ROCHESTER, Mich. — Elissa Slotkin assumed that her campaign for Congress would be built around pocketbook issues such as the rising cost of health care, stagnant wages and unaffordable college tuition.
The audience was made up entirely of moms. The presidential election and its aftermath were still raw.
“How do you deal with friends and family that are constantly posting things that are not accurate or that go blatantly against what you believe?” Sarah Allen, a 37-year-old mother of two girls, recalled asking. “How do I respond without turning into an angry person that no one wants to be around?”
It’s a question that Slotkin, a Democrat, has fielded dozens of times at voter house parties that she says often feel more like “therapy sessions.”
Slotkin’s race, which nonpartisan groups rate as a toss-up, is a view into perhaps the biggest paradox of the Trump era. Voters say they are tired of the anger and polarization emanating from Washington. They say they crave compromise. Yet these same voters view the rival party with disdain and frequently punish politicians for reaching across partisan lines.
They want the anger to stop but can’t stop being angry.
This is not the politics that Slotkin says she grew up with, nor the attitude she expected when she returned home after three tours in Iraq and 14 years working at the CIA, the State Department and the Pentagon. But she knows that her ability to navigate this contradiction will determine whether she wins this November in a district that Donald Trump carried by seven percentage points.
To prevail, Slotkin needs to peel off some Trump voters. These days, that means she must do more than just convince them that she’s the better candidate. She also must persuade them to turn away from their tribe and join another.
“How does this get better?” Slotkin says these voters often ask.
The frustration that inspired Allen’s version of this question goes back to the summer of 2016 and what was then the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. Shortly after the Pulse nightclub attack that left 49 dead in Orlando, then-candidate Trump tweeted, “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism.”
Allen took immediately to Facebook: “Largest mass shooting in US History and his first response is to thank himself. If you are voting for him, please defriend me. I don’t want to be friends with someone that supports this. #sorrynotsorry.”
Among those who defriended her was the mother of one of her daughter’s friends. “We’d always been kind to each other,” Allen said of the friend. When Allen asked why she had dropped her, the friend, Allen said, replied that she had hoped Allen was “more open-minded.”
Allen hasn’t deleted the post but says that she regrets it. “After time and a cooling-off period,” she said, “I wouldn’t do a post like this again.” The two have resumed their real-life friendship but are still not linked on Facebook.
At the house party, Slotkin improvised the best answer to Allen’s question that she could, urging her to post three positive things on Facebook for every criticism. “If you turn angry,” Slotkin said, “you’ve lost.”
In the weeks that followed, Slotkin noticed that other women — and it was almost always women — routinely asked her some version of Allen’s question.
“The lesson,” she said of the encounter with Allen and the others that followed, “was that women were going to win or lose the election for me.”
A lot of sniping
One of the first things Slotkin, 42, noticed when she returned home last year after decades away was how much politics in her hometown and state had changed. “Neighbor sniping at neighbor. Cousin sniping at cousin,” she said. “We never used to have that in Michigan.”
She’s running against Rep. Mike Bishop (R-Mich.), a loyal and low-key supporter of President Trump who has lived in the area for decades and won his last election handily. He has attacked her as an outsider who does not understand the state’s people or its politics.
Slotkin left home right after high school and was working on a master’s degree in New York City when al-Qaeda struck on 9/11. After graduation, she joined the CIA.
In 2007, with U.S. troop deaths in Iraq at their peak, President George W. Bush asked the agency to start sending over young Iraq analysts to brief him in the Oval Office without their bosses.
He wanted an unvarnished view of the war, and Slotkin was an early volunteer. At the time, Vice President Richard B. Cheney was pushing to take a harder line on Shiite militia leaders who played a role in the Iraqi government but were also responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American soldiers. Slotkin argued such tactics would only further inflame the popular uprising against the United States.
“She was willing to be candid and stand up to the president’s questioning,” recalled Stephen Hadley, then the president’s national security adviser, who urged Slotkin to take a job working for Bush.
Slotkin spent two years in the White House before heading to the State Department and then the Pentagon, where as an Obama administration appointee she helped oversee the strategy to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
One glimpse into her own country’s vast and growing divisions came at the Pentagon, the day after the 2016 election. Much of her political staff was shellshocked at the outcome, and Slotkin had to tell one staffer, who was crying at her desk, to go home for the day. She wanted, as much as possible, to keep politics out of the Pentagon. In other parts of the world, troops were celebrating.
Another more personal glimpse came a few weeks later. Slotkin and her husband, a retired Army colonel whom she met in Iraq, were visiting his parents in Florida. Before the election, they had worried that a vote for Trump was a vote to put their daughter-in-law out of a job.
