Stabenow retirement scrambles calculus for Michigan Democrats

Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s (D-Mich.) decision to retire already has Democrats scrambling to find a successor as they brace for a brutal Senate map in 2024.

A slew of high-profile Michigan names have already been floated to replace Stabenow. A source close to Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) told The Hill that the congresswoman is seriously considering launching a Senate bid. At the same time, Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Mich.) is also said to be considering a run. 

Various state officials have also been floated, including Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s (D) name has also come up, but she has suggested she plans to serve a full four-year term. 

“Anybody who has watched Michigan over the past couple of years knows that we have a deep, deep bench of highly qualified folks,” said Lavora Barnes, chair of the Michigan Democratic Party. 

News of Stabenow’s retirement comes after Michigan Democrats, including Whitmer, Benson and Nessel, defied expectations in November’s midterm elections, winning a number of statewide and congressional races. 

“In 2022 Michigan Democrats won resounding statewide victories, and we are confident Democrats will hold this Senate seat in 2024,” said David Bergstein, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. 

On top of that, Democrats also have a leg up given the state’s past electoral history. The last time a Republican won a Senate seat in Michigan was in 1994, when former Sen. Spencer Abraham took the seat. He himself was the first Republican to win a Senate race since 1972. Stabenow defeated Abraham in 2000. 

“Michigan is a purple state, but it leans blue,” said Michigan-based Democratic strategist Adrian Hemond. “Democrats have a great shot at this, especially if they nominate the right candidate.” 

However, Republicans still say they view the race as a potential pickup opportunity, pointing to Michigan’s status as a swing state. 

In 2016, former President Trump flipped the state by roughly 10,000 votes. Four years later, in 2020, Trump lost the state by just over 2 points. And past Democratic victories in the state’s Senate contests have also been hard-fought: Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) defeated now Rep.-elect John James (R-Mich.) in 2020 by just under 2 points. And in Stabenow’s last reelection bid, she defeated James in 2018 by roughly 6 points. 

Republicans and Democrats concur that Stabenow is a strong political figure in Michigan, which has thrown a bit of a wrench into the state’s political dynamic. 

“Senate Democrats don’t even have a campaign chair yet and they are already dealing with a major retirement,” said Mike Berg, communications director at the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “We are going to aggressively target this seat in 2024. This could be the first of many Senate Democrats who decide to retire rather than lose.”

And Republicans also say they have a deep bench of potential candidates to choose from.

Despite losing two Senate bids, James has been floated, and so has Rep. Lisa McClain (R-Mich.). Former Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.), who was defeated in a primary battle last year following his vote to impeach Trump in 2021, along with former Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), who also voted to impeach Trump but did not seek reelection, have been suggested. Upton was also floated as a potential option for House Speaker this week as Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) struggled to get his party to coalesce behind him. 

But there are questions as to whether moderates like Meijer and Upton could survive a GOP primary. 

Republican insiders also point to former gubernatorial candidates Kevin Rinke and Perry Johnson. Rinke lost in the state’s GOP primary last year, and Johnson was disqualified from running after election officials found issues with petition signatures his campaign submitted. Former gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon, who lost to Whitmer in November, has also been named. 

“The Dems on the Senate side have always been better positioned than we have,” one Michigan Republican strategist told The Hill. “And now I don’t know if you can say that. They’ve got strong candidates, but we’ve got strong candidates too.” 

Barnes said she expects it will be a “tough race” but said she feels confident Democrats run a strong campaign. 

“Whoever is running will not be Sen. Stabenow with the terrific record that she had with the hard that she has done on behalf of this state,” she said.