Elissa Slotkin Braces for a Democratic Civil War

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HOLLY, Michigan—With victory at hand, Elissa Slotkin could not shake the feeling of imminent defeat.

Two years to the day after winning her first race for Congress, Slotkin, a former CIA analyst who ran to represent Michigan’s 8th Congressional District as a pragmatic “Midwestern Democrat,” leaned forward on the sofa inside her family’s farmhouse. The smell of success was in the air—literally. Her husband, Dave, stacked a table high with trays of Indian food; a group of Slotkin’s campaign aides were arriving for a celebratory feast after securing her a second term in the House of Representatives. There was, suddenly, all the more reason for jubilation: Hours earlier, every major news outlet had called the presidential race for Joe Biden, ending an 84-hour stalemate that had America biting its fingernails.

This should have been a moment to revel—or at least to exhale, to look on the bright side after a long, dark campaign. But Slotkin is not wired that way. The same mentality that kept her on edge during three tours in Iraq, endlessly monitoring threats—old and new, real and perceived—animates her approach to politics. She cannot relax. She cannot stop “thinking strategically” about what’s around the corner. Not when she had so many questions and so few answers. Was the president, Donald Trump, going to concede defeat and allow for a peaceful transition of power? Would the Democratic Party, which had won the presidency but suffered dramatic losses down-ballot, fracture along emergent ideological fault lines? Were Americans, who had been told on the authority of the White House that the election was illegitimate, facing a crisis of confidence in their democracy?

Sitting down with the 44-year-old congresswoman, I could immediately tell she wasn’t in the mood to be cagey or cute. Slotkin had won reelection by just 4 points, half the margin her very high-priced polling had foretold; Trump had once again carried her district, which her internal data had said was improbable. She watched friends in Congress lose their jobs as a crush of undetected voters swamped the ballot box. She had listened to moderates blame the party’s left wing for polluting the Democratic brand and watched progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez critique the centrists as stale and outdated in their approach. Having spent the previous four days stewing on all this, Slotkin came out firing in a manner that caught me off-guard. She wasn’t just interested in settling scores with the liberal left. She was intent on making her case that Trump, one of the most divisive and hated politicians in American history, had exposed a weakness in her party that could lead to its destruction.

“You know, the one thing I will say about Donald Trump,” Slotkin began. “He doesn’t talk down to anybody. He is who he is, but he doesn’t talk down to anyone. And I think that there is a certain voter out there because of that who identifies with him and appreciates him.”


This was new terrain for Slotkin. As one of the Democratic majority-makers who flipped a longtime GOP-held seat in 2018—and as one of the seven freshmen moderates who forced Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s hand and launched an impeachment inquiry—Slotkin knows her opinions carry weight, and she often reserves them accordingly. In our numerous interviews these past six months, her only positive references to the president—and there weren’t many—came in the context of bipartisan bills he had signed. She was otherwise pitiless in assessing his wrongs: the kowtowing to tyrants, the naked abuses of power, the weaponizing of America’s racial divides for political gain. Now, she allowed a strange, grudging praise for the president—and by extension, a stinging reprimand of her own party.

“It’s not just that he eats cheeseburgers at a big celebratory dinner. It’s not just that he does things that the common man can kind of appreciate. And it’s not even because he uses kind of simplistic language—he doesn’t use complicated, wonky language, the way a lot of Democrats do,” Slotkin said. “We sometimes make people feel like they aren’t conscientious enough. They aren’t thoughtful enough. They aren’t ‘woke’ enough. They aren’t smart enough or educated enough to just understand what’s good for them. … It’s talking down to people. It’s alienating them. And there’s just certain voters who feel so distant from the political process—it’s not their life, it’s not their world. They hate it. They don’t like all that politics stuff. Trump speaks to them, because he includes them.”

