CLARKSTON, Mich. — At the Brioni Café, members of the weekly seniors' coffee klatch called "The Geezers" complained about spiraling health care and prescription drug costs. Two tables away, a garden club of Republican women were discussing health care as well, and President Donald Trump's record on women's issues.
The conversations are a prime example of why Democrat Elissa Slotkin believes she has a chance to oust this community's seemingly safe two-term House Republican incumbent, Rep. Mike Bishop, in the November midterm election — and forge a roadmap for her party's drive to regain the House majority this fall.
Michigan's 8th Congressional District, a mix of suburban and rural areas just north west of Detroit, helped pave Trump's path to victory in the state — winning here in part because he promised better and cheaper health insurance and to combat opioid abuse.
In an interview with NBC News, Slotkin said Democrats have reclaimed the advantage on health care after several election cycles of playing defense on a major Midwestern pocketbook issue.
"No matter where I am, in which corner, people are talking about the price of health care and the price of prescription drugs," said Slotkin, a 41-year-old former CIA analyst who served three tours in Iraq and worked as a civil servant in both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.
So far, Trump's promises have come up short, Slotkin says.
Republicans have failed to produce the better alternative to Obamacare they'd promised for nearly a decade, despite control of the House, Senate and White House. Health care and prescription drug prices spiral ever higher. And, despite Trump's vow to tackle the epidemic of opioid addiction, lawmakers from both parties say the federal government still isn't targeting adequate resources.
Trump even recently outlined a prescription drug plan that backtracks on his campaign vow to allow Medicare to directly negotiate with drug makers for lower prices.
"It is one of those things that is really hard to understand because it could literally be done tomorrow," Slotkin told the Geezers, who had plenty to say in return at their get-together in late May.
"The prescription drug issue is emblematic of what is happening on a broader scale in Congress, and that is the special interests more and more are controlling everything," said Nancy Strole, a 76-year-old former local Republican official.
"You just can't help but be beholden to those companies," said Dennis Ritter, 72. "The money has total control of the Congress. It's just broken."
It is districts like this one that House Speaker Paul Ryan's political action committee call the "majority makers" — not the first-tier swing districts both parties are targeting, but still likely to determine which party will control the House in 2019. Democrats need to pick up 23 seats to regain control and it's unlikely to happen without winning seats like Bishop's.
"These races that are not the top 10 most competitive races can and likely will determine who controls the majority," said Corry Bliss, executive director of Ryan's Congressional Leadership Fund. The group plans to pour $2.2 million into the race this fall, a sign it sees potential danger here.
"We drew our wall to protect the majority, and central to that is getting Mike Bishop re-elected," said Bliss.
While Bishop has supported Trump's agenda in Congress, he stressed he's running on his own record and not the president's.
"I register my concerns when they need to be registered," said Bishop, citing his advocacy for preserving funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
For her part, Slotkin avoided directly attacking Trump, even as she called the "tenor and tone of politics" during his presidency "fundamentally unbecoming" of the country she served.
Bishop's past two races haven't been competitive, and Michigan-based analysts say Slotkin will be hard- pressed to unseat him.
Yet she is a good example of why Democrats are optimistic. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report, while not including the contest in its "toss-up" category, shifted Bishop's race to the more competitive "lean Republican" rating after Slotkin announced her candidacy.
From candidates like Brendan Kelly in southern Illinois to Max Rose in New York City and Richard Ojeda in West Virginia, Democratic recruits in traditionally GOP-leaning districts are seizing on the health care issue, with a heavy emphasis on prescription-drug pricing and opioid addiction.
A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found a large majority, 72 percent of the public, says drug makers have too much influence in Washington, 20 percentage points higher than the number of those who say the same about the NRA.
For most of the last year, Slotkin has outraised Bishop and drawn high-profile endorsements, including from former Vice President Joe Biden. And at a time when the national Democratic Party faces criticism that it lacks a message other than being anti-Trump, Slotkin is laser-focused on kitchen table issues.
Bishop, a local prosecutor and owner of two small businesses, is a native son who attended both the University of Michigan and Michigan State. He's been hammering Slotkin for being a "DC insider" who only recently moved back to the state.
"She never lived in the district, she never owned property in the district," Bishop said in an interview with NBC News. "My kids go to school here, my parents live up the road. I have a connection to the community. It makes me better at what I do."
While Slotkin left the state at 18, she is a third-generation Michigander whose grandfather's company produced the famous "ballpark frank" first sold at Tiger Stadium.
'Big pharma' and health care
Slotkin insists that Bishop’s record on health care, including more than $100,000 in campaign donations from the pharmaceutical industry over his career, is a vulnerability. Michigan is the only state with a law that shields drug companies from being sued, even if they have marketed drugs proven to be dangerous, and, in some cases, deadly. As a state Senate leader, Bishop blocked a vote to repeal it five times.
"Her approach is sound," said Bill Ballenger, publisher of a popular Michigan politics newsletter. "The real issue is can she sell it? Will she convince people in the district Bishop is a complete pawn of big pharma?"
Bishop defended his record, stressing that the idea was to incentivize companies not to leave Michigan. "If you look back at what our state went through … we were in an economic death spiral," he said, adding, "We were trying our best to cut the costs of everything."
The Republican lawmaker also pointed to his efforts in 2016 to secure $103 million for local governments to fight opioids. He is currently the co-sponsor of a bill to stop the flow of synthetic opioids, like fentanyl, from overseas.
An April poll showed Slotkin trailing Bishop by six points; yet its sample included a larger share of Republicans and many respondents were still unfamiliar with Slotkin.
"It is a district you would not think the Republicans would be in that much danger of losing," said Ballenger. "If she beats him, there's going to be a big, big wave."
Slotkin's counting on voters like Denise Lipusch and Joy Kelly, GOP supporters who were part of the Clarkston garden club dining at the Brioni café.
"I'm very disappointed in what's happening, and I absolutely refuse to go back to a straight Republican ticket," said Lipusch, citing Trump's record on women's issues and health care.
"I'm not voting Republican, period," agreed Kelly.
Jake Davison, editor of Inside Michigan Politics, put it this way: "The narrative is that Trump is going to upset suburban women who normally vote Republican and who are turned off in a cultural way by him."
Yet Slotkin remains in a major uphill battle, Davison said — a reminder to Democrats that the path to controlling the House remains steep. Bishop is unlikely to commit the type of major gaffe that may be necessary to upend his advantage.
Further, Trump's national approval rating appears to be stabilizing, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has yet to committee any resources to Slotkin.
Bishop's campaign is assuming there are many more voters like Larry Allen, who was landscaping his yard in Rochester Hills on a recent weekday.
"I support Mike Bishop. He's from around here, grew up about a half mile from here," Allen said. "I have no issues with him."