ROCHESTER, Mich. — The sun hadn’t yet risen on Election Day, but two houses were already aglow on Griggs Street.
Inside one, Laura Murphy zipped up her rain jacket.
A few doors down, Deb Potts buttoned hers.
Miserable weather was not going to stop Murphy from canvassing for her Democratic congressional candidate one last time, when she cared about this campaign unlike any before. It wouldn’t keep Potts from the polls, now that she had finally decided how she would vote.
There were 20 hours before Murphy would learn whether her candidate, Elissa Slotkin, would succeed in unseating Republican Rep. Mike Bishop — and, just as important, whether Democrats would retake the House.
To pull it off, the party needed to woo women, especially in states like Michigan, which President Trump barely won; especially in districts like the 8th, where congressional seats were flippable; and especially in places like pumpkin-decorated Griggs Street, where Murphy had been trying to sway the vote of her neighbor.
Earlier this year, Murphy, a lifelong liberal who rarely engaged in politics before 2016, invited Potts, a Christian conservative with major reservations about Trump, over to her house. Not for their usual book club get-together but for a meet-and-greet with Slotkin, a former CIA analyst trying to defeat Bishop, a two-term incumbent.
The race became one of the most expensive in the country, and on Election Day morning, it was still considered a total toss-up. Either could win.
Her rain jacket on, Murphy, 55, and her husband drove past Potts’s house and to the Slotkin headquarters, where they were handed door hangers and a list of 120 addresses at which to drop them.
“You guys feeling good?” a campaign organizer asked, and Murphy nodded, knowing just what she was about to do.
After grabbing an umbrella, Potts, 64, and her husband drove to their polling place, where two years earlier she had voted for Bishop as well as Trump.
“Does anyone need a sample ballot?” a poll worker asked, and Potts shook her head, knowing just what she was about to do.
In the wake of the 2016 election, it was Potts who was trying to convince Murphy that Trump wasn’t so bad. He had just won their district, a swath of Michigan that includes the reliably liberal East Lansing, home to Michigan State University, a rural area Murphy describes as “red hatty” and the outer-ring suburbs of Detroit, where the factions were less clearly drawn.
Here, Murphy and Potts had stayed home to raise their children, while their husbands worked in auto industry jobs nearby. In their town of Rochester, they had neighbors with Clinton signs and neighbors with Trump signs. Updog Yoga was across from Jerry’s Gun Shop. Green Michigan State flags waved beside blue University of Michigan ones. People picked sides — but they knew how to coexist.
As a marriage mentor for her nondenominational Christian church, Potts especially prided herself on being able to navigate difficult conversations. Write a nasty comment on her Facebook page, and Potts will invite you over for coffee. Stake a Clinton sign in your yard, and Potts will reach out to make sure you’re okay after Trump’s stunning upset.
That’s what she did for Murphy. Her neighbor had kept her Hillary sign — the first political endorsement she had ever owned — in her front yard even after the election.
When the women sat down in Potts’s home, Murphy found herself listening to her neighbor tell the story of a miscarriage she had in the ’80s, after the birth of her first child. Devastated by the loss, Potts couldn’t shake the feeling of how alive the 6-week-old inside her had felt. It was then that she stopped supporting abortion.
Still, Potts was willing to set the issue aside for Clinton, whom she admired both for her work for the country and for her devotion to her husband. That was, until the final debate, when Trump described how Clinton supported abortions that involved “ripping the baby out of the womb, in the ninth month, on the final day.” In response, Clinton had said, “The government has no business in the decisions women make,” and that, Potts told Murphy, was worse than all Trump’s glaring shortcomings.
Potts believed the presidency would transform Trump from an insult-flinging, tirade-tweeting candidate into a statesman. The smart people around him, she insisted, would stop him from doing much of what he claimed he wanted to do. Everything was going to be all right.
“I wish I could have accepted it in the spirit in which it was given,” Murphy said about the conversation later. “I wish I could have just said ‘okay’ and chilled out.”
Instead, she signed up for the Women’s March. When she wasn’t at her part-time nannying job, she attended Democratic club meetings and postcard-writing parties and candidate events, like the one where she met a 41-year-old Michigan native who returned home to run for Congress. Elissa Slotkin served under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama during her career in the CIA and the State Department.
Intrigued, Murphy texted her niece’s husband, who works for the Defense Intelligence Agency in Washington: “Do you know this person?”
“Elissa Slotkin is a badass,” he replied. “You should help get her elected.”