This was a central thesis of Slotkin’s argument. It has long been perceived that Democrats, in the post-9/11 era, are the party of inclusion and big-tent politics. But Slotkin has begun to question that notion. She fears that Democrats have created a barrier to entry, largely along cultural lines, that makes the party fundamentally unwelcoming to anyone with supposedly retrograde views of the world around them. This is not merely about race and racism. The schisms go far deeper, to matters of faith and conscience, economic freedom and individual liberty. Indeed, for the heavy losses Trump sustained among affluent college-educated whites, he nearly won a second term because of his gains with Black and brown voters. That these Americans were willing to support Trump, often in spite of his rhetoric, reveals an uncomfortable truth for the left. There are millions of voters—working-class whites and working-class minorities—whose stances on social controversies put them out of touch with the Democratic Party. It’s a truth they might be willing to overlook, if only the party could do the same.

“I remember, long before, literally, Donald Trump was even a twinkle in our eye, the way that people in my life here couldn’t stand political correctness. And I think [this is] the same kind of sentiment,” Slotkin explained. “Because the political correctness is thinking you’re better than somebody else—it’s correcting someone. Now, I happen to believe that we live in a different era, and that we have to be better than we were in previous eras. … But people do feel looked down upon.”

This reality, Slotkin said, “makes it really hard” to understand the results of this election. A postmortem examining demographic trends and policy disagreements cannot register the visceral rejection of today’s Democratic Party any better than the hundreds of preelection polls that were commissioned by the smartest minds in the political business. At the root of our polarization, Slotkin argued, is one half of the country believing it is enlightened and the other half resenting it. I asked her whether there’s any escaping this dichotomy. Can the Democratic Party change? Can it embrace a “different era,” one that demands rapid and unremitting evolution on all things cultural, without condescending to those who are slow to come around?


“That is Phase Three,” Slotkin replied. “Phase One was the election. Phase Two is the transition of 78 days and getting through this rocky road. And then there’s Phase Three: figuring out how to heal.”

She thought for a moment. “It’s going to be exceptionally hard to do. But if we do not keep the door open for people, and allow them to walk through that door, and keep a hand out to help them through, we’re just gonna [move] in pendulum swings. One party wins and we only govern for half of America; then the next party wins and they only govern for half of America … We’re going to have stalemated government that can’t do anything.”

Phase Three was always going to be daunting. The events of recent days, however, have made clear what a herculean task awaits the likes of Elissa Slotkin. Before Democrats can heal the country, they have to heal their own party first.

Like most of her Democratic colleagues, Slotkin woke up on November 3 feeling supremely confident. Every metric they had at their disposal suggested not only that Biden would win the White House, but that Democrats would recapture control of the Senate and increase their majority in the House. Even some of the party’s most skittish members, such as Slotkin, were beginning to imagine life with unified control of Washington.

And then the returns started coming in.

Slotkin had been sanguine at the night’s beginning, serving bowls of chili to her 10 family members as they watched CNN in the farmhouse living room. From there, she would float around the corner to the dining room, where campaign manager Matt Hennessey and field director Sophia Brown were manning a miniature war room, taking incoming reports from staff assigned to monitor key precincts across the district. (The 8th stretches from the northern exurbs of Detroit 100 miles west to the capital city of Lansing.) Then, she would make her way outside, to the nearby utility shed, where communications director Gordon Trowbridge and his team of five were huddled around laptops and video equipment, mapping out plans to livestream updates as the returns were processed. Slotkin’s early trips around this loop—CNN and chili, makeshift war room, communication bunker—were lighthearted enough. But things got intense in a hurry.


The first signs of trouble came from South Florida. When Miami-Dade County began dumping huge batches of votes, just after 7 p.m. Eastern, it was apparent that Democrats were in trouble. Trump was running well ahead of his 2016 margins and his coattails were extending all the way down-ballot. The race in Florida’s 26th District had been considered an early bellwether: Democrats believed if their incumbent, Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, hung onto her seat as expected, it would portend success throughout the prized battleground state and all around the country. But it was becoming clear, early in the 8 p.m. hour, that Mucarsel-Powell could not overcome Trump’s strength in the area. If this wasn’t entirely shocking, given the competitive makeup of the 26th District, what happened next door in the 27th District caught Democrats totally by surprise. Four years after Hillary Clinton carried the district by 20 points, the incumbent congresswoman, Donna Shalala, fell in a stunning upset to GOP challenger Maria Elvira Salazar.

