Rep. Elissa Slotkin fights to keep seat in Republican stronghold

The freshman Democrat is believed to be one of the most vulnerable members of the House

When Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI) was elected to Congress in 2018, she was a little-known political neophyte who unseated a career politician and flipped her district, which had been held by Republicans for two decades.

Two years later, Slotkin, a former CIA analyst and Defense Department official, has made a name for herself in Washington and in Michigan’s 8th district. The freshman legislator made waves with a Washington Post op-ed last year, co-authored with six other Democrats, calling for an inquiry into President Donald Trump’s dealings with the Ukrainian government. 

More recently she has spoken out against the administration over allegations that the White House did not act on reports that Moscow had put bounties on American troops in Afghanistan.

Now, eight weeks ahead of her first reelection bid, Elissa Slotkin is counting on voters in the district — which Trump won by seven points in 2016 — to send her back to Washington.

Slotkin’s Republican opponent, Paul Junge, suggested in an interview with Jewish Insider that, given the congresswoman’s record during her first term, she will not be able to win a second term this November.

“As a first-time candidate, candidate Elissa Slotkin was able to present herself in a certain way and when she didn’t have a voting record to push back on it, that appearance of independent-mindedness was appealing,” Junge told JI, pointing out that Slotkin had said in 2018 she opposed impeaching Trump and that she would not support House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) bid to reclaim the speakership.

Elissa Slotkin
Rep. Elissa Slotkin tours Taylor Armory in Taylor, Mich. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Jacob Cessna)

Slotkin voted “present” on the vote to elect Pelosi as speaker in 2019 but votes with Pelosi on most legislation.

“My opponent would like to be running against Nancy Pelosi, but he’s not,” Slotkin retorted to JI, emphasizing that the large majority of House votes are bipartisan, and that she has voted against her party 55 times during her term. “I hope that my record speaks for itself.”

“The first thing that I did when I joined as a member of Congress is I signed up for the Problem Solvers Caucus,” she said, referring to a caucus made up of Democrats and Republicans that aims to find bipartisan solutions to major issues. “That’s because I deeply, deeply believe in bipartisanship.”

Slotkin, who is Jewish, denounced Junge for campaign advertisements linking her to former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, telling JI that the ads “really raised some eyebrows for me.” The images depict Slotkin alongside Bloomberg and label Elissa Slotkin as “bought” by the billionaire. 

She also criticized Junge for declining in April to denounce the Proud Boys, a far-right hate group that has repeatedly been involved in violent clashes. One of Junge’s GOP primary opponents had previously defended the group.

“That’s a normalization we haven’t seen even in 2018,” Slotkin said.

Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, described Junge’s advertisements as antisemitic, but not uncommon among Republican candidates this cycle.

“Donald Trump has really normalized this really unacceptable form of hatred that we see within the Republican Party,” Soifer told JI. “What we see since the last election is that other Republicans are embracing these negative stereotypes about Jews… and using hatred as a political tactic.”

In response to questions about the Bloomberg images and the Proud Boys, Junge’s campaign hit back at Slotkin.

“Hate groups and antisemitism have no place in our society but unfortunately Elissa Slotkin continues to support antisemite [Rep.] Ilhan Omar and refuses to call for her removal from the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee,” a campaign spokesperson said. “The congresswoman is clearly trying to deflect from her anti-Israel record, the fact that she received $2.4 million from Bloomberg in 2018, and is poised to receive more this election.”

Slotkin condemned Omar’s controversial 2019 comments as antisemitic and called on her fellow freshman congresswoman to apologize.

Junge echoed this sentiment in responses to JI’s candidate questionnaire, accusing “elements of the Democratic Party” of embracing antisemitism, claiming the party had “not done enough to stand against it.”

“One negative effect of this seems to be to make support of the U.S.-Israeli relationship a more partisan issue,” he continued.

In his interview with JI, Junge asserted that the Republican Party has more thoroughly condemned antisemitism internally than Democrats have, pointing to examples like the decision to drop a Republican National Convention speaker hours before her scheduled timeslot after it was discovered that she had shared antisemitic conspiracy theories. 

“I think the Republicans are actively working to root out that problem out any time they see it, where I think the Democrats, it’s kind of a nod and a wink,” he said. “I unequivocally condemn antisemitism… I don’t want any part of it. I don’t want it in my party.”

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Though their resumes could not be more different, there is one area in which Junge and Slotkin intersect: public service.

Slotkin made a career in intelligence in the Central Intelligence Agency and at the Pentagon before leaving government work in 2017. Soifer, a former senatorial aide who sat in on some of Slotkin’s testimonies before Congress, said that Slotkin’s “degree of insight and awareness of [the Middle East] was unmatched.”

“She was always viewed as a true expert in the field as a national security practitioner,” Soifer added. “I looked to her as an expert and literally remember watching her and admiring her work from afar and looking to her as an expert in security.”

Junge, meanwhile, pursued a series of different occupations. After law school, he spent time working in his family business providing maintenance services to military housing, was an assistant district attorney, held a job as a local television news anchor, worked as an investigative counsel for Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and, most recently, served for seven months in the External Affairs Directorate at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services under Trump.

Junge left USCIS in August 2018 when his father was diagnosed with liver disease. His father’s death the following summer inspired Junge to move home to Michigan and get involved in local politics.

“So many people said, ‘We are not happy with the representation we have in Congress and we need to find a good candidate to run against Congresswoman Slotkin,’” he said. “And I thought my background… could make me a good candidate.”

