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Arms Control

The Democrat Who’s Betting Her Senate Bid on Gun Control

Elissa Slotkin made her bones in foreign policy. Now, the Michigan congresswoman is making gun legislation a centerpiece of her campaign for the upper chamber of Congress.

Scott Olson/Getty
Elissa Slotkin spoke at an anti-gun rally in front of the state Capitol in February, following the mass shooting at Michigan State University.

Mid-February was supposed to mark a new chapter in the career of Representative Elissa Slotkin of Michigan. A three-term Democratic congresswoman and foreign policy veteran, Slotkin had been primed to kick off a long-rumored campaign for the Senate seat being vacated by Debbie Stabenow—and assume front-runner status for a seat Democrats desperately need to retain in 2024. Instead, she found herself at a podium on Michigan State University’s campus in East Lansing—the site of a shooting that had just taken the lives of three MSU students—not to announce her candidacy, but to voice her fury over another mass shooting in her district.

“As the representative of Oxford, Michigan, I cannot believe I’m here doing this again 15 months later,” said Slotkin, flanked by Governor Gretchen Whitmer and law enforcement and university personnel. “And I am filled with rage that we have another press conference to talk about children being killed in our schools. And I would say that you either care about protecting kids or you don’t.”

Oxford, of course, was the site of the November 2021 high school shooting by a student that left four other students dead and almost twice that many injured. At that time, there were vigils and funerals; this time, “I was just furious,” Slotkin said in an interview a week later.

Indeed, three days after the shooting, her campaign email began with the jarring subject line, “I’m filled with rage.” Previously, those emails—which Slotkin writes or edits herself—were used for fundraising. Now, they laid out details of the Safe Guns, Safe Kids Act, legislation Slotkin had proposed in the last Congress and has since revived. Among its provisions is a requirement that guns be safely stored if a minor could conceivably access them.

“I’m trying to mobilize different allies to change the conversation,” she noted, aiming to appeal to Republican voters in her district—hunters, marksmen—to lobby lawmakers at the federal level. Slotkin had planned to run on her national security bona fides and a willingness to reach across the aisle; now, it was clear, she had another kind of security on her mind.

For Democrats, Slotkin has been an important centrist envoy to the Great Lakes State. The 7th Congressional District she represents, in the south central part of the state, has a population of less than 800,000, and she had won her first congressional campaign in 2018 by threading the needle between her farm-life experience in the district (she grew up in rural Holly, population less than 6,000) and her bipartisan foreign policy background: She was recruited by the CIA after graduating from Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs in 2003. She spent five years in Iraq with the CIA, and later, at the National Security Council, serving in both the Bush and the Obama administrations. (Subsequently, Slotkin worked at the State Department, then Defense.) It didn’t hurt that the Slotkin name was well-known in Michigan: Her grandfather, Hugo, ran Hygrade Food Products, the company behind Ball Park Franks. Slotkin is also a member of the New Democrat Coalition and the Problem Solvers Caucus, groups that liberal Democrats occasionally feud with—a fact that may endear her to some of her constituents. (Like some in the moderate caucus, she declined to support Nancy Pelosi for speaker in 2021, but she’s been a reliable vote on the House floor.)

Slotkin’s reelection last fall was the third most-expensive House race in the nation, and Michigan itself has been trending blue lately, with both legislative chambers and the governorship now controlled by Democrats. It helps that Republicans have had difficulty recruiting serious-minded candidates for statewide office: Election denier Kristina Karamo was recently elected state GOP chair, and to date Slotkin’s only declared Republican opposition is state board of education member Nikki Snyder, who opposed masking and vaccine requirements in public schools during the height of the pandemic, and political novice Michael Hoover.

“In terms of the general political environment, the Democrats have just had the most remarkable three months I’ve ever seen out of the state legislature in terms of legislation they passed, starting with a huge appropriation bill,” said former Michigan Democratic Party chairman Mark Brewer, who is currently neutral in the Senate primary. “All the in-state polling, both private and public, indicates that virtually everything they’ve done is very popular.” That’s good news for a national party that is defending 23 Senate seats next year—even if it encourages challengers from the left. (Slotkin is the sole Democratic candidate to date.)

So discussion of broader domestic policy may not be the electoral minefield for Democrats it was once was, especially for a candidate who can be “strong on defense but also focus on those things that are kitchen-table issues, because, in the end, those are the things that people are most in tune with day to day,” said former Virginia Representative Elaine Luria, herself a Democratic foreign policy veteran, who lost her own reelection campaign last year in a Trump district.

