Has Elissa Slotkin Detected Early Hints of a Biden Blowout?

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It wasn’t a difficult decision for Slotkin. The mantra of her campaign, repeated by everyone from junior staff to the candidate herself, is, “Our opponent isn’t Paul Junge; our opponent is gravity.” The fundamentals of Michigan’s 8th District are inevitably going to pull a Democrat back down; any opportunity to put distance between herself and the ground was one Slotkin couldn’t pass up.

On September 16, the campaign dialed up its most important TV ad—one they’d planned on using down the home stretch of the race—and placed it into circulation across the district. The 30-second spot, “Mom,” featured Slotkin narrating the story of her mother, “a fighter,” who lost her insurance due to a preexisting condition and later died of cancer. Promising to use her position in Congress to protect transparency in drug pricing and affordable insurance for everyone, Slotkin concluded the ad by saying, “I approve this message because, Mom, I’m nowhere near done fighting.”

There is no doubt whom Slotkin is targeting with this ad, and almost no doubt that it will resonate.

Exit polling in 2018 showed 44 percent of Michigan voters considered health care their the most important issue facing the country, more than double the share of any other policy matter. And survey after survey demonstrates how the debate around health care continues to mobilize women voters in particular. With her most prized demographic recoiling from Trump’s message on safety and security, Slotkin was choosing to fire the biggest weapon in her arsenal in hopes of cementing her gains with this group. She was, for all intents and purposes, moving in for the kill.

Sitting at a park bench in Lake Orion, just after her Ginsburg-centric Q&A with a few dozen locals, Slotkin tried to put everything in perspective.

She acknowledged her surprise—and reassurance—at the findings of her internal poll. “What I actually feel heartened about is that those exact suburban women that [Trump’s] message was aimed at seem to be resistant to falling into the trap of fear and racism,” she said. Even before the numbers came back, Slotkin added, “I’m out in the community, going to businesses, doing all these things, and could feel that the law and order like scare tactic stuff wasn’t rooting.”

And yet, Slotkin didn’t look reassured. Once a CIA analyst, always a CIA analyst. She wasn’t interested in celebrating; she was already assessing the next threat.

One was standing just 10 feet away. A tracker, affiliated with some Republican outside group, stood pointing an elevated camera in her direction, which he would spend the next several hours doing as Slotkin toured downtown Lake Orion. This would normally be more of a nuisance than anything else, but Slotkin was especially sensitive in the moment. Just two days earlier, she had committed an unforced error: An hour after appearing on CNN, telling Jake Tapper how she wasn’t comfortable going back to her district and hearing painful stories from her constituents until a Covid-19 relief bill passed, she was confronted by a tracker at Reagan National Airport, where she was boarding a flight … to Michigan. Video clips juxtaposing Slotkin in the same outfit—on CNN, then at the airport—spread rapidly on Republican-friendly social media pages.

The nuance of this incident was lost in the flurry of attacks on Slotkin’s supposed duplicity. In truth, the context of her remarks centered around an effort, spearheaded a week earlier by the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, to pass a compromise relief bill and break the impasse between Congress and the White House. Slotkin was among many PSC members to call for everyone to stay in town and negotiate. Once they introduced their legislation, however—and watched angrily as it was rejected out of hand by House Democratic leadership—there was no reason to remain in D.C. (Slotkin’s sin was not being more specific about the failure of that compromise legislation, and how it left her no choice but to go home and face her constituents.)

This public-relations hiccup briefly overshadowed her greater cause of anxiety, which was the failure of the bill itself. Slotkin and her fellow moderates had logged long hours putting together their bipartisan agreement. To watch as Speaker Nancy Pelosi dismissed it out of hand was infuriating, a reminder of why the freshman had refused in 2019 to vote for Pelosi as speaker. But it was also scary. Slotkin had spent the past month warning anyone who would listen—including me, on multiple occasions—that Americans hadn’t felt real economic pain yet, that the worst would come at summer’s end, when business loans ran out and unemployment aid dried up and colder weather forced patrons to stay indoors. This was not doomsaying. Slotkin genuinely believed, both from talks with local businesses and administration officials, that districts like hers were about to get pummeled without a second round of economic relief funds. Not only had Congress left town without passing anything; it sure looked as though lawmakers had missed their best chance to do anything before the election.

That conventional wisdom became more of a fait accompli with the passing of Justice Ginsburg.

The two parties were already dug in, refusing to cede an inch to the opposition with November 3 coming into view. Now, the abrupt opening of a seat on the Supreme Court, and the push by Senate Republicans to fill it without delay, would only harden the partisan battle lines.

