When one of Elissa Slotkin’s staffers passed along a New York Times report alleging that Russia had put bounties on the heads of American troops in Afghanistan—and that President Donald Trump either did not consume the relevant intelligence or did not act upon it—“my stomach,” the Michigan congresswoman says, “dropped to my knees.”
Slotkin spent the next 72 hours in an incredulous haze. A veteran CIA analyst before coming to Congress in the Democratic wave of 2018, she thought she had seen it all. She had served at length in the Middle East, lost friends and gained Top Secret clearance. She had personally briefed both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, in the White House situation room and in the Oval Office, on grave national security threats. And yet Slotkin’s imagination could not stretch far enough to accommodate either of the two scenarios now confronting her. How could something so sensitive not reach the president? Or, if it had, how could he have ignored it?
The congresswoman inhaled every bit of news coverage, watching carefully for conflicting details or any confirmation of the original Times story. She called former colleagues in the intel community in search of explanations. Finally, she took to social media, writing a series of uncharacteristically pointed tweets about Trump and Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. “Something has been off about that relationship since the beginning,” she wrote, “and Americans are quite literally paying in blood for his pandering to Putin.”
Rep. Elissa Slotkin in her office on her family farm in Holly, Mich.
The irony was not lost on Slotkin. Here she was, four months out from Election Day, one of the most endangered Democrats in the country, representing a district Trump carried by 7 points, spending her Sunday morning doing precisely what she had vowed to avoid: picking a Twitter fight with the president of the United States.
There will be consequences—of this, Slotkin is certain. She cannot hope to win reelection this fall without persuading a significant number of voters in Michigan’s 8th Congressional District to split their tickets—four more years for Trump, two more years for her—and every feud with the White House is equivalent to a few more straight-party ballots being punched. Whether Slotkin can have it both ways, speaking her mind about the president and winning over some of his supporters, may well determine not only her fate but the fate of Democrats in swing districts and battleground states across the country.
Slotkin didn’t want it to be this way. She envisioned another hyperlocal campaign, like the one she ran in 2018, building consensus around kitchen-table issues and eluding perceptions of partisanship. But if her first two years in Congress taught her anything, it’s that sooner or later, everyone has to pick a side. There is no middle ground when it comes to Donald Trump.
“He’s forcing my hand,” Slotkin tells me a day after the tweetstorm, resignation dripping from her voice. “He’s doing things and saying things that call upon me to think about my fundamental oath of office.”
In 2018, even as the national water cooler was dominated by talk of Trump, some Democratic congressional challengers ran campaigns predicated on a strategic belief that only by ignoring the elephant in the Oval Office could they flip red districts nationwide. The idea was not so much to wish Trump out of existence as avoid the inevitable sting associated with siding with or against the most polarizing man in America. Rather than alienate progressives or offend conservatives, Slotkin and company ran a collective do-no-harm campaign, focusing insistently on job creation, on expanding health insurance and lowering costs, on working in a bipartisan way to lower the volume in Washington. They anchored their candidacies with sterling résumés that drew from experiences in business and national security, forcing Republicans to play defense in parts of the country they had controlled for generations.
It worked. Democrats seized control of the House of Representatives, flipping dozens of seats, like hers in southeast Michigan, that were ripe for political realignment. Stitching together a coalition that centered around suburban women—disaffected Republicans and mortified independents both—Slotkin, once viewed as a sacrificial lamb against Mike Bishop, the GOP incumbent, pulled away for a nearly 4 percentage point victory in a district Republicans had controlled for all of the 21st century.