“It was like, wait a minute—Donna Shalala?” Slotkin recalled. “We knew Debbie Mucarsel-Powell was in a tough race, but Donna Shalala, she had just donated to the party; she had just paid dues, which is not something you do if you’re a front-liner. We all assumed that race was in the bag.”

Suddenly anxious, if not yet frantic, Slotkin became glued to her phone. She takes part in a long-running group text message on an encrypted app, Signal, with nine of her fellow “national security freshmen” Democrats: Abigail Spanberger and Elaine Luria of Virginia; Chrissy Houlahan and Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania; Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey; Max Rose of New York; Jared Golden of Maine; Gil Cisneros of California; and Jason Crow of Colorado. Right around the time their Democratic colleagues in South Florida were falling behind, the text chain became a hive of activity. All of the first-term, purple-district politicians whose only point of reference for election night was the “blue wave” of 2018 were now coming to terms with the reality that 2020 was a very different animal.

“Holy crap, Kendra just lost.”

“Oh, no. Cunningham is going down.”

“Oh my gosh. Did you see what happened to Xochitl?”

For a while, as the group traded updates on their colleagues around the country, nobody asked the obvious question—were any of them in trouble? Finally, Crow, who dominated his race in a vote-by-mail state that shows results at warp speed, felt emboldened to raise the subject. “Where are you guys?” he texted the group. “Is everyone OK?”

They were not OK.


Rose, the 33-year-old Army combat veteran who studied at Oxford and the London School of Economics, was falling hopelessly behind in his Staten Island, N.Y., district.

Cisneros, a former lieutenant commander in the Navy, saw worrisome signs in his slow-counting slice of Southern California.

Spanberger, who is Slotkin’s closest friend in the Congress, a fellow CIA alumna in her early 40s, didn’t mince words. “It’s not looking good,” she messaged the group, citing how far she’d fallen behind her Republican opponent, Nick Freitas. “He’s got a real lead. I don’t know if we can surmount it.”

For her part, Slotkin reassured everyone that she was fine. “We’re hitting our numbers,” she told them. “I think I’m going to be all right.”

This was true in the strictest sense: Going over the returns precinct by precinct with her top aides, Slotkin was winning the minimum number of votes necessary for victory. But in some areas, that was it—the minimum. Her strength was not materializing in certain places the way her campaign had expected, in part because Trump’s potency far surpassed any model they had considered as realistic for mapping voter turnout. The president was collecting chunks of support, particularly in pockets of conservative Livingston County, that defied two years of consensus among top Democrats. Even though Trump lost 8 points off his 2016 margin in the county, he won 11,000 more votes there. This clearly suggests that, while some existing voters had switched loyalties, Trump had drawn lots of nontraditional participants in the process, including many who stayed home in 2016. They were now turning out, some of them for the first time, and while they were there to fly the MAGA flag, they were also punching their tickets for Republicans all the way down the ballot.

“And as the night went on, it just got more and more tense,” Slotkin recalled. “I always felt very confident that as long as we hit our early numbers, we were going to be all right. But there was probably a span of 10 seconds of doubt. It was when I was going to bed—around 2:30 or 3—and I was still texting with the team. They had all gone home. My family had gone to bed. But I was still texting with Matt and Gordon and Sophia. And I said, ‘Just checking here: You’re sure we’re going to be all right?’”


Her doubt was justifiable. The combination of Covid-19 and Michigan’s new law permitting no-excuse absentee voting had created a historic backlog of ballots that could not be counted until Election Day. These ballots were overwhelmingly favorable to Slotkin and her fellow Democrats, but because they were reporting much more slowly than ballots cast on November 3, her Republican opponent, Paul Junge, had leapt out to an early lead. He held it into the early morning hours when Slotkin went to sleep. At that point, most of the votes had been tallied in Livingston County, the conservative part of her district, and in Oakland County, the purple part. Much of what remained was a huge chunk from Ingham County, home to Lansing, the district’s liberal stronghold. Slotkin would need a huge showing from her base to make up the necessary ground.

She got it—and then some. Just before 6:30 a.m., Ingham County announced its count was complete. Slotkin won the county by more than 50,000 votes, vaulting her comfortably past Junge and leading local news outlets to call the race in her favor. When the final (albeit still unofficial) results were tallied, Slotkin topped Junge by some 15,000 votes, winning the race by a bit less than 4 percentage points, a margin nearly identical to her victory in 2018.

