EAST LANSING, Michigan— As 50,000 students and their families milled about Michigan State University’s sprawling campus, with fall leaves crunching under their feet over homecoming weekend, Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin was pounding the pavement and calling for reinforcements.
Her House seat was already one of the most competitive in the country—rated a pure toss-up by the Cook Political Report—before 2020 redistricting took away Slotkin’s turf in the Detroit suburbs, where white voters with college degrees helped her win a pair of terms in a district that former President Donald Trump won twice.
Enter the Michigan State Spartans, whom Slotkin called “fundamental” not just to her re-election chances, but the fate of the Democrats’ House majority.
In such a split district, the hard-partying Big 10 school known for its exceedingly jacked mascot, underdog athletic prowess, and research heft could decide whether House Republicans will be able to wield their majority to wreak havoc on the final two years of the Biden administration.
No pressure, Sparty.
Slotkin told The Daily Beast that the abortion referendum on the Michigan ballot this year, Proposition 3, has reshuffled the board in a campaign that was shaping up to center around inflation.
“I can count on one hand the number of times in 2018 or 2020 when I was asked about abortion,” Slotkin told The Daily Beast in the first of two interviews. “Now it’s one of the top two issues I’m asked about no matter where I go, no matter who I’m talking to: Democrat, independent, or Republican.”
College students are generally a notoriously fickle group of voters and historically a non-factor in East Lansing elections. That’s mostly due to a mix of students being registered to vote back home and a lapsed Republican-backed state law banning college students from voting absentee in their first election, which fell apart after a legal challenge from college Democrats led to a settlement with Democratic Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson in 2019 making it easier for students to vote.
Even if just a few hundred more pupils within that 50,000 student population turn up and vote when they otherwise wouldn’t have, that could push Slotkin over the top in what could turn out to be the most expensive House race in the 2022 midterms, with Slotkin winning her last race by less than 3,000 votes.
There’s been minimal public polling in the race.
Barrett, an Iraq War veteran whose campaign did not return a request for comment, has been attacking Slotkin on the usual GOP talking points of crime and inflation, as well as running ads hitting Slotkin for moving into a new home in the redrawn district.
“My opponent has been harping on my residence and some of his allies published pictures of my home in Lansing, taken from a private parking lot with my address clearly marked,” Slotkin said, noting that she has taken “a bunch” of security measures around her home and in varying her movements, borrowing from her CIA training. “And that has not made me feel more safe, I will say that.”
Slotkin is literally banking on the Spartan students to come through for her, with her campaign borrowing a page from the Stacey Abrams playbook in Georgia by paying door knockers $18 per hour and student managers $25 per hour.
“So we have an extremely aggressive strategy targeting Michigan State University to educate voters, to register voters, and then get voters to turn out on campus,” Slotkin told The Daily Beast. “And a lot of those voters may not know the details. What we’re finding is more that they know that something’s on the ballot, but they don't know exactly what it is, and they’ve heard that it’s extreme and confusing.”
Adrianna, a junior elementary school education major at MSU who asked for her last name to remain private, is the exact kind of student the congresswoman needs.
“I didn’t know anything about these politicians,” she said after Slotkin’s Sunday rally outside of Shaw Hall.
This was Adrianna’s first time attending a political rally of any kind.
She said she had heard about the abortion ballot referendum—picking up bits and pieces through YouTube ads—but was “shocked” at how informative the rally was in terms of what’s at stake in November’s election, both at the federal and state level.
“Look, I don't think you could possibly miss, if you’re a TV watcher—it would be hard to miss that we have a ballot initiative related to abortion,” Slotkin said. “But if you’re talking to a younger woman, what we do see is there’s definitely very different media that the younger women in particular pay attention to.”
Michigan State’s turnout skyrocketed from the 2016 election to 2020, going from a 24.4 percent turnout rate to 76 percent.
However, the split of which of those students vote absentee back home compared to on campus as residents of East Lansing is the key to Slotkin’s strategy.
Older voters, such as Lee Griffin, a 78-year-old retired history teacher from Haslett, a town of about 19,000 in Slotkin’s district, are historically far more likely to vote in midterms than voters under 24, even more so than in presidential election years.
Griffin recalled spending the whole month of January each year with generations of her students on the Constitution and the experiment of American democracy.
“Most of my life, I think I did take it for granted,” Griffin told The Daily Beast. “But lately, I’m not taking it for granted.”
As student canvassers dispersed across campus following the rally, Slotkin recalled an interaction she had with a non-voter earlier in the morning in Mason, Michigan, a town of about 8,000 some 15 minutes south of campus.
Slotkin knocked on the woman’s door, where she learned her husband is a Republican, and her daughter is an Air Force veteran and a Democrat. But the woman, in her words, doesn’t “fuck with politics.”
“She goes, I don't vote,” Slotkin told The Daily Beast in a followup interview. “And I said, ‘Why? You know, tell me.’ And she’s like, ‘Sorry for the foul language, but,’ she says, ‘I don't fuck with politics.’”
The congresswoman and former CIA analyst riffed on the very un-Michigan use of profanity to make a counterpoint in the doorway.
“And I said, ‘OK, you may not wanna fuck with politics, but it may fuck with you,’” Slotkin said with deadpan delivery. “You never know when it’s coming for things that affect your life.”