Debbie Stabenow has been an institution in Michigan politics for years, and her presence in the Senate is one of many bricks in the Rust Belt’s “blue wall”. After flipping a House seat from red to blue in 1996, she won a hard-fought Senate contest in 2000 against incumbent Republican Spencer Abraham. Her victory was one of six Democratic flips that cycle, setting up the tenuous 50-50 Senate that loomed over the early years of the George W. Bush administration.
Stabenow’s surprising decision to retire rather than run for re-election in 2024 represents both a show of confidence in the state’s new Democratic establishment as well as a opportunity for Republicans to claw back in a state they once felt so confident about winning.
Stabenow’s impressive record
Stabenow ran for re-election three times, winning each. In 2006’s blue wave, she easily dispatched Republican Mike Bouchard by a 15.6% margin. Remarkably, she did even better in 2012, winning by a 20.8% point margin against inept Republican nominee Pete Hoekstra, whose campaign was clouded by a racially insensitive Super Bowl ad. In 2018, Stabenow won by only 6.5% against Republican John James – a closer-than-expected margin that led to James’s candidacy for Senate in 2020 and successful House run in 2022.
Although we haven’t officially unveiled our 2024 ratings yet, we had intended on opening Michigan’s Senate race as Likely Democratic. Stabenow’s retirement changes this calculus, but we aren’t sure how much it does. Since winning the state at the presidential level in 2016, Michigan has proven to be somewhat of a white whale for Republicans. We’d likely be inclined to give Democrats the edge in a vacuum.
With Democrats only having two remotely viable targets in 2024, holding states like Michigan will prove vital to their already-slim chances of retaining a Senate majority; if Michigan flips, the Senate will have gone terribly wrong for the Democratic Party.
A changing Michigan poses problems for both parties
2018 and 2022 featured “blue waves” that shook the state’s Republican establishment to the core, while the state returned to its traditional blue hue in 2020’s presidential and Senate contests. College-educated areas like Grand Rapids and Oakland County are rapidly trending against the party. While Michigan is not an impossible state for Republicans, it may well be what North Carolina is for Democrats – a state that is always close, but rarely goes the way they want it to.
On the other hand, Democrats can’t quite rest easy in Michigan either. Republicans have performed better in presidential years, likely due to increased turnout from low-propensity white working class voters. Central Michigan is broadly trending the wrong direction for Democrats, and declines in both population and minority support for the Democratic Party could be worrying.
Candidate quality matters
Owing in large part to a large, young bench, Democrats can look forward to an attractive field of candidates in 2024. Elissa Slotkin and Dan Kildee have held down highly-competitive House districts, while statewide figures like Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist and Attorney General Dana Nessel may well be willing to run as well. Governor Whitmer appears to have no interest in running for Senate, and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg (an Indiana native) has also denied interest.
The Republican side is far less clear, with a decimated bench and abysmal state party looking. Representative-elect John James lost statewide twice, but overperformed the top of the ticket incredibly well in 2022, narrowly winning a district that Gretchen Whitmer carried by double-digits. Former Representative Peter Meijer might well be the most electable Republican in the state, but lost a primary in 2022 after voting to impeach former President Trump. A slew of far-right, inflammatory figures are also likely to run, potentially setting up a bruising primary that could lead to either a fatally flawed or fatally damaged nominee.