“Vote your conscience,” Slotkin had urged them.
Shortly after Slotkin arrived in Florida, the parents told her that they wanted to clear the air. They had “prayed on it,” they told Slotkin, and decided to vote for Trump because he would appoint conservative Supreme Court justices.
Beyond that, they avoided any discussions of politics until her father-in-law began to complain about the way the cast of the musical “Hamilton” had treated Vice President-elect Mike Pence during a curtain call a few days earlier.
“We, sir, are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us,” one of the stars had told him.
Trump tweeted that Pence had been “harassed.”
Slotkin’s father-in-law said the cast was rude. She insisted that the actors’ message was important and that Pence had been treated civilly.
“It was the one time all week that I had an edge in my voice,” she said. And it was a moment that would link her with women in her district who complained that political infighting was infecting their lives.
Trust and trepidation
At almost all of her campaign events, Slotkin takes a rough measure of voters’ frustrations. “Raise your hand if, in the last two years, politics has made a relationship with a friend or family member tense?” she asks. Usually, every hand in the room goes up.
One morning last month, about a dozen women — an even mix of Republicans, Democrats and independents — were waiting for Slotkin at a cafe one floor down from her campaign headquarters. She had concluded that all-female groups were more open to her message of civility.
The women were milling about. Slotkin was fretting over the carb-heavy selection of breakfast foods her staff had ordered. Just then, Sheryl Wragg, 63, rushed up to her and thanked her for the example she was setting.
“You’ve kept me so many times from saying [expletive] on Twitter,” said Wragg, who uttered two words typically frowned upon in polite company.
Slotkin laughed hesitantly and invited everyone to take a seat.
She opened with a lesson from her time in Iraq and negotiating with Russia on Syria. “You never start with the hardest issues,” she said. “You start with the easier issues where you can build some trust.”
Only one of the 12 women at the breakfast acknowledged having voted for Trump. After the breakfast, Wragg was eager to talk to her. She knew the woman’s daughter, a college senior who had volunteered for Slotkin’s campaign, and said she found it hard to believe that the “magnanimous” young woman had a mother who had voted for a man she considered a liar, racist and threat to the country.
Wragg wanted to know more about the woman’s decision-making process. She and the woman were about the same age. Both were well-off financially. Both of their husbands were auto industry executives. But the woman wasn’t eager to discuss her vote for Trump.
“She probably regrets it,” Wragg said. “I thought she should be ashamed.”
The woman — who did not want to be shamed for her opinions and declined to speak on the record — said she admired Trump’s bluntness in calling out the country’s problems. As for her Trump vote: “I’m still in flux about whether I am happy about it,” she said. She was unsure about Slotkin, too, and whether she could be a truly independent voice in Washington.
“My biggest issue is creating harmony,” she continued.
On that score, she said that Trump, the Democrats and the news media shared equal blame for the infighting and the country’s deepening divisions.
The woman, however, was willing to listen. Often, Slotkin’s biggest problem is finding Trump voters willing to sit through her pitch. Jan Koop and Nancy Strole, two women with a decades-long track record of working for Republican candidates, also had come to the breakfast. Neither had voted for Trump.
“I was so depressed and discouraged by the choices,” Koop said to the women around the table earlier that morning. For the first time in her adult life, she did not cast a vote for a presidential candidate. Strole voted for Hillary Clinton.
Now the two Republican activists were trying to persuade a few dozen of their Republican friends to come to Strole’s house to meet Slotkin. They were off to a slow start.
A close friend of Strole initially had accepted but backed out when she saw that former vice president Joe Biden had endorsed Slotkin. “I didn’t want to feel like a minority,” Carol Pinkos said. She was tired of being written off as “imbecile, idiotic and Islamophobic” for casting a Trump vote in 2016, she said.
Koop pulled out a handwritten list of remaining possible attendees. “I’ve tried most of the people,” she said, sighing. She was starting to worry. She called an old friend who had worked with her on several Republican campaigns. It went to voice mail.
“Hi, Sarah,” she began, her voice brightening. “I don’t know if you got my email or you’re avoiding me. I have something kind of different.”
She called another friend who had worked with her on behalf of Republicans and left another message. Koop did not mention Slotkin’s party affiliation.
A few minutes later the person responded via text message. “Sorry I have to say I have no interest in politics or politicians,” the message read. “It will be a very long time before I’ll vote for that party.”
Koop showed the message to Strole.
“She assumes I’m calling about a Republican,” Koop said.
