This Swing-State Senate Primary Will Test Whether Republicans Can Quit MAGA

Michigan, home to one of the most MAGA-crazed GOP bases in the country, is set to host the premier Senate showdown between loyalists to former President Donald Trump and establishment Republicans focused on electability above all else.  

At stake is whether Republicans can successfully expand the Senate map to Michigan, where Democrats have mostly coalesced behind Rep. Elissa Slotkin in the race to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow. Establishment Republicans in Washington, D.C., and in Michigan think they’ve found the candidate — former House Intelligence Committee chairman and Trump skeptic Mike Rogers — to turn the blue-tinted swing state into a battleground.

The question facing Rogers, and the GOP more broadly, is whether the party’s voters have learned from their mistakes in 2022, when they nominated hardcore MAGA candidates in several battleground states who couldn’t win a general election. The lesson should be particularly acute in Michigan, where Democrats last year easily defended their statewide trifecta after Republicans went full MAGA with their nominees.

Establishment Republicans see Rogers as a solid choice for Michigan’s purple electorate, giving the party perhaps its best shot at flipping a critical seat. The party’s base, however, could prefer two more explicitly “Make America Great Again”-aligned candidates, including a former Detroit police chief who seems all but certain to run and to court Trump’s support.

Rogers, a former CNN intelligence analyst, opened his campaign with a shot at both parties, aiming directly for the center of the electorate.

“Families are struggling, but politicians are fighting over banning gas stoves while China’s stealing our intellectual property and our jobs, and Biden is letting them do it,” Rogers says in his launch video, interspersed with B-roll of Detroit’s auto industry.

Rogers has to hope his rhetoric is enough to get Trump supporters to overlook some very clear baggage: Floating a possible 2024 presidential bid late last year, Rogers called Trump’s tactics “clearly destructive” and said the former president’s “time has passed.” Ahead of Trump’s first indictment on charges including paying for the silence of a porn actor right before the 2016 election, Rogers suggested that Trump has too much going on legally to be running for president.

“[Trump] has lots of issues to worry about and this might be a really good time for him to stop and focus on those issues and get all of that taken care of,” he told Fox News Digital in March.

Mike Rogers last week became the first major Republican to mount a U.S. Senate campaign in Michigan.
Mike Rogers last week became the first major Republican to mount a U.S. Senate campaign in Michigan.

Mike Rogers last week became the first major Republican to mount a U.S. Senate campaign in Michigan.

That Rogers, a former FBI agent who spent a decade in the House, is anything but a shoo-in for the Republican nod speaks volumes about how the GOP electorate has changed since Rogers left office in 2016, said Jeff Timmer, an adviser to The Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump political action committee.

“It’s not going to take a marquee candidate to beat Mike Rogers,” said Timmer, a former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party, suggesting that Rogers could even lose to little-known Michigan state board of education member Nikki Snyder, a Republican mounting a campaign focused on parental rights. “That’s how much the party has changed. Not long ago he would have been a marquee recruit. But his background, the things that made him stand out to Republican voters… those are kryptonite now in the GOP.”

“In an alternate reality, someone like Mike Rogers would be an A-list candidate,” said Michigan GOP political consultant Dennis Lennox. “This is why no credible Republican has wanted to enter the race, which has all but guaranteed the election of [Slotkin] absent Michigan somehow becoming a presidential battleground.”

The biggest threat to Rogers in the GOP would likely be former Detroit Police Chief James Craig, who told HuffPost last week that he’s “99%” certain he’s launching a campaign in the coming weeks. 

Craig was considered the presumptive GOP nominee for Michigan governor in 2022 before losing ballot access due to a fraudulent signature collector. Political commentator Tudor Dixon ultimately won the Republican nomination and lost to incumbent Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer by more than 10 percentage points.

But Craig is looking for another opportunity to run statewide, and his remarks to HuffPost suggest he’s open to becoming the MAGA torchbearer. Craig last week also published an opinion article in the conservative Daily Caller praising Trump’s “leadership,” earning himself a retweet from top Trump aide Jason Miller. 

“Right now [Trump’s] the leading candidate on the GOP side by a pretty substantial margin,” Craig said. “I understand the indictments, but that’s what they are — they’re indictments. That’s what they are. He is innocent until proven guilty, and I firmly believe in that.”

Craig said he doesn’t believe fraud compromised the 2020 election in Michigan but noted that he called for a forensic audit of the results when he was running for governor. “I’m not seeing anything that suggests the election was stolen. However, do I think it’s important that we have election integrity? Absolutely. Do I think there are problems? Absolutely. But I’m not going to say the election was stolen.”

Asked about cooperation from the Michigan Republican Party, led by election denier and former secretary of state nominee Kristina Karamo, Craig called the Michigan GOP “rudderless” but added: “It’s not going to weigh on me as to whether I take this leap. I’m going to run my race.” 

Republicans might also get John Tuttle, vice president of the New York Stock Exchange and an alum of George W. Bush’s presidential administration. In May, Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, called the political novice a “strong potential recruit.” But Tuttle hasn’t said if he’s still weighing a campaign, and the NRSC has since found its preferred candidate in Rogers.

It’s not going to take a marquee candidate to beat Mike Rogers.Jeff Timmer, an adviser to the anti-Trump group, The Lincoln Project

It’s not clear if Rogers will even have the Trump skeptic lane to himself: Former Rep. Peter Meijer last week announced the launch of a Senate exploratory committee, putting him a step closer to joining the race. But Meijer, who was primaried out of office in 2022 after one term for voting to impeach Trump, could be little more than a protest candidate to a GOP electorate that still largely supports Trump amid his four criminal indictments.

Democrats already have a crowded field vying to replace Stabenow. Slotkin, a rising star representing a central Michigan swing district, argues she’s uniquely capable of wooing Republicans and has begun to consolidate institutional support. Actor Hill Harper is running as a progressive activist with ties to Detroit, the wellspring of Michigan’s Democratic votes, and its Black voter base.

Even with Rogers in the mix, national Republicans do not view Michigan, the only swing state with an open Senate seat, as a top target when Montana, Ohio and West Virginia — states Trump won by much bigger margins in both elections — all have vulnerable Democratic senators up for reelection next year. Compared to Michigan, Republicans see more promise in Pennsylvania, where Trump lost by one 1 percentage point and where they’re nudging former hedge fund executive Dave McCormick to mount a re-do of his 2022 Senate campaign.

“Michigan is gonna be a race,” a D.C. Republican involved in Senate campaigns said, “but it’s not going to be in the top three or four, quite frankly.”

Facing an extremely challenging map overall, Democrats are bullish about their chances in Michigan, coming off a string of wins that includes not only defending their top elected offices but also codifying abortion rights

“Michigan voters have repeatedly rejected Republicans’ dangerous agenda to deny a woman’s right to choose and give tax handouts to corporations instead of hardworking families, and 2024 will be no different,” said Senate Majority PAC spokesperson Sarah Guggenheim. “Mitch McConnell and national Republicans are flailing as they reckon with their upcoming clown car primary full of C-list candidates whose views are as extreme as their ties to the state are weak.”