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Opinion | Buckle up: Michigan is ground zero this year in national politics

Get ready, Michigan. Our state is about to be ground zero for Campaign 2024. 

Michigan will, arguably, have the greatest impact on whether Democrats or Republicans will control various levers of power in Washington, D.C., after November. 

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David Dulio is a political science professor at Oakland University.

No state has more competitive races for federal office on the ballot than Michigan. We are “blessed” to have a number of competitive U.S. House seats. Based on the ratings from the Cook Political Report, Michigan has four seats that are not in the “safe” category for one party or the other. At the top of the list are the two open-seat contests in the 7th and 8th congressional districts. Both of these races will see tens of millions of dollars pumped in by candidate campaigns and third-party groups.

In the 7th, U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D) has moved on to run for an open U.S. Senate seat. (more on that below). Her open congressional seat has attracted top candidates from both parties. The primary fields appear to have been cleared for both former state Representative and state Senator Tom Barrett (R), who lost to Slotkin in 2022 by about five percentage points, and Democratic former state Senator Curtis Hertel.  

In the 8th, U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee has decided to retire, providing another open seat opportunity. On the GOP side, Paul Junge is back for another try at this seat after losing to Kildee by about 10 points in 2022. He’s not a shoe-in for the nomination, however, as Army veteran and current police officer and trauma surgeon Martin Blank is in the GOP primary race. On the Democratic side, the field of Daniel Moilanen, executive director at the Michigan Association of Conservation Districts, State Board of Education member Pamela Pugh, and state Senator Kristen McDonald Rivet has all the makings of a very competitive primary race. 

These two races will see spending levels that are through the roof for two reasons. First, they will be key to determining which party controls the U.S. House of Representatives in the 119th Congress (2025-2027).

Open-seat opportunities do not come along too often. If House incumbents run, they usually win, as reelection rates for House seats are well over 90 percent. Therefore, it is not a surprise to see quality candidates emerge. It is also why outside groups, including both parties’ campaign arms, will pour tens of millions into each race. These races could produce seats that one party holds for several cycles in a row. Both parties will have these Michigan races at the top of their lists; for Democrats they are seats they need to hold if they want to regain control of the House and for Republicans each is a pickup opportunity that would add to their slim House majority. 

The second reason these two races could see upwards of $40 million in total spending is that thanks to the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, both of these seats are toss-ups, though the political fundamentals as well as the demographics favor Republicans slightly. 

More importantly in 2024 is the open-seat nature of these races. In 2022, both Slotkin and Kildee had the advantage of being incumbents. Incumbency matters a great deal during an election cycle when sitting officeholders can take advantage of their name recognition (although this was likely muted a bit given that these were new districts last time around) and ability to brag about benefits they have been able to bring back to Michigan from Washington. 

Without the power of incumbency, Hertel and whomever emerges from the Democratic primary in the 8th are less likely to beat their GOP opponents simply because open-seat candidates are usually on more even footing in fundraising, name recognition and record (the two former state Senators running in the 7th are a good example). 

There are two other U.S. House seats in Michigan worth watching as we go through 2024, each with an incumbent seeking reelection. In the 10th district, U.S. Rep. John James will face off against a Democrat who emerges from a primary field that includes the candidate he defeated in 2022, former judge and prosecutor Carl Marlinga. A similar story is unfolding on the west side of the state, where U.S. Rep. Hillary Scholten will battle a Republican out of a crowded field. Often an incumbent’s toughest reelection is their first one after taking office, so both of these races are worth keeping an eye on. 

Michigan also has another open-seat contest of great importance – the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by retiring Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow. Many of the same dynamics noted about the open House races are also present here, but a Senate race that could tip the balance of power from D to R for the next Congress raises the stakes significantly. 

Again, it’s no surprise there are quality candidates emerging with Elissa Slotkin outpacing other primary candidates on the Democratic side and the GOP expecting a tough battle between proven candidates Mike Rogers (former U.S. Representative and House Intelligence Committee chair), Peter Meijer (former U.S. Representative) and relative newcomer James Craig (former police chief in Detroit). In the 2020 Senate race between John James and Senator Gary Peters, each candidate spent nearly $50 million with another $100 million spent by outside groups. 

This year’s Senate contest could easily see $250 million spent. With Democrats’ thin majority in the U.S. Senate, Michigan is a seat they must hold to keep their majority and one that the GOP sees as a prime pickup opportunity with no incumbent in the picture. 

And we haven’t mentioned the presidential race yet. It’s a contest that few Americans appear to want, but a Biden-Trump rematch will be close in Michigan. Early polls have former President Trump ahead in Michigan. 

A lot can (and will) change between now and November, but the biggest factor to keep an eye on is what comes of the No Labels movement to offer an alternative president-vice president ticket. Americans’ appetite for a third party has never been higher, according to Gallup. A No Labels ticket doesn’t have to win to have an impact. Consider that when faced with a choice many considered undesirable in 2016 – Trump v. Clinton – roughly 250,000 voters in Michigan either skipped the presidential race or voted for a third-party candidate (the third-party figure was a five-fold increase from 2012). 

Buckle up. The 2024 campaign is going to be something Michigan has never seen before. It will make Michigan a state, once again, that is at the center of the nation’s attention.  

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