Local infrastructure is one such kitchen-table issue. So on a sunny Monday, the morning of the MSU tragedy, she had traveled to an EMS facility in Livingston County to highlight her work securing federal funding for projects in her district, including a new truck for the Green Oak Charter Township Fire Department—part of a larger $24.5 million pot for local projects. It was a meat-and-potatoes constituent outreach, but reporters were far more interested in Slotkin’s take on the strange objects spotted in the skies across the United States, including over Lake Michigan, prompting speculation about Chinese spy balloons and extraterrestrial objects. Ever the inscrutable intelligence analyst, she wasn’t taking the bait. “I know there’s lot of talk about UFOs and all of that; let’s let our military do their job, collect the information,” Slotkin remarked, for all the world making it sound as if the prospect of little green men was no bigger deal than the nuances of filibuster reform.

While foreign policy expertise has been Slotkin’s calling card to date—she’s been at the center of multiple pieces of legislation pushing the United States to aid Ukraine against the Russian invasion—her home state has been riven by extremism of its own: There were the unfounded allegations of voter fraud in the 2020 election; a mob attack on the state Capitol over Covid restrictions earlier that same year; a plot to kidnap and possibly assassinate Whitmer in 2021; and more recent purported threats to the current attorney general. In 2021, Slotkin chaired a House subcommittee hearing on the threat of domestic terrorism. Said Luria, “We saw a lot of things developing in Michigan that I think were later reflected in what we saw on January 6.”

In late March, with Slotkin’s campaign in full swing, we met again, this time in her congressional office in Washington, D.C. One side boasts a small shrine to her Michigan heritage: a painting of a hot dog made for her grandfather, the frankfurter magnate; a Michigan State University football signed by head coach Mel Tucker; a miniature tractor; and a small print of a can of Vernors ginger ale, a Michigan favorite. “I wouldn’t have been given any of these opportunities if my great-grandfather had not come over here, and, in his mind, invented the all-beef frankfurter,” she joked.

Slotkin’s politics are rooted in personal experience. She was a Democrat from an early age—her mother came out as gay while Ronald Reagan was in office, and young Elissa took note of how gay people were treated during the early days of the AIDS epidemic. She’d just arrived at Columbia when the September 11 attacks occurred, reinforcing her interest in foreign policy. Years later, the memory of medical bills during her mother’s cancer illness fresh in her mind, Slotkin challenged and defeated Republican Mike Bishop, who’d voted to repeal Obamacare. Now, she’s taking aim at guns. “I’ve had friends close to me be killed by rockets,” she said back in February, referencing her time in Iraq, but “our schools and our communities are not war zones. No one’s being sent over to those communities knowing when they take an oath of office that they’re there to risk their life. These are civilians.”

Her sense of urgency remained palpable: “I think in a certain way my national security experience is really affecting how I view this issue of gun violence,” she told me. And her ability to link foreign policy to domestic policy may be key to winning over voters on other issues in a state still devastated by the abandonment of its manufacturing base a generation ago. “The issue of supply chains is really the issue of making sure we don’t have critical dependencies on countries who don’t always mean us well,” she said. “No one wants to go to war with China. That’s mutually assured economic destruction.” And if she’s elected, Slotkin may also want a seat on the powerful Senate Agriculture Committee, of which Stabenow is current chair. “I think we have to accept that things like extreme weather, extreme drought, food shortages due to climate change are going to be part of our national security issue set.”

She may bring her considerable passion to bear on national gun legislation, but Slotkin is likely to be disappointed, at least in the short term. Although Congress passed, and President Joe Biden signed, compromise gun control legislation last year, passage of any further restrictions in the current Republican-controlled House is hardly likely. Still, she is pushing ahead. By late March, her office was preparing to help roll out a new set of proposals in Congress, such as $50 million in funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to finance gun violence research (co-sponsored with Democratic Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts), mandatory waiting periods for firearm purchases, and prohibiting those convicted of misdemeanors involving guns to own firearms for three years.

Slotkin believes a breaking point on gun control is coming and that, somehow, the country still hasn’t reached it yet. “There will just come a time where enough people are just personally impacted by gun violence, where enough people have a personal experience with someone they love being at risk … and we will do something about it,” she told me.

Slotkin knows the road ahead—with Democrats in the minority, an unhinged Republican Conference, and the specter of Trump 2.0 looming—will be a difficult one in the House. And she’ll be pushing for controversial legislation and running a Senate campaign to boot. Still, if she’s not exactly optimistic, she isn’t pessimistic either. “If you would’ve told me in 1986, when I was hiding the fact that my mom was gay, that one day gay marriage would be legal, one day it would be a nonissue on TV, I wouldn’t have believed you for the world,” she said. “I’m not going to say it’s soon, I’m not going to say it’s easy, but that is how the tide of history moves,” she said. Back in February, her tone had been grim yet determined. “I think I’m the only congressperson to now have had two school shootings in their district,” Slotkin said. “I hope I’m the only one.”