expected to be a key battlefront, with Republicans eager to flip the seat red. Among the Republicans’ considered potential candidates are Rep. John James, former congressman Fred Upton and 2022 GOP gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon.

“We are going to aggressively target this seat in 2024,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee communications director Mike Berg in a statement.

Benson, the secretary of state, “is taking a serious look” at the Senate race, according to a person with knowledge of her thinking, though during an interview with NBC News earlier this month she appeared to wave it off. The person with knowledge of Benson’s thinking spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private deliberations.

Earlier this month, Biden awarded Benson the Presidential Citizens Medal, one of the nation’s highest civilian honors, for “courage and selflessness during a moment of peril for our nation.” After the 2020 election, armed, pro-Trump protesters showed up at her home chanting, “Stop the Steal.”

Stevens, who worked on the Obama administration’s federal auto task force, came to Congress at the same time as Slotkin, winning a seat in 2018 when a record number of women ran for office across the country amid a major backlash to Trump. She said in an interview that supporters have reached out about her running for the Senate seat, but “I’m not ready to say anything right now.”

She added that, “If you’re looking at who is going to run and what we’re expecting to see, I think you’ll see some strong female contenders.” During her 2022 campaign — in which she beat a Democratic congressman in a primary after he decided to run in her district rather than run in his redrawn district that had become more competitive — she said she would tell voters: “It feels good to be a Democrat, and boy does it feel good to be a Democratic woman in Michigan.”

McMorrow, who received national attention last year for a speech that went viral chastising a Republican colleague who had falsely accused her of wanting to sexually groom children, is also thinking about her political future. Soon after that speech, McMorrow hired Lis Smith, a well-known Democratic strategist who helped elevate now-Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg from relative obscurity as mayor of South Bend, Ind., to a formidable presidential candidate. (Buttigieg has a residence in Michigan, but has also said he doesn’t intend to run.)

McMorrow said it’s been “surreal” to see her “name circulated” as a possible Senate contender, but that she’s eager to see what Democrats can accomplish controlling all levers of state government. She said her goal is for national Democrats by 2024 to use Michigan as a template for what gets done when the party is in charge.

McMorrow, who is close friends with Slotkin, described a kind of sisterhood among the women who ran together for the first time in 2018 and said Stabenow paved the way for that.

“As we think about her retiring, she’s really created a pathway and infrastructure that supports Democratic women all across the state,” said McMorrow, who was also first elected in 2018.

When it comes to the Senate race, Slotkin is seen by many Democrats as a potential early front-runner, though more liberal Democrats in the state are hesitant to anoint the centrist as the nominee. Others, like Alexis Wiley, a Democratic strategist and former chief of staff to Detroit mayor Mike Duggan, said Slotkin is Democrats’ best shot at holding the Michigan seat in a year when their Senate majority is on the line.

Wiley said Slotkin has “made clear her intentions” in what Wiley sees as an effort to clear the field early and avoid a costly and bruising primary.

“I’m seriously considering it, and I’ve been open about that, but you know, Sen. Stabenow leaves just a huge hole in the Senate, and so I just want to make sure before I jump in that I’ve really thought about it and talk to people and do it with eyes wide open,” Slotkin said last week.

But former congresswoman Brenda Lawrence, who opted not to seek reelection in 2022, said she expects a crowded primary and said many people are assessing their chances. Lawrence, who is Black, said she is looking for a “strong African American to run.” If she doesn’t find one, she said she’d consider running herself.

At least one prominent Democratic man is also looking at the race. Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, who is also Black, has said he is considering running.

Lawrence said Slotkin may struggle to win over parts of the state where she hasn’t spent as much time. Slotkin is already working to shore up support in areas beyond her congressional boundaries: On Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, Slotkin attended events outside her district, in Detroit and Grand Rapids.

When Stabenow announced her retirement earlier this month, she said it was time to “pass the torch” to a new generation. She added that she suspects a woman will replace her and hopes the party will coalesce around whoever is the strongest candidate.

“I think with all of our wonderful candidates, it is very likely to be a woman, but I do want to step back and give everyone a chance,” she said. “I think we have to see who’s interested and how this plays out. It’s always better if we can get behind one candidate and not have a divisive primary.”

correction

A previous version of this story misspelled Lt. Gov. Gilchrist's first name. It is Garlin, not Garland.

Camila DeChalus contributed to this report.

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