Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s decision to not run for reelection jolted national Democrats on Thursday, setting off a mad scramble for a newly open battleground seat in 2024.
At least two prominent Democrats — Reps. Elissa Slotkin and Debbie Dingell — are seriously considering a run, according to people familiar with their thinking. But several other House members could also take a look at it, including Reps. Dan Kildee and Haley Stevens, according to several Michigan Democrats.
The quick maneuvering and rampant speculation around it is owed, in large part, to the sheer number of Democrats who have long waited for a crack at running for higher office, and also to the abruptness of the announcement.
“I’m stunned,” said Dingell, who represents Michigan’s 6th District and is among the state’s highest-profile politicians. “She told me months ago she was running. … I can’t imagine our delegation without her, but today is the day we celebrate her and then we figure it out.”
Stabenow’s announcement on Thursday marks the first major retirement ahead of the 2024 cycle, when Senate Democrats will be on defense in a slate of top swing states. It also tees off an open primary in a presidential swing state, with Republicans joining up-and-coming Democratic talent in eyeing a competitive race suddenly without a three-term incumbent on the ballot.
“We have a great group of possibilities,” Stabenow told POLITICO. “So I’ll be having lots of conversations as you can imagine with folks. I think we have a wonderful generation of leaders on our side, I don’t see the same kind of strong … team on the Republican side.”
At least two of the most prominent Michigan Democrats — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, who now splits his time between Washington, D.C., and his family home in Traverse City, Mich. — quickly announced they were not planning a run for Stabenow’s seat on Thursday.
Whitmer, in a lengthy statement praising Stabenow’s legacy, noted that as governor, she looked “forward to working with her through the end of her term,” a nod to her plans to serve out her full four-year term, after winning reelection by a more than 10-point margin last year.
Buttigieg released a statement of his own, noting he is “fully focused on serving the President in my role as Secretary of Transportation, and not seeking any other job.” Using the present tense, Buttigieg continued, “we are hard at work to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, grow the economy, and create good-paying jobs.” Buttigieg has turned down chances to run for the House before and has often described himself as someone with an executive skill set.
Stabenow declined to say if she’s spoken with Buttigieg about the seat. “I look forward to talking to a lot of people that are interested,” she said. “But, it’s been a pretty busy day so far for me. And I really haven’t had those opportunities yet.”
Even beyond Whitmer and Buttigieg, the Democratic bench in Michigan is one of the deepest in the country, featuring a full slate of statewide elected officers, a large congressional delegation representing swing seats, and an unusually prominent state legislator who achieved viral fame last year.
A trio of statewide electeds — Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Attorney General Dana Nessel — could all be well-placed for a Senate run, as well as Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. Benson is set to be in Washington, D.C., on Friday to receive a Presidential Citizens Medal from President Joe Biden for the role she played in overseeing the 2020 election in her state.
But several Michigan Democrats noted that all those candidates may also be keeping an eye on the governor’s mansion, which will not be open again until 2026.
State Sen. Mallory McMorrow, who rocketed to national prominence in 2021 for a speech she made on the state Senate floor and built an impressive online donor base, has also been floated as a potential candidate. In a statement, McMorrow praised Stabenow but did not mention her own intentions for the race.
“It’s a traffic jam,” said one Michigan Democratic strategist, granted anonymity to discuss the primary field candidly, “and I don’t think anyone clears the deck.”
Michigan will be an epicenter of political activity ahead of 2024. For the first time in 40 years, Democrats control all the levers of power: the governor’s mansion and both legislative chambers. What they’re able to accomplish, including bringing new business and job opportunities to one of the oldest — age-wise — states in the nation, will have a potentially profound impact on the political landscape.
Republicans are expected to play aggressively in the state as well, and not just at the presidential level. The Republican primary to fill Stabenow’s seat could be just as messy as the Democratic one, with a number of options ranging from former Rep. Peter Meijer, who lost a GOP primary to a Trump-backed candidate last year, to Rep.-elect John James, who just won a congressional seat after a failed Senate bid in 2018, according to several national GOP operatives.
Two former gubernatorial candidates could also look at the race, according to a national strategist working on Senate campaigns, including Perry Johnson, a Detroit-area businessman, and Kevin Rinke, another former gubernatorial candidate and a former auto dealer.
Other prominent Republicans remain in the state, like Tudor Dixon, who lost a bid for governor to Whitmer in 2022. A person with knowledge of Dixon’s thinking noted that she “isn’t ruling anything out, but remains laser-focused on how she can help Republicans win in 2024.”
Such a potentially vast field could reopen fresh wounds, coming on the heels of a bitter ending to Dixon’s campaign that featured the Michigan Republican Party’s co-chair lashing out at Dixon and Republican donors who “hate” former President Donald Trump for the party’s across-the-board losses in the state.
But GOP operatives in the state said they were hopeful they can avoid a cantankerous contest to fill Stabenow’s seat. “I don’t see them behaving like [the] Ohio Senate primary,” said Jason Cabel Roe, a Michigan-based Republican consultant, citing the 2022 Ohio Senate primary, when the race devolved into a battle for Trump’s endorsement.
Sarah Ferris, Marianne LeVine, Meredith Lee Hill and Nicholas Wu contributed to this report.