Across party lines
A big question for Democrats this fall is whether to focus on persuading swing voters to defect from the Republican Party and Trump or to motivate progressives with left-leaning policies and angry calls for impeachment.
Slotkin is betting that Democrats, who turned out in record numbers for her primary, will be there in November. “People want to win,” she said. Her focus is on convincing Republican defectors that it is acceptable to vote for a Democrat. That, it turns out, is not easy.
Among the advice from campaign consultants that Slotkin has ignored is the old saw that “yard signs don’t vote.” To Slotkin, the signs, particularly in Republican parts of her district, give people permission to cross tribal lines. They are the way “people come out of the closet,” she said.
The last year on the trail also has taught Slotkin, a policy wonk by nature, that voters are more interested in empathy and understanding than nitty-gritty proposals. “There’s a whole group that want to know that you care about their problems,” she said. “They don’t want to hear your treatise on this or that issue.”
On a recent Saturday morning, Slotkin was on what should have been comfortable territory — a veterans festival in the parking lot of a Michigan ski hill. Aging Vietnam veterans on Rascal scooters snaked through crowds of Iraq- and Afghanistan-era service members.
Slotkin was waiting for Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who launched into the crowd like a missile, dragging Slotkin behind. Soon she was introducing her young protege to anyone who wandered into her field of vision.
“This is my friend Elissa Slotkin,” Stabenow said. “She had a career in the Pentagon and is an Army wife. Now she’s running for the U.S. House.”
Shouting over a country band, Stabenow complimented an older man on being able to fit into his World War II uniform. The man explained that he had recently lost 25 pounds. “My daughter convinced me to put my wife into a nursing home, and she’s stopped cooking for me,” he said quietly.
Stabenow leaned in and laid a hand on the man’s chest.
“The good thing is that she don’t miss me when I’m gone,” he continued.
The senator wrapped him in a hug. Slotkin watched from a few feet away.
Stabenow’s rapid-fire introductions steered clear of Slotkin’s work for the CIA, focusing instead on her Pentagon experience, her time working on “national security” issues and her Army husband. When Slotkin mentioned her CIA service to one of the veterans, he reared back in mock horror, then smiled and shook her hand.
Trump’s occasional diatribes aimed at CIA leaders and the far-right-wing media’s “deep state” conspiracy theories seemed to have little impact in the district.
Before Stabenow raced off in her SUV, she gave Slotkin a quick pep talk and some advice. Stabenow had won her first election in 1975. This was Slotkin’s first run for any office.
“You need to get a name tag,” she told her. “You’ve got an unusual name, and you want people to remember you.”
'Taking a risk'
In late August, Koop and Strole pulled together about 30 mostly Republican-leaning friends for the meet-and-greet with Slotkin.
Neither of their husbands attended.
“Our values are the same, other than this one race,” Koop said of her spouse.
“We weren’t asking anybody to get married,” Strole added. “Just to listen.”
Standing in Strole’s living room, Slotkin thanked the two women for “taking a risk” on her. In today’s polarized political climate, it was “an act of bravery,” she told them.
Then she ran through her personal story: Her childhood in Michigan and time in the CIA, training with a Glock pistol and M4 rifle. She described meeting her future husband in Iraq. “A very standard Romeo-meets-Juliet story in Saddam’s palace,” she said. And she recalled her mother’s struggle to afford health insurance and her eventual death from cancer.
The attendees asked Slotkin about health care, the environment, the latest polls and whether one person can still make a difference in Washington. Slotkin asked them whether their lives had become more tense since Trump’s election.
“Hello. Hello,” she said, looking out at the room of outstretched hands.
Among those with her hand in the air was Barb Hansen, 70. She had voted for Trump and said she “sometimes” regretted it. But she still backed Trump’s stand on immigration and scaling back of social welfare programs.
“I don’t like all the people coming into our country and getting free stuff supported by our tax dollars,” she said.
The more she listened to Slotkin, the more Hansen liked her, too. Her support had little to do with Slotkin’s stance on issues. Rather, it was a feeling she got listening to her talk in Strole’s living room.
“She’s a real person, like me,” Hansen said, “a country girl.” It was only one voter, but it was a start.
The late-summer sky was darkening as Slotkin offered up her final pitch. “Over my lifetime, a lot of things have changed in Michigan,” she said. “My dad was a Republican, and my mom was a Democrat. I never remember bitter fighting over politics.”
“We’re not New York. We’re not Los Angeles,” she continued. “We’re not Alabama. We’re mixed.”
This was Slotkin’s biggest and boldest bet — that the politics of her childhood memory still exist.