It was a respectable win, but hardly the blowout she had envisioned. She had only herself to blame for allowing expectations to balloon out of proportion. For much of this year, Slotkin had refused to accept what her pollster and top campaign aides were telling her—that Trump was hemorrhaging support among white suburbanites and headed for a landslide defeat. She insisted that Trump voters had been “fundamentally undercounted” in 2016 and believed the same thing was happening all over again. But as the campaign wore on, and as the anecdotal evidence she collected began to align more and more with the data culled from across the district, Slotkin bought in. She allowed herself to feel confident in a comfortable win, both for herself and for Joe Biden. And then she spent the first week of November sweating out narrow wins for both.

The margins notwithstanding, Slotkin’s 2018 and 2020 campaigns had little in common. Two years ago, the economy was booming and epidemiology was a nonissue and the president’s base was not galvanized to show up to the polls. The biggest difference between the two elections was the way in which politicians campaigned—and voters voted. Having built a colossal campaign bank account that was intended to fund one of the largest field programs in the country, Slotkin spent this spring and summer recalibrating her strategy on the fly, “throwing spaghetti at the wall” to see which methods of reaching voters was working. Central to her overall approach was an emphasis on voting by mail: In the final months of the campaign, with the president decrying this form of voting as illegitimate, Slotkin’s campaign poured resources into tracking which voters had applied for absentee ballots, which voters had received them, which voters had returned them and which voters still had not.

These efforts were rewarded on Tuesday night—or, more accurately, Wednesday morning—when the last of the returns came in. The gulf between absentee voters and Election Day voters was astonishing. Among those voting in person on November 3, Slotkin lost to Junge by a total of 50,037 votes. But among absentee voters, Slotkin beat Junge by a total of 65,448 votes.


That the president carried the 8th District by about 1 percentage point, down from 7 points in 2016, puts Slotkin in rare company: She is one of a select few House Democrats to win a district that Trump carried twice. (The final number of these survivors is still being calculated; according to experts I consulted, it will likely be in single digits.)

Because of this—because Slotkin scrapped and hustled and innovated her way to victory in a place that other Democrats could not win—she has strong views on how the party must operate moving forward.

First among them: Listen to the people who have to earn their jobs every other November.

It was time for Slotkin to get something off her chest.

Over the course of our conversations this summer, the congresswoman returned time and again to a baseline observation of her party. It was something she had detected since arriving in Washington in January 2019 as part of a five dozen-member freshman class of Democrats. The key distinction within their ranks, she argued, wasn’t between moderates and progressives, but between politicians who represent competitive districts and those who do not.

“What I hope to get from those members is some reflection and some understanding,” Slotkin told me in early August, as Democrats were navigating sharp internal disagreement over how to address social unrest and law enforcement reform. “Some of the toughest times that I’ve had inside the caucus were when it felt like certain members were turning their guns on us, on their own team. In the era of Trump, I find that frustrating. There is a place for people who push the envelope—American history is moved forward by people on all sides of the political spectrum who pushed the envelope. So, I don’t fault them for doing that. That’s what their constituents expected. But please don’t fault me for doing what my constituents expect of me, which is governing and getting something done.”

When I asked Slotkin to elaborate, she said, “What bothers me a little bit is that we have this false dichotomy—either you’re young and bold and have big ideas and you’re passionate, or you’re old and moderate and boring and pragmatic. I hope this bench of leaders that are coming up in the freshmen class, my closest peers, are going to just explode that stereotype. Because I’m as passionate as the next person. I believe deeply in change on the issues I care about. I don’t think I’m that boring and I don’t consider myself that old. So, we have to break through that. But in the meantime, you represent your district. Don’t tell me how to represent mine when you come from New York or California.”