Murphy threw herself into doing just that. Slotkin was a part of the record-breaking surge of women running for office for the first time — and behind her was the surge of women volunteering for a campaign for the very first time. Murphy knocked on doors every weekend, sometimes more than 200 in two days. She persuaded even her introverted friends to come along, one of whom started calling their canvassing sessions “therapy.” In the spring, she invited Slotkin to hold an event at her house — and in an email, invited Potts.
By that time, Potts regretted voting for Trump.
“This sounds like an old Christian lady saying this, but I just don’t think he is a gentleman,” she explained.
What bothered her most was how the relationship between the two parties had somehow deteriorated even more, like one of the doomed marriages she and her husband, Bruce, worked on in their church mentoring program.
“When we have a couple that comes to us, and we can see contempt between them?” Potts shook her head. “They can’t work together. They can’t solve problems. They can’t communicate about the simplest things. That is our country.”
So this time, it was Potts who went to Murphy’s house to consider another perspective. As Murphy’s guests munched on pizza and salad, Potts listened closely to Slotkin. The candidate painted herself as a moderate “Midwestern Democrat.” Slotkin was for same-sex marriage, which Potts’s church did not support. Slotkin’s main talking point was health care, but Potts didn’t think government-run insurance would work. And Slotkin unapologetically supported abortion rights.
And yet, there was something about the way Slotkin kept saying, “country before party.” She avoided discussing Trump. When another guest brought him up, Slotkin was careful not to disparage him or his supporters.
Potts noticed it all. She shook Slotkin’s hand and thanked her for coming.
“Deb has told me she is voting for Elissa,” Murphy would say after the party.
But privately, after leaving Murphy’s house, Potts wasn’t convinced. She walked past the American flag on her front porch, closed her door and knew she had a lot of thinking left to do.
On Tuesday night, Griggs Street was dark again. Murphy got back in her car to head to her first election night watch party.
She switched the radio from news to music, tried to sit still, and then pulled up a Detroit news website on her phone.
“Right now, she’s at 40 percent, and he’s at 60 percent,” she told her husband, Mark. They had spent the day trudging through wet leaves, leaping over pothole puddles and getting soaked, all so Murphy could be sure that she had done all she could.
“I am just going to stop looking,” she said. She put the phone down, and they drove west toward the party — and toward the Christian church where Potts would be spending her election night. She and Bruce were training a new class of couples who wanted to be marriage mentors. Potts wouldn’t be watching the votes come in. She didn’t care who had control of the House.
But after she filled in the little bubbles on her ballot, picking the Republican candidate for governor, the Democratic candidate for senator and a mixture of both parties all down the ticket, she went home to pray for healing in the country. Then she picked up her phone and texted Murphy.
“Good morning neighbor! Just wanted to let you know I voted for Elissa just now,” she wrote. “I hope she makes it to Washington and can really influence the stodgy, crabby old people to work together for a change.” She included two smiling emoji and an American flag.
“I am so certain she will be a refreshing change,” Murphy wrote back. A small victory. But by 10 p.m., she was worried whether it would be the only one. Slotkin was behind by 15,000 votes.
Had it all been worth it? The anger and disgust Murphy had felt, the awkwardness of knocking on strangers’ doors, the bags under her eyes after so many days on her feet?
“I have rotten food in my fridge,” she said. “I haven’t shaved my legs in two weeks.”
Behind her, a crowd near the big-screen TV started to cheer. The other toss-up House race in Michigan had been won by a Democrat. Ten minutes later, another announcement: A Democrat had won the governor’s race. Fifty minutes later, another: Democrats had taken back control of the House.
Midnight passed. The party was supposed to have cleared out of the Deer Creek Athletic Club by now. Slotkin was losing by 3,000 votes.
12:30. “This is where we are,” Murphy said. “An unwinnable district.”
12:40. Slotkin was up 1,600 votes, but it wasn’t over.
On Griggs Street, Potts was already fast asleep. Murphy paced the room, hugging all the women she had met through the campaign.
12:52. “Ladies and gentleman,” someone said from the podium. “It is my distinct honor to introduce you to the next congresswoman . . . ”
In the end, the win came down to 13,125 votes, and counting. One from Potts. One from Murphy. And an unknowable number from others Murphy had worked so hard to persuade.
“Screaming at each other does not getting anything done,” Slotkin said in her victory speech.
“Adults can disagree and still respect each other,” she continued.
“We are going to teach those in Washington how to act,” Slotkin promised.
Murphy cheered. It was over. And also, just beginning.