“What I can tell you from running in 2018 when the Kavanaugh hearings came up is, I think some people expected that to really galvanize Democrats. And what we saw very clearly is it galvanized both Democrats and Republicans,” Slotkin said. “I think it’s a gut reaction, 12 hours later, that it’s going to galvanize both sides. I mean, this is the issue that my in-laws vote on, the court. … I think turnout and energy is going to be super strong on both sides, and especially if they nominate someone but don’t have the hearing until after the election. I can see certainly Trump wanting to hold that out there and using it as something to mobilize people.”

Whatever Republicans do—move swiftly to a confirmation vote, hold it open until after the election—the reality is, as Slotkin told her constituent in Lake Orion, Democrats are powerless. They can scream about McConnell’s treachery and the structural advantages Republicans have exploited to preserve power, but there is no procedural trick to keep a new justice off the court. The only thing Democrats can do is plot their revenge—an exercise that began in earnest even before Trump named Amy Coney Barrett as his nominee. With Republicans on the verge of cementing a long-term grip on the high court, the idea animating much of the left was to “pack the court,” expanding the number of justices from nine to 11, or perhaps even higher. This would constitute the first change to the composition of the Supreme Court since Ulysses S. Grant held office and would require legislation to be passed through both houses of Congress before a president could even consider it.

Which puts Slotkin in a difficult, not-all-that-hypothetical position. If Biden were to win the presidency this November, with Democrats holding the House and seizing the Senate, the question of court-packing will be front and center for every elected official in Washington.

For the time being, Slotkin had the luxury of laughing it off. “That may be the Twitter conversation,” she shrugged, noting her allergy to social media. “I don’t actually know that that’s real, other than just chatter. What I do know is that’s pretty reactionary. That’s a reaction to feeling like, you know, McConnell has unfairly acted with the last two big nominations—with this one and the Merrick Garland one. I would rather we just handle this like adults and keep the court the same size but allow the next president to decide who the nominee is, to remain consistent with the precedent that Mr. McConnell has set.”

If that sentiment—“handle this like adults”—is going to get her bludgeoned by the left, Slotkin didn’t seem concerned. Nor did she seem concerned by how the Supreme Court showdown could remind twitchy Republicans of their true party allegiance. Even when it comes to abortion, the issue most readily identifiable with the courts, and the issue most likely to prevent on-the-fence Republicans from breaking rank with the right, Slotkin was convinced the fight over Ginsburg’s seat will result in lots of mobilizing but very little persuading.

“Another thing that surprised me was the salience around women’s issues,” Slotkin said, pointing to her team’s recent poll. “And that surprised me for this district. I actually think it reflects what I have been feeling anecdotally, which is a hell of a lot of Republican women in this area are privately pro-choice. They don’t tell their husbands, but if their daughter was getting pregnant the week before she was supposed to go to U of M, she’d be the first one at the clinic.”

Maybe she’s right about that. But maybe there’s another explanation for her surging support among women who would traditionally vote Republican. Lots of those voters are still anti-abortion, but they have reached a point where their fidelity to that issue is outweighed by their disgust with Donald Trump.

When Slotkin’s speech wrapped up, I got to talking with two middle-aged women who were sitting in lawn chairs. Rachel Babich and Karen Kudla both described themselves as longtime Republicans whose loyalty to the party owed largely to the issue of abortion. Both are teachers—Kudla is now retired—and both are moms. Despite being offended by Trump four years ago, neither of them could bear to vote for Hillary Clinton.

“I’ve been a single-issue Republican, a pro-life voter, for a very long time. But Trump changed my thinking in that regard,” Babich explained. “I’ve had it with this idea that you’re only pro-life if you fight against abortion. I’ve come to see there’s a much better way to be pro-life, and that’s making sure our social programs are funded, making sure our climate crisis is dealt with, making sure DREAMers are being protected. That’s pro-life, too.”

Kudla jumped in. “What about day care? What about paying good wages? What about helping women support their babies? Those are pro-life policies. And we don’t hear anything about them,” she said. “Shame on us. Shame on us. I’m a devout Catholic; I pray the rosary every morning. I am so conflicted about all these things. But I cannot in good conscience vote to keep this man in the White House.”

“Look,” Babich sighed, “I would love to see abortion not be practiced. But I would also love to see women supported to the point where they never have to make a choice between an abortion and a job, an abortion and living in poverty, an abortion and being left behind by society. I don’t want unborn children being killed. It’s awful. But I can’t think of a more anti-life policy than to put a poor woman in a position where she has no options, where a pregnancy traps her into a life of poverty she can’t escape.”

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