This view speaks for much of the Democratic Party’s center-left cohort, but it’s particularly representative of the freshmen moderates Slotkin referenced. It’s easy to forget, given the ink spilled on AOC and her “Squad”—Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts—that Democrats won back the majority in 2018 not on the platform of “Abolish ICE” or passing “Medicare for All” but of protecting Obamacare and lowering prescription drug prices. This has been a source of tremendous tension inside the House Democratic Caucus for the past two years. What kept it from spilling over—for the most part—was the unifying, all-consuming urgency of defeating Donald Trump. It was always evident that win or lose, Democrats were headed for a messy internal reckoning after the 2020 election.


But nobody thought it would come so quickly.

It began in earnest on the afternoon of November 5, when the House Democratic Caucus was convened via conference call to discuss the electoral aftermath. (“I don’t always go to these caucus calls,” Slotkin said, “but I knew this one was going to be interesting.”) The telemeeting kicked off with rah-rah commentary from Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her leadership team; Pelosi declared they “did win the war” despite losing some battles. This struck many of Pelosi’s members as tone deaf: They had been projected to pick up from five to 15 seats, but they were presently on track to lose at least 5 and possibly several more.

The floor was then turned over to Mucarsel-Powell, who spoke tearfully about her defeat in Florida. Just as Slotkin and her nine Signal buddies were settling in, trading jokes about what promised to be a long and tedious call, they were surprised to hear Spanberger—one of their own, the feisty Virginian who had survived by a few thousand votes after things looked bleak on election night—barge onto the line.

“If we are classifying Tuesday as a success from a congressional standpoint, we will get fucking torn apart in 2022,” Spanberger shouted.

With a few hundred ears now perked up, the Virginia Democrat proceeded to slam her progressive colleagues for flirting with two fads—“defund the police” and democratic socialism—that she said cost the party multiple seats and threatened to doom those who did survive in their future campaigns.

“When we want to talk about funding social services, and ensuring good engagement in community policing, let’s talk about what we are for,” Spanberger beseeched her colleagues. “We need to not ever use the words ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again. Because while people think it doesn’t matter, it does matter. And we lost good members because of it.”

Listening to her friend—and then, to the cacophony of voices quarreling over the line, arguing about what led to losses in districts most of them had never been to—Slotkin decided to keep quiet. She hurt for her comrades who had lost their jobs; her election night phone call with Max Rose was painful. (“I want him to be mayor of New York one day,” she laughed.) Still, she knew the caucus call “would be in the papers in five minutes” and thought it pointless to weigh in. Better to have these conversations privately, Slotkin thought, than air the party’s dirty laundry in front of the D.C. press corps.

But then, in the 48 hours that followed, the “family conversation” that Democratic leadership had called for degenerated into a nasty, personal and very public feud. The sniping between moderates and progressives escalated by the minute. Lawmakers defended their closest friends and unloaded on the people they’d spent the past two years sneering at. The hostilities climaxed when Ocasio-Cortez, in an interview with the New York Times, dismissed the accusation that far-left proposals had hurt the Democratic Party, arguing instead that vulnerable incumbents had run poor campaigns.

“I just don’t see how anyone could be making ideological claims when they didn’t run a full-fledged campaign,” she told the Times. “Our party isn’t even online, not in a real way that exhibits competence. And so, yeah, they were vulnerable to these messages, because they weren’t even on the mediums where these messages were most potent. Sure, you can point to the message, but they were also sitting ducks.”

When I asked Slotkin about this, her voice crackled with irritation.

“I think that she’s better informed speaking about her own district,” Slotkin said of Ocasio-Cortez. “Maybe more than 9 percent of her district is on Twitter, but that’s about how much of mine is on Twitter. We had a robust digital program. But I’d like to see her gas-pump video screen ads. Did she have those? Those were a big part of what we invested in, because my voters, especially during Covid, were still going to get gas. So, I think this is about knowing your audience. While her campaign may be run online, my campaign is run with a heavy emphasis on TV, and ground, and a whole bunch of other creative tools to get to my voters. … I had a robust digital program. I spent a lot of money on digital. But you don’t win races in the industrial Midwest with digital.”