Junge said he decided early in his time in law school to pursue his first role in government, as a prosecutor.

“As a prosecutor, your job is to do justice. You don’t have to pursue any cases. In fact, you should not pursue a case that you don’t think is appropriate for your client, for the people,” he said. “I enjoyed the opportunity to try to protect people and get justice for people who had been wronged.”

Elissa Slotkin article Jewish Insider
Paul Junge (Portraits for Jamestown)

Junge ultimately left law to work for his father’s business, but began to look for new endeavors after several years.

“I thought it would be interesting to be involved in the stories I saw TV reporters being involved in and being able to tell people’s stories to a broad audience,” Junge said, discussing his decision to pursue TV news. “You start asking people questions about themselves… people are usually willing to share that. And I found that really gratifying.”

Junge left the news business after six years, eventually making his way to Washington after working as a field organizer for failed Senate candidate Terri Lynn Land, who lost her 2014 race against then-Rep. Gary Peters (D-MI).

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When Slotkin spoke to JI in 2018 during her first congressional campaign, she called for “strong American leadership” to push both Israel and the Palestinians to make progress on a peace deal. Last week, she said the Trump administration’s peace plan, introduced earlier this year, has fallen short in that pursuit.

“I think that unfortunately, the deal that the president signed, to much fanfare, it just doesn’t seem like it’s going to go very far because it hasn’t included the Palestinians at the table,” Slotkin said. “I don’t know if the leadership of both sides, the Palestinians and Israelis, are capable of bringing their parties along for a real negotiation… But I know that making unilateral moves is not something that promotes peace.”

The Trump administration has failed to make progress, Slotkin continued, because it has not served as a neutral arbiter between the Palestinians and Israelis.

Slotkin went on to praise the normalization of ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates as a positive step, but expressed concern about the U.S. potentially selling F-35 fighter jets to the UAE.

“When I was at the Pentagon… it was my job to negotiate any deal related to Israel’s qualitative military edge,” she said. “To be honest, the F-35 was always something that most people understood to be a threat to Israel’s qualitative military edge.”

Slotkin added that she’d like to see the U.S. rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, but would also like to continue negotiations to add additional deals regarding the country’s ballistic missiles and terrorist activities.

In responses to JI’s questionnaire, Junge expressed support for a two-state solution, as well as the Palestinian state borders mapped out in the Trump administration’s peace proposal.

“While the United States can support [a peace agreement] by ensuring Israel’s right to self- defense and encouraging Arab allies to be supportive, success depends on Israel and Palestine taking direct responsibility for the terms of an agreement,” Junge added. “Further, for a two-state solution to work, the Palestinians must make clear that Israel has a right to exist.”

He elaborated in his interview: “I think the chances for peace are best when the Israelis have confidence that the U.S. government is going to support them so that they don’t feel as greatly threatened as they might otherwise.”

Junge also said in the questionnaire that while he is opposed to conditioning aid to Israel because of the close ties between Washington and Jerusalem, he “would support conditioning aid given to foreign countries based on their help in eradicating terrorist networks.”

“But I do think it’s entirely reasonable for the American taxpayer to say… ‘If we’re going to send our tax revenues abroad, we ought to at least try to encourage those countries to not engage in any number of different activities,’” he clarified to JI.

“One thing I saw, or thought I saw, during the Obama administration was too great an eagerness to engage in criticism of Israel,” he said. “I don’t mean that the U.S. shouldn’t pay attention to what the Israelis do and have conversations with them… Neither my first or my second reaction [to] anything that the Israeli government might do is to say, hey, let’s start to condition aid. It would be, ‘Look we’ve got a lot of channels with cooperation and communication. Let’s work through those if we have some difference.’”

Qualifying that he is not an expert on Middle East policy, Junge declined to take a firm position on Israel’s proposed annexation of portions of the West Bank, but defended the Israeli government’s “right to unilaterally defend themselves.”

Junge also emphasized that he sees Israel as a frequent target of unjustified criticism on the global stage, particularly within the United Nations.

“Israel, it seems to me uniquely, is the target of U.N. resolutions for misbehavior and you’re like ‘Wait a minute. This is a democratic country with real threats right around it that’s constantly under attack, whereas dictatorships that are engaged in much worse behavior get no condemnation,’” he said.

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The Cook Political Report rates Slotkin’s race as “Lean Democratic,” likely in part because of her prodigious fundraising. She had more than $5 million on hand as of mid-July, whereas Junge had $639,000 in the bank, according to FEC filings. 

The biggest single donor to Slotkin’s campaign so far has been the House Victory Project — a group of major Democratic financiers — which donated more than $224,000. She’s also received donations from an array of leaders in the business and entertainment sectors, including Steven Spielberg, Jim Simons, Seth Klarman and Laura Lauder.

Outside spending has dropped precipitously since Slotkin’s first race. Outside groups spent nearly $17 million in the district in 2018, compared to less than $200,000 this cycle so far, the majority of which has opposed Slotkin.

Two years ago, Slotkin’s aggressive ground game — in particular her outreach to female Republican voters — was crucial to her success. While the pandemic has forced her campaign to rethink its strategy, Slotkin has continued to push ahead with socially distanced events and contactless campaigning.

“COVID has changed my race pretty fundamentally,” she told Jewish Insider. “And in a district like this, I cannot win without working hard, so we just had to redouble our efforts.”

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