Campaigning in one of Michigan’s most competitive congressional districts, like many other things, looks different this year. After freshman Democrat Elissa Slotkin flipped the eighth district from red to blue in 2018, Republican challenger Paul Junge is vying to take it back.
Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin has been touring her congressional district of Ingham, Oakland, and Livingston counties masked up and at social distance this summer. She flipped the long-held Republican district from red to blue in 2018, and this year is the test: can she keep it?
At a hybrid in-person, online event at the county fairgrounds outside of Mason she joked with the crowd about all of the elephant ears fairgoers aren’t eating this year before reminding voters of the margins she won on.
“In 2016, Republicans won Mason, Aurelius, Delhi and Allegan by 1,100 votes, the Republicans won it. In 2018 we won it by 4,100 votes. That is what we call a swing people. That is a swing.”
In 2018, Slotkin ran on her national security credentials and over the past two years she’s built a brand as a moderate who cares about issues that are broadly popular in the district including prescription drug prices, manufacturing, and PFAS contamination. To get reelected she needs to thread the needle of the eighth-district electorate—attracting deep blue Democrats and split-ticket voters.
“So, I always get this question, you know, ‘Is it about motivating the base, or is it about swing voters?’ And in the eighth district, it's both. I mean, quite literally, I can't win just on base voters in this district is not a Democratic district. So, I can't just work hard to get more people out and think that I'm going to win,” said Slotkin.
Republican political consultant John Sellek, agrees. He said Slotkin will enjoy the benefits of incumbency and more money to fund her campaign. In 2018 the race in the eighth congressional district was the most expensive of all ofall the races for Michigan House seats, netting more than $28 million.
As of July, Slotkin had more than $5 million on hand, dwarfing her Republican challenger, Paul Junge’s $639,000. But, even so, Sellek believes there’s a narrow path for Junge, to win.
“This was constructed to be—and is generally considered to still be—a Republican seat. It's the seat that elected Donald Trump in 2016. John James tied Debbie Stabenow in the seat despite the Democrat wave, and then that wave is what brought Elissa Slotkin just over the edge with a three-point win,” said Sellek.
He believes this election will be a referendum on Slotkin. Sellek says Junge's main job, aside from unifying the Republican base after a divisive primary, will be to remind voters that, despite her moderate image, Slotkin is indeed a Democrat.
Junge’s TV advertisements namecheck Nancy Pelosi, almost as often as Slotkin. Sellek says that’s a strategy.
“And what she's not telling you when she's saying she's bipartisan is that she votes with the democrats and Nancy Pelosi probably 90-95% of the time, that's a legitimate thing. So let's talk about what those issues are. Can he undo nearly two years of branding that's been done for Slotkin? It'll be very difficult without a whole lot of money,” said Sellek.
He says part of the difficulty is: the heavily gerrymandered district is spread over two media markets, “So, if you're going up against an incumbent that has a big bank account, [who] is going to be able to afford to advertise in two TV markets, you're going to have a challenge and you're going to have to raise money to try to match that. Thus far, the Republicans haven't been able to do that.”
Across the eighth district in politically purple Brighton, Paul Junge, a former attorney and TV newscaster, is handing out Republican yard signs.
Junge faces the challenge of introducing himself to voters across the eighth at a time when there aren’t many big in-person campaign events. Meaning, even the most hardcore Republicans don’t know who he is.
“So part of my pitch to the voters of the eighth district [is] Elissa Slotkin told you, she was kind of a moderate independent minded person, but she votes very much like a much more liberal Congresswoman and so that's not what she promised to you and it's not really what you want, I don't think is a member of congress,” said Junge.
Junge is running on traditional tenets of the Republican party—pro-second amendment, anti-abortion rights, and fiscal conservatism.
Republicans weren’t able to recruit a household GOP name for the district since the seat will be redistricted by an independent commission in 2021. Democratic political consultant Adrian Hemond says Junge’s name-ID in the district is kneecapping the political newbie.
“No one in this district knows who he is. So that's the first task for him is that he needs to find a way very quickly to come up with a whole lot of money to speak to the voters of this district, because there are hundreds of thousands of them and they don't know who he is,” said Hemond.
The other big factor in the eighth will be the shadow of the presidential election that’s looming over all down-ballot races. Sellek and Hemond agree the dynamics of the race could be swayed by the ups and downs of the presidential election.
Even if Trump wins, both agree, Slotkin could still pull off a victory. But, Hemond says if Trump loses, he thinks it’s curtains for Junge.
“And whether it's Paul Young, or it's John James, or it's any other Republican candidate, they can't afford to have the top of the ticket collapse. And if the Trump campaign doesn't start spending money in earnest in Michigan soon, that's what will happen,” said Hemond.