Michigan 7: Behind the Scenes of the Race to Replace Slotkin

by Erin Covey June 12, 2023 · 2:00 PM EDT

Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin announced her campaign to succeed retiring Sen. Debbie Stabenow in February, leaving open one of the most competitive congressional districts in the country. But more than three months later, no one on either side of the aisle has stepped up to the plate.

The clock is ticking for both parties. Michigan’s 7th is at the top of the list of districts Democrats need to hold on to as they attempt to pick up the five seats necessary to take back control of the U.S. House in 2024. This district was already one of the most evenly-divided in the country — Joe Biden won the seat by just half a point in 2020 — and now Republicans won’t have to go through one of the Democratic Party’s most formidable incumbents.

In the weeks following Slotkin’s Senate announcement, half a dozen Democratic politicians in the district were floated as prospective candidates. Lansing Mayor Andy Schor announced an exploratory committee, and Barb Byrum, the Ingham County Clerk and the daughter of a former state house minority leader, expressed interest in running for the seat. Former state Sen. Curtis Hertel, state Sen. Sarah Anthony, and state Reps. Angela Witwer and Julie Brixie rounded out the list of potential candidates.

But since then, Byrum and Schor have announced they’ve decided not to run. And behind the scenes, Democrats have largely consolidated behind Hertel, who has served as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s legislative director since the beginning of the year. 

Though this race has developed at a relatively slow pace, Democratic strategists aren’t particularly anxious about the timing — the party was much more concerned about the prospect of a contentious primary battle that could divide the party and drain valuable resources.

It’s been similarly quiet on the GOP side. Since the beginning of the cycle, Republicans have widely expected Slotkin’s 2022 opponent, former state Sen. Tom Barrett, to run again for the seat. Shortly after Slotkin’s Senate announcement, Barrett’s top campaign adviser made it clear that the former state senator planned to run again. 

Barrett has yet to make an announcement. But Republican sources who spoke with Inside Elections still expect Barrett to launch a campaign later this summer, and see him as their best option in the district. 

Succeeding Slotkin
Slotkin has developed a reputation as one of her party’s strongest fundraisers over the past three cycles, setting a high bar for any Democrat who hopes to succeed her. “You’ll need to walk and talk and have the same aura of success [as Slotkin],” as one Democratic strategist put it.

But Democrats don’t anticipate that their eventual nominee will be able to raise the $10 million that Slotkin brought in last cycle. Another strategist said the expectation would be closer to $5 million.

Democrats believe that Hertel has the political chops necessary to follow in the congresswoman’s footsteps. He’s represented parts of the 7th District for the past 15 years, as the Ingham County Register of Deeds from 2009 to 2014 and then as a state senator from 2015 to 2022.

Hertel’s name is well known in the region — his father, Curtis Hertel Sr., was the speaker of the state House in the 1990s, and his uncle Dennis Hertel served in Congress from 1981 to 1993. Hertel Jr.’s brother, Kevin Hertel, currently serves in the state Senate.

Hertel also has close ties to Whitmer, who had previously held his state Senate seat. For the past five months, he’s served as the governor’s legislative director, lobbying for her policy priorities in a state legislature now controlled by Democrats, and his relationship to the popular governor (who just won re-election by double-digits) will be a boon to him. “Curtis is an experienced Whitmer hand who can win by running on her record,” one Democratic consultant in Michigan told Inside Elections.

A few potential candidates, including Anthony and Brixie, have yet to rule out campaigns. But Democratic sources are skeptical that they’ll run, leaving Hertel as the clear frontrunner for the Democratic nomination.

Waiting on Barrett
Barrett was seen as a top recruit last cycle — he had a military background and had unseated a Democratic state legislator in 2014. The Iraq War veteran served in the state House for four years before he was elected to the state Senate in 2018.

Though Barrett struggled with fundraising for his congressional campaign, raising $2.8 million to Slotkin’s $10 million, Republicans are hopeful he’ll raise more this time around. And it’s highly unlikely that the fundraising gap will be as dramatic as it was in 2022.

If Barrett doesn’t run, “there is a long line of potential talent who could run,” according to one Republican who spoke with Inside Elections. But party strategists are still operating under the assumption that Barrett will announce a campaign this summer.

One potential alternative to Barrett would be former state House Speaker Tom Leonard, according to one Republican strategist.

The race for Michigan’s 7th District is critically important in the battle for control of the House in 2024, and both parties’ candidates will be expected to hit the ground running once they announce campaigns.