What’s interesting is that Slotkin agrees with Ocasio-Cortez on a broader point: The attacks on leftist policies do not offer a coherent explanation for why Democrats lost so many key contests on November 3. In Slotkin’s view, the notion that millions of voters turned out primarily to vote against Democrats is laughable. To the contrary, they were turning out to vote for Trump and for Republicans, because they know what they’re getting in return. This, Slotkin said, continues to be the underlying difference between the two parties: Republicans, for better or worse, have embraced Trumpism up and down the ballot, whereas Democrats remain fractured and largely incapable of presenting a coherent pitch to the electorate.

“The brand of the national Democratic Party is mushy. People don’t know what we stand for, what we’re about. So, every two years when the new flavor of attack comes out, it’s easy to convince a portion of the population that those attacks are true, because they still don’t know our brand,” Slotkin said. “I think that’s the real strategic problem for the Democratic Party. It’s not any one line of attack; it’s not any one slogan. It’s that the underlying brand is mushy. And until we get that right, until we really work that out, we’re going to have a problem every two years.”

Naturally, this conversation gets a bit circular. Democrats from both ends of the ideological spectrum complain that the party’s identity is nebulous, but the party’s identity is nebulous primarily because the tension between those two poles—both of which claim a mandate from voters and promise a brighter future for the party—inhibits any sort of centralized messaging.

Slotkin embodies this contradiction. On several occasions, she signaled a willingness to engage anew with her colleagues on the left. She told of her great respect for Pramila Jayapal, a Seattle Democrat who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, whom she calls “a serious person” who prefers to settle disagreements in person rather than over social media. She described a text exchange with a “very liberal” House Democrat during the combative conference call in which they discussed a plan to start pairing off, two by two, moderates and progressives, or at the very least convening smaller groups of them to build relationships and trust. Without taking these steps, Slotkin emphasized, the Democratic Party would remain paralyzed by its internecine divisions.

And yet, in the same conversation, she fired a warning shot at anyone who might pressure the Biden administration to chase big progressive policies out of the gate.

“Today on the radio, someone was talking and they [asked], What do you think Joe Biden’s first thing should be the first 100 days? And the person said climate change,” Slotkin said. She cocked her head to the side. “Now, I can understand that. And I am a big believer that we need pretty bold action to mitigate the impacts of climate change. But if we do not do something that helps people’s pocketbooks or their kids in the first couple of months, I think people are going to lose faith in government being able to do anything in their lives.”

One obvious idea is to pump stimulus money into the bank accounts of those individuals and small businesses hit hardest by the economic collapse of 2020. One less obvious idea, Slotkin suggested, is to wage an all-out push to dramatically reduce the price of insulin. “Every American knows someone who’s diabetic. It would help Black people, brown people, white people. It would help our neighbors. It would be concrete and specific,” she said. “It wouldn’t create a reorganized society, but it would be major points on the board and major savings for people. It would affect their lives.”

Without this sort of tangible achievement early in Biden’s presidency, Slotkin said, “It’s going to tell a lot of people that it just doesn’t matter who is in office. And I think that’s a bigger strategic threat than any one issue. So, I’ve been talking to the Biden transition team, [telling them] that right off the bat, we’ve got to do something concrete. And now, of course, because of the Senate likely staying in Republican hands, it’s got to be focused and narrow and possible. I know that’s not what a lot of people want to hear. But that’s the message that I hear loud and clear from my district.”

Slotkin was getting ahead of herself. After all, Biden’s presidency is still a hypothetical in the eyes of tens of millions of Americans—including one highly influential American who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Welcome to “Phase Two,” as Slotkin called it, a tottering period of transition the likes of which modern America has never encountered. At the heart of the uncertainty is Trump alleging mass voter fraud as justification for his refusal to concede defeat, despite losing the presidency by small but clear margins in five pivotal battleground states. On November 5, two days after the election—and hours after the most recent vote tallies showed him falling inexorably behind in his pursuit of an Electoral College majority—Trump took to the White House briefing room and announced that the election had been stolen. Slotkin could not bring herself to watch.


“I knew exactly what he was going to say. He’s been telling us for seven months that he was going to do this,” the congresswoman said, exasperated. “I’m a good CIA analyst. I’ve been watching this man lay down his data points, put down his paper trail. No one should be surprised that he stood up with the White House as his background and declared this whole thing a fraud.”

The question for Democrats was, at that point, what could they do about it?

