Stabenow to leave Senate next year, setting off battleground-state jostling
Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow will not run for reelection, opening up a battleground seat in 2024 as well as creating a vacancy in party leadership.
The four-term senator’s decision stunned many Democrats and is an early challenge to the party's hopes of holding the Senate in 2024. Stabenow chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee and serves as the No. 3 Democratic leader, helming the party’s messaging arm as one of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s closest allies.
She had indicated last year that she was planning to run for reelection, making her reversal all the more surprising to Democrats. In an interview, Stabenow said she came to the decision over “the last few weeks,” adding that the party's electoral success in Michigan this past November made her confident that another Democrat could hold the seat.
“When it was so clear that we did so well and we had such wonderful new leaders coming in, I felt confident that I could seriously think about it,” she said. “For me, it’s important to pass the torch at the right time, and I really feel this is the right time.”
The Michigander said she also wanted more flexibility to care for her 96-year-old mother.
Stabenow is the first battleground-state Democrat to announce she will not seek another term, and she is the first of several party incumbents to make long-awaited announcements about their futures. Democrats face a challenging Senate map in 2024, with hotly contested races in several red states and undecided incumbents in Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.). Schumer has yet to announce who will chair the Senate Democratic campaign arm this cycle.
Michigan has proved fertile ground for Democrats in the last few elections as the party took the governor’s office, the state legislature and defended its Senate seats. So Stabenow’s retirement is not as concerning as if Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) or Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) announced they would not run again (both say they are running for reelection).
Stabenow said Thursday that she felt “very good about keeping the seat blue.” Nonetheless, an open seat in her state is quickly becoming one of Republicans’ top pickup opportunities in 2024.
National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesperson Mike Berg said his party will “aggressively target this seat in 2024. This could be the first of many Senate Democrats who decide to retire rather than lose.” At the currently leaderless Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, spokesperson David Bergstein said that because of the party’s recent successes “we are confident Democrats will hold this Senate seat in 2024.”
Stabenow’s decision will accelerate a changing of the guard of Democratic leadership as well. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) just stepped away from the party’s top brass, elevating Stabenow to the No. 3 slot in the hierarchy and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) to No. 4.
Rumors about Stabenow's future have swirled in recent months amid an exodus of Senate Agriculture staff under the Michigan Democrat. Only a handful of people on Capitol Hill knew of her plans Thursday morning, as word also spread among a band of her former staff now spread throughout Washington.
Now there will be an opening at the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, a plum perch that comes with extra staff and a high profile. Schumer, notably, once occupied the leadership spot Stabenow is leaving.
The Michigan Senate primary could boast enormous competition on both sides, given that it’s the only statewide opening up in the next two years. On the Democratic side, there’s a deep bench including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — who just won in a 10-point landslide — though she said Thursday she’s not interested. Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Attorney General Dana Nessel are all also two-time statewide winners.
House members could take a look at the race, too, including swing-seat Rep. Elissa Slotkin, progressive Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a member of the “Squad,” or former Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.). State Sen. Mallory McMorrow is also frequently mentioned as another potential candidate.
Notably, Michigan recently gained a new resident in Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, who said he’s “not seeking any other job.”
“With Debbie’s help, and the strong Michigan Democratic Party she helped build, Debbie and I are confident Democrats will retain the seat,” Schumer said. Republicans last won a Senate race in Michigan in 1994.
On the GOP side, potential candidates include former Rep. Peter Meijer as well as Rep.-elect John James and Rep. Lisa McClain. Tudor Dixon, who lost a bid to Whitmer for governor, could also jump in. Other names mentioned include Bill Schutte, the former attorney general; former Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey; and former Rep. Fred Upton.
Currently the dean of the Michigan delegation, Stabenow rose from the statehouse to the U.S. House and eventually entered the Senate in 2001, after defeating Republican incumbent Spencer Abraham. Asked Thursday about who could replace her, Stabenow said she was having “a number of conversations.”
She is widely viewed by both parties as effective at negotiating deals and getting her way on Capitol Hill. That’s especially true of the farm bill, a massive piece of legislation that includes hundreds of billions of dollars in federal spending on rural communities and the agriculture sector. Stabenow, a veteran of the weedsy farm-bill talks, has long had a major role in shaping the legislation, even as a member of the minority.
In the last Congress, Stabenow and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) negotiated a part of the gun safety package that provided billions in funding for community behavioral health centers. She's also led the charge for electric vehicle tax credits in last year's Inflation Reduction Act, cut several deals to expand child nutrition and food assistance and focused much of her career on protecting the Great Lakes.
Stabenow will serve out the remaining two years of her term leading the committee. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) is likely next in line to take over the Agriculture Committee gavel, though Klobuchar and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) may want to seek the role if they shuffle their committee assignments this Congress.
In her statement Thursday, Stabenow said she will remain “intensely focused on continuing this important work to improve the lives of Michiganders,” including leading the next farm bill, which expires this year.
Elena Schneider contributed to this report.