Elissa Slotkin, the first Democratic hopeful seeking to replace retiring Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow, is the sort of candidate national Democratic strategists fantasize about. She represents a closely divided district in Lansing, after initially getting elected to a solidly Republican one, and she has a solid centrist voting record likely to appeal to the highly coveted white suburban mom demographic. She’s also a former CIA analyst who served three tours in Iraq. She has the same political CV, in other words, that delivered a clutch of traditional GOP congressional seats to security-minded women during the 2018 blue wave that granted House Democrats a strong majority in the midst of the Trump years. Pundits eagerly dubbed that landmark ballot “the year of the badass woman”—and they will no doubt be closely monitoring Slotkin’s Senate bid for further confirmation of this reassuring political trendlet.
The only problem is that the broader Democratic infatuation with military-, national security–, and cop-aligned candidates has yielded decidedly equivocal results. The poster candidate for the badass women surge in 2018 was Virginia Representative Abigail Spanberger, who narrowly won reelection in Virginia’s traditionally deep-red seventh district in last year’s midterms. But Spanberger—another former CIA analyst—owed her reelection less to her national security résumé than to her divergence from the GOP on issues like reproductive rights, the moral panic over honest school instruction about the country’s racial past, and rampant election denialism on the right. What’s more, Spanberger’s breakthrough win in 2018 came over an extreme Tea Party incumbent, David Brat, who had been caught on an open mike complaining about how “the women are in my grill” over his anti-feminist politics and his votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act. For all his Tea Party swagger, Brat, an economics professor at the Jerry Falwell–founded Liberty University, didn’t fit the profile of hard-charging former veterans on the right such as Dan Crenshaw, Tom Cotton, and Ron De Santis. That might have lent some additional crossover appeal to Spanberger’s campaign, but also suggests that voters in her district were more interested in the “woman” part of her general-election pitch than the “badass” one.
Ramapo College political scientist Jeremy Teigen, author of the recent study Why Veterans Run, notes that Democrats most commonly win with veteran candidates in races that are already projected to be very close, in so-called purple districts. As Teigen wrote in The Washington Post at the outset of the 2018 cycle, the general-election appeal of veteran candidates for both major parties was pretty much a wash:
Ultimately, nominating veterans in long-shot races might help pick up a few more votes, but as one of my mentors used to say, that’s like saying that a tall man has a better chance of hitting his head on the moon than a short man. Because of gerrymandering and incumbents’ visibility, any challenger—veteran or non-veteran—will have a hard time unseating a sitting House member in a district that leans toward the incumbent’s party. So even if there were a slight electoral advantage to nominating veterans, it would only matter in races when a challenger is within striking distance.
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And even that’s a big “if.” Research in my forthcoming book suggests that veterans don’t always have an advantage in the general election. There are occasional years and races in which veterans do hold an edge over commensurate nonveterans. But usually veterans do about as well as similarly situated nonveterans in general elections.
Teigen found that in the two presidential cycles that Barack Obama won, in 2008 and ’12, Democrats ran veteran candidates more often in districts already tilting against the party, by a factor of three percentage points. The opposite was true for Republicans, who were actually more likely—again by a margin of 3 percent—to run veterans in races where the party has stronger polled support. The symbolic politics here suggests that veteran candidates for the right nail down all-but-guaranteed wins for Republicans, while supplying one among several potential paths forward for Democrats who are far more desperate to compete in general elections. So without a strong partisan differentiation on either side, it would appear, not surprisingly, that veteran candidates generally are drawn to, and fare better in, districts leaning to the right.
That makes the potential statewide appeal of a candidate like Slotkin something of a toss-up. It bears noting, for starters, that Michigan Democrats won all their statewide races in the 2022 midterms—in large part thanks to both the GOP’s regressive abortion politics and the assault on teaching the truth in public schools, which was the issue that failed GOP gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon adopted as her own. Dixon lost by double digits to incumbent Governor Gretchen Whitmer—and since Michigan was also ground zero for many of the Trump campaign’s mendacious claims of election fraud, it’s probably safe to say that election denialism didn’t play strongly there either.
Slotkin, to her credit, has offered voters a tempered account of her own national security track record. She acknowledges that the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, which launched her own career in national security work, produced a harmful legacy of unfounded intervention in Iraq. At the same time, however, she readily cites her background as an Iraq-based intelligence analyst in a host of other contexts. During an across-the-aisle exchange with Republican Michigan Representative Peter Meijer at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, for example, Slotkin proposed thinking of the climate crisis and other environmental issues as threats to national security: “If we don’t understand that environmental security is literally Homeland Security, after Flint and having PFAS in our water, if you can’t hand your child a glass of water without knowing that they might get a life-long learning disability, that is a direct threat to your family. And so I’m for reframing the issue and being more muscular about it.”
The exchange occurred just a month after the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol and the second Senate acquittal of Trump on impeachment charges, so Slotkin also drew on her anti-terrorism résumé to offer a managerially minded risk assessment of the threat of white nationalist violence in America: “When you work alongside the military, you are taught that leadership climate is set from the top, and watching, frankly, the years of messaging to the president’s followers using his mantle at the White House to set a tone of permissiveness around hate and violence, that is the legacy we’re gonna be living with long beyond what happened in the Senate last week, and this is what makes it, I think, even harder as we go forward.”
Perhaps this sort of mission-driven messaging will resonate in a state where right-wing extremists famously plotted to kidnap Whitmer during the Covid lockdown. At the same time, however, it could prove to be another dubious effort to marshal a restive left-leaning Democratic base behind a discipline-minded Democratic governing elite. Just as military veterans have run stolidly in the middle of the Democratic pack, the party’s roster of former prosecutors and police veterans has underperformed in the two election cycles after the landmark protests over the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black citizens. Advocates of police reform, on the other hand, did well. Given the recent track records of candidates drawn from the national security and military talent pools—and the broader failure of Democratic appeals to hard-line military sentiment dating back to the 2004 presidential runs of John Kerry and Gen. Wesley Clark—it might be long past time that party leaders and strategists gave peace a chance.