Stabenow announces she won’t run again in 2024, sets off speculation on possible successors

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow speaks at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit on Sept. 14, 2022. (Andrew Roth | Michigan Advance)

By Jon King, Michigan Advance

After four terms as a U.S. senator, Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow said Thursday morning that she will not seek reelection in 2024.

Stabenow, who serves as the No. 3 Democrat in Senate leadership, made the announcement in a statement Thursday morning that had immediate political implications for Democrats to retain control of the Senate.

“Inspired by a new generation of leaders, I have decided to pass the torch in the U.S. Senate,” said the 72-year-old Stabenow, who is Michigan’s senior senator. “I am so grateful for the trust the people of Michigan have placed in me. I am also deeply grateful to my incredible staff, who are the best team in the United States Senate. They continue to set the highest standards for service in Michigan and across our country. 

Stabenow said a big part of her decision to step aside was to make room for new voices.

“As part of my own new generation, I was elected to the Ingham County Commission in 1974 at the age of 24,” she said. “As the youngest and first woman to chair the Board, this began years of breaking barriers, blazing trails, and being the ‘first’ woman to reach historic milestones as an elected official, including the honor of being the first woman from Michigan elected to the U.S. Senate. But I have always believed it’s not enough to be the ‘first’ unless there is a ‘second’ and a ‘third’…”

She noted the sea change in politics since she first ran for the Legislature in 1978.

“There were only eight women serving in the State House and none in the State Senate or top statewide offices,” said Stabenow. “This year there are 44 women serving in the State House and 15 in the Senate! Women hold the top three statewide elected offices, and we have the first female Majority Leader [Winnie Brinks] in the State Senate!”

Stabenow also said the decision to step aside came amid optimism about the direction of the state and the nation.

“Under the cloud of unprecedented threats to our democracy and our basic freedoms, a record-breaking number of people voted last year in Michigan,” she said. “Young people showed up like never before. This was a very hopeful sign for our future.”

One of those offering praise for her work was Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber.

“Working folks in Michigan and across the country have been positively impacted by her achievements in her time in public service,” said Bieber. In her historically productive career in the U.S. Senate, Debbie never wavers from her core values and always puts Michigan’s working families first. She’s a true leader and an even greater friend.”

The last time Michigan had an open Senate seat was in 2014 when U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Detroit) stepped down. He was succeeded by U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.).

Stabenow’s announcement set off speculation about who would replace her, with Republicans making clear they now saw that race as key to their hopes of gaining control of the U.S. Senate after a disappointing 2022 election when Democrats added one seat to their majority.

“Senate Democrats don’t even have a campaign chair yet and they are already dealing with a major retirement,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee communications director Mike Berg. “We are going to aggressively target this seat in 2024. This could be the first of many Senate Democrats who decide to retire rather than lose.”

The 2024 picture for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) does look more daunting today than it did just 24 hours ago.

Democrats will now have to defend 23 Senate seats in the next election, including that of newly announced independent Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. 

In addition, two other Democrats in red states, Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), are also considering whether or not they will seek reelection.

Regardless, Schumer praised Stabenow for her work through the years.

“No one embodies the true Michigan spirit more than Debbie Stabenow,” said Schumer in a statement. “From the state legislature to the House of Representatives, and for the last two decades in the United States Senate, Debbie has made a difference for Michiganders every step along the way. As the DPCC Chairwoman, Debbie has been by my side as an instrumental member of our leadership team, helping lead our caucus messaging efforts and delivering one of the most productive sessions of Congress in a century. Debbie is a great senator, a great friend, a great ally, and a great Michigander.”

Schumer maintained optimism that the seat would remain in the Democratic column.

“With Debbie’s help, and the strong Michigan Democratic Party she helped build, Debbie and I are confident Democrats will retain the seat,” he said.

Only one Republican has represented Michigan in the Senate over the past 40 years and that was Spencer Abraham, who served a single term from 1995 to 2001. His tenure was ended by Stabenow, when she won her first term. He later served in the President George W. Bush cabinet.

As for which Democrats might seek to run for Stabenow’s seat, one name being mentioned is U.S Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Lansing). 

Slotkin, who has won three tough elections in swing seats, has garnered support from independent voters.

While Slotkin took the moment to praise Stabenow for her leadership, she also didn’t rule out a run for the seat.

“For almost 50 years, Debbie Stabenow has brought her tireless spirit and passion for Michigan to public service,” tweeted Slotkin. “As the first woman elected to represent our state in the U.S. Senate, she’s been our mentor, our leader, and our trailblazer. And to me personally, she has been a friend, confidante, and invaluable sounding board. I spoke with Debbie this morning to thank her for everything she’s done for Michigan’s farmers, our manufacturers and small business owners, and our children. Her record of accomplishment is simply unmatched, and her voice will [be] sorely missed in the Congress.”

Other contenders could include state Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak), who gained national prominence last year after her viral pushback against anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and raised millions helping Democrats flip the state Senate, and U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Waterford Twp.).

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who recently moved to Michigan, released a statement following Stabenow’s announcement about his interest.

“I am fully focused on serving the President in my role as Secretary of Transportation, and not seeking any other job,” he said. “We are hard at work to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, grow the economy, and create good-paying jobs.”

Also being mentioned are Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. While all were easily reelected in November, their current terms wouldn’t expire until 2026.

On the GOP side, immediate speculation has centered on Rep.-elect John James (R-Farmington Hills). While he lost to Stabenow in 2018, and then again to Peters in 2020, James was among the few bright spots for Michigan Republicans in 2022 when he narrowly won a House seat in November.

Last year, former GOP gubernatorial candidate Ryan Kelley, who is facing charges related to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, said he would be interested in challenging Stabenow.

As for Stabenow, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, she said her focus will be on continuing to work toward improving the lives of Michiganders. 

“This includes leading the passage of the next five-year Farm Bill which determines our nation’s food and agriculture policies,” she said. “It is also key in protecting our land and water and creating jobs in our rural and urban communities.”

However, she indicated she planned to stay involved in Michigan beyond her role as a U.S. senator.

“When my term ends, I intend to begin a new chapter in my life that includes continuing to serve our State outside of elected office while spending precious time with my amazing 96-year-old mom and my wonderful family.”

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