Sep 8, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Slotkin leaves abortion messaging to national Dems

Elissa Slotkin
Rep. Elissa Slotkin(D-Mich.) takes a selfie with a supporter on the campaign trail. Photo: Hans Nichols/Axios

In one of the most competitive House races in the country, Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) is focusing on the economy and her independent brand — not abortion — to try to win in a district with a +2 Republican advantage.

Why it matters: The former Pentagon official, who rode suburban outrage over then-President Donald Trump to victory in 2018, has shown she can win a tight race. Her approach this year suggests campaigning on women's reproductive rights may not be a silver bullet for Democrats in every race in the country.

  • Slotkin has attacked her opponent, state Sen. Tom Barrett, for scrubbing his website of his support for a no-exceptions abortion ban.
  • But she isn't running any TV ads on abortion, leaving that to outside groups and national momentum. Instead, she's emphasizing jobs, the cost of living and prescription drug prices.

The big picture: Republicans don't need to win Michigan's 7th Congressional District — which includes blueish Lansing, the state Capitol and home to Michigan State University, as well as more rural and conservative areas — to take the majority.

  • But to run up the score, they’d need to knock off Slotkin — a rising star in national security circles and a name some Democrats see as a potential Defense secretary down the line.
  • Slotkin was one of just seven House Democrats to win a Trump district in 2020.
  • After redistricting, she decided to leave the 8th Congressional District to run in the neighboring 7th, chunks of which Barrett, a retired Army helicopter pilot, already represents in the state Senate.
  • National GOP leaders view Barrett as a marquee candidate and are spending heavily to back him.

What we're watching: The total cost of the race will likely exceed $25 million, making it one of the most expensive in the country. Outside Republican groups have reserved $10 million in TV ad time and Democratic committees have booked another $8 million, according to party strategists.

  • In addition, Slotkin, a fundraising machine, has raked in close to $7 million and is already hitting Barrett for opposing a $7 billion deal for General Motors to invest in new electric vehicle factories in Michigan. Barrett has raised $1.4 million.

What they're saying: "Literally, if I go to the grocery store, someone's going to talk to me about the cost of living," Slotkin told Axios after a recent campaign event in Grand Ledge, a new part of her potential district.

  • "Someone's going to talk to me about how they can afford their insulin or their child's inhalers or some other prescription drugs. And then someone's going to talk to me about how — some version of, like — 'I can't live as well as my parents and grandparents.'"

The other side: Barrett is making his military background, inflation and security issues the centerpieces of his campaign. On Tuesday, he announced an endorsement from the Police Officers Association of Michigan, as well as current and former sheriffs and prosecutors.

  • Door-knocking in a subdivision outside of Lansing in August, Barrett walked up to homes that bore both Trump and rainbow flags. "I am running because our country is on the wrong track," he told potential voters.
  • His folksy ads feature his wife and four kids, with one spot featuring a family trip to the supermarket. "In Joe Biden’s America, families like mine are paying more for groceries," Barrett says. "Way more," his daughter chimes in.
  • He also uses every opportunity to tie Slotkin to Biden — a message that will be reinforced by the GOP's massive levels of outside spending. "She has a 100% voting record with Joe Biden," he told Axios. "So she can tap dance however she would like — that doesn't make her less of a partisan person."

Between the lines: Slotkin says many Republican women have approached her about reproductive rights to voice their concern. She is also confident that the decision overturning Roe v. Wade has animated her base. "It certainly will not hurt," she said.

  • "There's a big group of people who consider themselves pro-life but with some exceptions for abortion," she added, noting Barrett’s opposition to any exceptions for rape or incest.

The bottom line: Slotkin isn’t avoiding the abortion debate. She just isn't putting any of her own campaign's money into ads to emphasize the issue.

  • She has the luxury of leaving that to outside Democratic groups and their $8 million war chest, if they decide it's needed to get her across the line.
  • In a potential sign of things to come, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee paid for a billboard outside the Michigan state fair last weekend highlighting Barrett's "extreme" abortion position.
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