Slotkin had spent the past few months preparing for this moment, studying the relevant laws and consulting with election experts to game out scenarios for how Trump might attempt to retain power. When the president’s campaign filed its initial lawsuit in Michigan on November 4, hours after Biden overtook Trump in the statewide tally, Slotkin and her fellow Democrats were prepared. Beginning that Wednesday, and every day since, Michigan’s most powerful Democrats—from the congressional delegation to the Detroit mayor’s office to the party’s top lawyers—have assembled via Zoom. They have shared information on legal actions and personal threats, intimidation campaigns and social media rumors. The goal has been to keep a step ahead of Trump and his campaign as they try to undermine Biden’s 146,000-vote victory in Michigan by any means necessary.

The good news for Democrats is that it hasn’t been hard staying on the front foot. Trump’s legal effort in Michigan has been a comedy of errors. Nobody here who has any familiarity with “Thor” Hearne, the out-of-town attorney making the president’s case—that the campaign’s initial filling with the courts was rejected as “defective” for not including the necessary documentation—was all the proof Michigan’s political class needed to realize the legal efforts were going nowhere fast.

The bad news for Democrats? If Trump and his party wanted to go nuclear in the interests of keeping him in office, the courts were never going to matter anyway.


“The most predictable scenario was that the president was going to launch a ton of lawsuits in states that have Republican legislatures, because that was going to make it more likely for there to be cries of fraud, a refusal to certify the election results, and then kicking it to the legislatures to decide,” Slotkin said. “A lot of that is either untested, or it’s new. We haven’t seen it before. But your best advantage, if you’re Donald Trump, is to go to states with a Republican legislature. So, we always knew Michigan was going to be on that shortlist. … What I’m concerned about is that there will be a push to not have the board of canvassers certify the results of the Michigan election on November 23; that Republican members [of the board] will cry foul and try to kick it to the legislature. The legislature will then step in and say, ‘There’s been fraud and therefore we can’t accept the results.’”

Slotkin doesn’t think this is probable, or even plausible. But the very fact that we were discussing it, hours after The Associated Press and Fox News and every other major American news outlet called the presidential race for Biden, chilled her to the core.

“This is an in-or-out moment for people who have basically either ridden the wave of Trump for four years or have just stayed quiet to save their own political skin,” she said. “You are going to have to pass this test here, whether you’re going to choose a man or a party over your democracy. There’s not going to be anywhere to hide. If you’re going to stay silent, then you’re complicit with what he’s doing.”

She added: “I’ve been appreciating my Republican colleagues who have been saying something—[Michigan congressmen] Fred Upton, Paul Mitchell. I’ve been watching the folks who have been saying the right things, as well as the ones who are just complicit. … Now I’m watching what the Michigan Legislature does. This is not quite over. I’m thrilled that the media outlets have declared Biden the president-elect. But that’s not completion. The task is not done.”

For Slotkin, watching GOP leaders brazenly undermine the legitimacy of the ballot box has lent that much more urgency to quashing the beefs within her own tribe.

“There are people both inside and outside the party who are looking to split it apart. And that’s the least strategic thing I can think of—it’s handing these anti-democratic forces that I’m so concerned about a gift,” Slotkin said. “While I disagree with a lot of people in my party, I still have a lot in common with them. And it would be what we call in Yiddish, a shanda, a shame, a deep shame, if internal politics led to a strategic opening for these completely anti-democratic forces. And that’s what I think about [as far as] the importance of figuring out a unified trajectory for the Democratic Party. I think about it like we must do this in order to prevent those darker angels in our country from gaining real power.”

The contours of Democratic co-existence are changing by the minute. Toward the end of summer, when a Democratic wipeout of the GOP was looking increasingly certain, Slotkin told me she and her fellow House moderates were preparing to be “the bad guys” in the coming year. Her point: With a unified Democratic government poised to muscle through the most progressive agenda in a century, it would be purple-district centrists joining Republicans to hold the line and demand incrementalism. This would make villains of people like Slotkin and Spanberger and their Signal comrades in the eyes of the left—a dilemma they were prepared to embrace.

