EAST LANSING, Mich. – A man held up a hostile poster a few rows behind Michigan Rep. Elissa Slotkin as she spoke. On other side of the room, allies hoisted a Slotkin-friendly banner. But what was perhaps most striking at Slotkin's first town hall since President Donald Trump's impeachment was a newfound sense of civility.
Inside East Lansing High School's auditorium Friday there were no boos. No rowdy interruptions. No pauses in the program to let the tension pass, even in this swing House district at the center of a 2020 presidential battleground state.
It was a sharp contrast from the five raucous public gatherings during the House impeachment proceedings last fall. The tenor suggested that Republican attacks on Democrats for backing impeachment may fall flat in some places. And it offered a snapshot of how effectively Democrats are making that turn from the doomed process to their agenda and the November elections.
Slotkin, 43, does not adopt a harsh anti-Trump posture. She focuses instead on lowering prescription drug costs and making drinking water safe. She is testifying in Washington this week on infrastructure, and she'll soon introduce a border security bill. When asked, she'll discuss the contentious Democratic presidential primary, whether Trump himself is a national security threat and, of course, impeachment.
At Slotkin's town hall on Friday, she did not mention what Trump calls “the i-word.” The issue only came up in the last audience question read by an aide: Does the congresswoman regret her vote to impeach?
“There are some things that are more important than winning your next election,” Slotkin, a former CIA officer who worked under Republican and Democratic presidents, said from the stage. “So, I don't regret it."
Her standing with voters will ultimately be tested in November. Though she is considered a vulnerable freshman incumbent who ousted a Republican congressman, she maintains robust fundraising and the strong backing of her party in a district Trump won by 7 percentage points.
Slotkin reported raising $1.3 million in the fourth quarter, and ended the year with nearly $2.9 million on hand — the most of any vulnerable Democrat, according to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. But that was a trend among this group of 42 Democrats in difficult races supported by the party's Frontline program.
Republicans are struggling over who her opponent should be, with five hopefuls who spoke the night before Slotkin's town hall in conservative Livingston County. None has raised anything close to Slotkin's campaign cash. About a dozen showed up outside the town hall Friday to chant and carry signs that said things like “Impeach Slotkin." Some of Slotkin's supporters answered them as they waited in line. A small group of of police officers watched.
Paul Junge, a former TV broadcaster who is one of the five Republicans hoping to challenge Slotkin, suggested she's more like members of the liberal “Squad” of new congresswomen who called for Trump's impeachment virtually since their first day in Congress.
“I think her judgment and her values are just out of step with the 8th District and we deserve better representation," said Junge, who has nearly $235,000 on hand, including a loan to his campaign of $125,000.
For Slotkin and Democrats like her, the question is whether voters buy the focus on local issues in the Twitter-centric Trump era, said Michigan GOP consultant John Sellek. In Slotkin's case, he pointed out, she sought a national profile by speaking widely about her background as a former CIA officer and taking leading roles on impeachment and Iran.
“All these races are now nationalized,” Sellek said. “This entire election for the 8th Congressional District is not about East Lansing, Brighton and Rochester. Essentially it’s about President Trump.”
On the subject of the president, Slotkin treads carefully. She's been clear that she's deeply troubled by his pressure on Ukraine to help him politically, as well as his effort to sideline members of the intelligence community. His emboldened conduct against the FBI after his acquittal, she said in an interview before the town hall, is concerning.
Asked whether given the broad range of Trump's behavior and her expertise, he is a security threat, Slotkin pauses for a few seconds and references his decisions: Trump's pullout of Syria, his provocations against North Korea's Kim Jong Un and his deference to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“I think decidedly many of them make us less safe and are a threat to our national security,” Slotkin said in her district office. But she's quick to add that she agrees with Trump on some policies, such as the USMCA trade agreement.
For Slotkin, the post-impeachment reality in a district both she and Trump won is about being a Democrat without siding with the party's more vocal progressives. So for now, she's not endorsing anyone in the ferocious Democratic presidential nominating contest. She won't watch their debates, because she is “embarrassed by the bickering." She says she will, however, endorse the eventual Democratic presidential nominee.
She also notes that a super PAC funded mostly by Mike Bloomberg, now a Democratic candidate for president, spent thousands of dollars on her 2018 election.
“I just want someone who shows up and who takes Michigan seriously and who will explain how they're going to govern — and not just for blue America,” she said. Asked if she could see herself endorsing front-runner Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist and political anathema to centrists like Slotkin, she demurs.
“We are a long way from there,” she says.
Inside the hall later that night, a man a few rows from Slotkin briefly held up a sign with a lot of text that said, “Liberal Elissa Slotkin puts party before country always!” Elsewhere, the couple held a banner that said Slotkin “serves Michigan with integrity." Slotkin herself explicitly called for civility — and the audience, which included several people with red Trump hats and pro-Trump signs, applauded.
“In Michigan, we fight about sports,” Slotkin told the crowd. “That political polarization has been imported from Washington.”