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Big stakes for Biden's agenda, Democrats' majority in Michigan

Reps. Elissa Slotkin and Haley Stevens are top GOP targets. Their districts are vulnerable to redistricting. And they are crucial to Biden's agenda.
Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan is one of the Democratic lawmakers who have little margin for error and all the reason in the world to urge a cautious, go-slow approach on big-ticket legislation.Caroline Brehman / CQ-Roll Call Inc. via Getty Images

DETROIT — Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., wants her party to be deliberate as it considers President Joe Biden's proposals to spend $4 trillion on infrastructure, housing and family care while raising tax rates on corporations, investors and top earners.

"This is a hypersensitive issue for every resident of Michigan's 8th District," Slotkin said in a telephone interview Thursday. She wants to "make sure there's nothing hidden on page 1,000 that dings the middle class" and that any actions in Washington "keep our corporations competitive." But, she added, "the ultra-wealthy" should "have to pay their fair share."

Slotkin has little margin for error and all the reason in the world to urge a cautious, go-slow approach on big-ticket legislation.

She and fellow second-term Democratic Rep. Haley Stevens, who represents a similarly competitive neighboring district also based in Detroit's outer suburbs, won re-election last year with less than 51 percent of the vote. That makes them top targets for a Republican minority that needs to gain only five seats across the country to take control of the House.

"Haley Stevens and Elissa Slotkin barely scraped by last election, and we plan to aggressively target their seats in the midterms," said Mike Berg, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "Voters will hold both of them accountable for voting in lockstep with Nancy Pelosi and putting Democrats' job-killing socialist agenda ahead of the needs of Michiganders."

Their position on the front lines of the battle for control of the House means Stevens and Slotkin could be a strong barometer for the viability of Biden's proposals, first as he tries to shape and secure votes in the House and later as voters pass judgment at the ballot box. Both lawmakers went to Washington when suburban voters rebuked President Donald Trump in the 2018 midterms.

"That's going to be a place that Biden is going to be tested and Democrats are tested with Trump no longer in office," Kyle Kondik, who analyzes House elections at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said of the two districts. He said he would consider both seats to be toss-ups next year under current conditions.

Slotkin is the only House Democrat who represents a district that voted for Republican nominee Mitt Romney in 2012 and Trump in both 2016 and 2020. The 8th takes in some of the affluent suburbs north of Detroit, such as those in Rochester Hills, and runs west to the state capital, Lansing. Trump won it by 49.6 percent to Biden's 48.8 percent in November, while Slotkin defeated Republican challenger Paul Junge by 50.9 percent to 47.3 percent.

Stevens ran behind Biden in the 11th District, which hooks through the metro area, taking in suburban neighborhoods in Livonia, west of Detroit, and in Troy and Birmingham, north of the city. Biden won her district by 51.6 percent to 47.1 percent. But Stevens won re-election with 50.2 percent to Republican nominee Eric Esshaki's 47.8 percent.

Their re-election outlooks are complicated by the uncertainty of an independent redistricting commission's redrawing of Michigan's House district to reflect the state's loss of a district because of slow population growth. Like many of their colleagues across the country, they don't know whether their districts will become more Republican or more Democratic. They could even end up pitted against each other in the same district.

IMAGE: Rep. Haley Stevens
Rep. Haley Stevens, like Rep. Elissa Slotkin, has a political future wrapped in uncertainty because of redistricting.Melissa Lyttle / Bloomberg via Getty Images

All of that argues for waiting to find out before they vote on major legislation, and it is one of the reasons many insiders believe Biden's top priorities won't get fast-tracked on Capitol Hill.

"You want to know what your district looks like before you take tough votes," said a Democratic House chief of staff, who said party leaders want to move quickly on Biden's agenda while moderates are pushing Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to wait until next year.

"If I'm Pelosi, I don't want to do that, because then you get brave defectors," the aide said. "Right now, the smart thing [for lawmakers] to do is to stay with the party on every vote. No one wants to vote against the party unless they know their primary situation and the general election situation."

Because Michigan is losing a seat, at least two of the state's 14 House members — a contingent split evenly between Republicans and Democrats — will be placed in the same district. Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee, who represents turf that starts south of Flint and hugs Lake Huron north to Iosco County, could also have his district reconfigured or splintered.

"All seven of us have to come back," Stevens said of the state's House Democrats.

Depending on the map, that might not be possible. And it remains to be seen whether they will get to see the lines before they have to vote on the more controversial elements of Biden's proposals.

Stevens said that the already enacted $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan has been "met with applause" in her district but that voters haven't homed in yet on the details of his legislative designs on roads, bridges and nontraditional infrastructure.

"People are focused on ending the pandemic and the question of 'can we trust Washington,'" she said. "People have been promised infrastructure for a long time and haven't seen it."