Things are more complicated now. Slotkin disagreed with my suggestion that a Republican-held Senate could alleviate the pressure on lawmakers like her. She has too much contempt for Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader who has refused to hold votes on hundreds of bipartisan House bills over the past two years, to entertain the idea that his control over the upper chamber is a blessing in disguise. But she does recognize the imperative for deal-making next year will be greater than ever—which is why she’ll be agitating for a new speaker.

“I will not be voting for Nancy Pelosi,” Slotkin told me. “I have no idea if people are gonna run against her, or who might run against her. And I will of course have this conversation directly with her. But I believe we need new leadership. I would love to see more Midwesterners, because if you look across the leadership. … I respect these people, but it’s New York and California.”

To translate: “New York and California” isn’t simply code for liberalism. In this case, rather, Slotkin is hammering a perceived aloofness in the leadership—a perception that spans the party’s ideological divides. Both Slotkin and her like-minded moderates, as well as AOC and her insurgent progressives, believe Pelosi and her lieutenants treat them with paternalistic condescension, insisting they know what’s best for them and for the party. Sometimes this approach has helped the center at the expense of the left, such as when Pelosi slow-walked impeachment proceedings. Other times, however, particularly over the past year, Pelosi’s refusal to engage in real negotiations with the White House has left moderates fuming.

When the speaker slapped down a bipartisan Covid-19 relief package this summer—then gave a bizarre interview on CNN in which she insulted a member of her party who was pushing for it (and Wolf Blitzer for even bringing it up)—inboxes and cellphone screens lit up across the House Democratic Caucus. Even some of the members who backed Pelosi’s strategy of not moving from her initial offer were vexed by her imperious tone. In hindsight, given the closeness of the presidential election, Pelosi’s allies may have been politically astute to refuse any concessions that would have given Trump a timely victory at a time when his campaign was flagging. On the other hand, this gets to Slotkin’s basic point about the Democratic Party: It has spent the past four years defining itseleves by what it is against, and it very likely cost it on Election Day.


Slotkin isn’t sure how many other Democrats will join her in rebelling against Pelosi’s quest for a fourth term as speaker. She does know two things. First, by virtue of the Democrats losing at least a handful of seats, Pelosi will have less room to maneuver in the January 3 roll call vote for speaker on the House floor. Second, if Pelosi limits her defections and garners the votes needed to remain the top House Democrat, Slotkin stands prepared to rally behind her and do everything she can to help the party be successful.

If only she felt those assurances from the left.

“The thing that makes it very hard for me is when some of my progressive friends, you know, see me as the enemy,” she said. “I don’t know how the last four years hasn’t demonstrated to us the risks of the Democratic Party being at each other’s throats. You see what is over there. If we don’t have the majority, you see how Republicans are siding with the president and willing to throw our democracy in the toilet in order to keep Donald Trump in power. Can’t we work this out? So that’s not our future? That’s what pains me. Our tactical fights could lead to a real strategic failure for the country.”

Slotkin is sincere about doing her part to bridge these divides—in her party, and in her community. Earlier this summer, rattled by the lack of resources capable of reconciling the disparate elements of her district, Slotkin got creative. She reached out to a high school friend who works in the corporate world, specializing in diversity and inclusion efforts, and asked for help. She is now being formally trained to do the difficult work of mediating disputes among groups that have little familiarity with one another. Having earned the responsibility of representing a spectacularly diverse array of constituents—from wealthy urban dwellers to poor country folk, with every race and ethnicity and political persuasion thinkable—Slotkin wants to do more than pass laws on their behalf. She wants to bring them together. She wants to help them stop hating each other. She wants to create a political discourse that is just uncomfortable enough to force people out of their silos and into areas of common purpose.

“The hardest thing to do is have empathy for other people. My experience is that there is still a lot of agreement on values between Americans—if you can get to that conversation. But it’s hard to get there,” Slotkin said. “I just refuse to believe that now Democrats won the White House and we should treat those who don’t support Biden, the same way that Trump treated us.”

Solving the identity crisis of the Democratic Party is no longer just about winning elections, Slotkin told me. It’s about rebuilding a healthy society—and, very possibly, about preserving American democracy.

“I never said it would be easy,” she said. “I just said it would be the strategic thing to do.”


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