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Opinion Two things Democrats must do to keep their Michigan Senate seat

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (right) hugs Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) after Benson was sworn in outside the state capitol in Lansing, on Jan. 1. (Al Goldis/AP)
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As good team players do, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) this week gave her party plenty of notice that she would not seek another term in 2024. Stabenow, a solid centrist in a swing state, has been a sturdy presence in the caucus for more than two decades and an example of how Democrats can remain electable while pursuing progressive aims.

“Under the cloud of unprecedented threats to our democracy and our basic freedoms, a record-breaking number of people voted last year in Michigan,” Stabenow said in her announcement on Thursday that she wouldn’t seek another term. “Young people showed up like never before. This was a very hopeful sign for our future.”

Fortunately for Democrats, Michigan has been trending blue. In 2022, Democrats swept all statewide offices there and won the state government trifecta (both state houses and the governorship) for the first time in 40 years. Michigan voters also passed a measure securing abortion rights under the state constitution. Put differently, an open Senate seat in Michigan seems an awful lot less scary for Democrats than it might have before the midterms.

Nevertheless, Democrats must do two things to hold on to Stabenow’s seat. The first most important one: Nominate wisely.

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The party can take comfort in it long list of strong candidates — many of them in their 40s and 50s. For example, Rep. Elissa Slotkin, 46, was a star of the 2018 freshman congressional class. In 2022, she earned the endorsement of outgoing Republican Rep. Liz Cheney primarily for her strong national security record. While Republicans targeted her district as a potential flip, she won comfortably by more than five points.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, 45, is another possible contender. Coincidentally, on the same day Stabenow announced her retirement, Benson received word that she would receive the Presidential Citizens Medal for her defense of the state’s electoral slate in 2020 despite threats to her own physical safety.

“As the heroes who stood guard over the nation’s electoral votes at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, can attest, defending every voice and every vote requires courage and commitment to country, our Constitution, and the will of the American voters,” Benson said in a statement. “This extraordinary recognition affirms in me the hope that we will emerge out of this moment with a democracy that has not only prevailed, but is stronger, healthier, and more robust than ever before.” That’s the stuff of campaign ads.

Then there’s Dana Nessel, 53, who just won reelection as state attorney general. Like Benson, she has won twice statewide. Roughly a year ago, she referred to the Justice Department the case of false electors organized in Michigan as part of the phony elector scheme. And on Friday, with the benefit of the House Jan. 6 committee report, she announced she would re-open her own investigation into the phony elector scheme.

Jim Kessler of Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank, lists other potential candidates, such as Michigan Reps. Haley Stevens, 39, and Debbie Dingell, 69. “If you look at the choices of Michigan Democratic primary voters over the past decade, they have consistently chosen pragmatic and electable statewide candidates like Gretchen Whitmer and Gary Peters,” he tells me. But he warns, “Democrats can’t look at this as a slam dunk. They need a candidate who can win the center while exciting the base.”

If Democrats select a candidate too far to the left, as they did in the 2022 Wisconsin Senate race, they could fumble away a seat in an election cycle in which Senate Democratic incumbents already face tough races in Ohio, Montana, Nevada and Arizona. But if Michigan Democrats run candidates well suited to the state, as they did in Georgia, Arizona and Pennsylvania in 2022, Stabenow should be able to pass the baton to an electable, hopefully younger, centrist.

The second critical factor for Democrats: They need to win the presidential race.

In 2020, Biden won Michigan by roughly three points, returning the state to the blue column after Democrats lost it in 2016. He must do that again in 2024.

Fortunately, Biden should have plenty to crow about to retain Michigan voters, including his bipartisan infrastructure plan, which could funnel at least $11 billion to the state. Michigan is also well situated to benefit from the CHIPS and Science Act (about a third of the chips produced in the world use polysilicon produced by a Michigan company). And Michigan is also going to receive its share of investment thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act. As MLive reports, “As a top state for energy employment, Michigan is expected to receive an $8.3 billion investment in clean power generation and battery storage by 2030.” Certainly, any of the Democratic House members who voted for these bills would be able to tout them in a Senate campaign.

With a strong home state team of Democratic leaders, the party should have no trouble choosing a centrist candidate with broad appeal. And with a president at the top of the ticket who has delivered for the state, they should be able to hold onto the Senate seat. But they cannot take it for granted.