Rep. Dan Kildee’s surprise announcement not to run for re-election means next November will be the first time in nearly five decades that someone with the last name Kildee is not running for Congress. And Republicans and Democrats are already pouncing to fill the Michigan-sized hole in what’s shaping up to be a cutthroat race.
Michigan’s 8th District was already a shiny target for Republicans after the seat was redrawn ahead of the 2022 election. It now slightly favors the GOP. But that didn’t matter so long as Dan Kildee was in office.
Kildee resoundingly won re-election last cycle by 10 points, but with the longtime and well-liked incumbent out, Republicans see a pick-up opportunity—especially as the GOP braces for a challenging 2024 path to hang onto the House majority.
“With the Kildee announcement, I think this becomes one of the top races in the country for Republicans to offset some of the expected losses that redistricting will create,” said Jason Cabel Roe, a GOP consultant and the former head of the Michigan Republican party.
The district encompasses Flint—where Kildee ran up the score last year—as well as the highly educated, affluent city of Midland, which claims to have the highest population of PhDs per capita in the country thanks to the Dow Chemical Company headquarters. The area also includes a significant rural population. After redistricting, the seat has a slight Republican lean.
Kildee announced he won’t seek re-election last week, saying a battle with cancer led him to take stock of his future. His retirement at the end of his sixth term in office—which concludes in early 2025—will mark the first time there won’t be a Kildee in Congress since 1977. Kildee took over his congressional seat from his uncle, Rep. Dale Kildee (D-MI), in 2013.
In the House, Kildee is known as an ally of House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) who has a history of critical policy deliverables for the district, perhaps most notably a $170 million aid package for Flint in 2016 during the water crisis.
Without their incumbent, Democrats now stare down the tall task of finding a successor to the Kildee name and legacy while fending off Republican underdogs hungry to seize on a district drifting conservative during presidential election years.
“This is a competitive district,” said Adrian Hemond, CEO of strategic consulting firm Grassroots Midwest. “It looked less competitive a year and a half ago or a year ago because the top of the ticket was collapsing for Republicans in Michigan. And Democrats had a guy with the last name Kildee on the ballot, which were both very good things for Democrats.”
“Neither of those things appears to be true this go around,” Hemond continued, “so it should be a tight race if Republicans can get a quality candidate.”
In addition to redistricting, Kildee’s former chief of staff Andy Leavitt told The Daily Beast that the district has trended conservative due to demographic shifts and what he called the “Trump-shake-up across the country.” Still, Leavitt said Democrats have a clear path to secure the seat.
“The historic and generational relationship that the district has with Democrats means that voters are still really open to that conversation, as long as you're doing it in an authentic and commonsense way,” Leavitt said.
So who might that candidate be? So far, no Democrats have formally thrown their hat in the ring, but strategists have a profile in mind.
According to Hemond, the ideal Democratic candidate would be able to run up the score in the cities, hang on in inner ring suburbs, and be a “solidly center-left Democrat” who can “play nice” with the district’s significant Catholic population.
The name at the top of the pile: state Senator Kristen McDonald Rivet.
“In terms of people who have a track record of winning tough elections in this area, Kristen McDonald Rivet is probably top of the list,” Hemond said.
McDonald Rivet represents Bay City, a corner of the district near the Saginaw Bay that Kildee won narrowly in 2022. She won her election last year by about 7 points. Before taking office, McDonald Rivet worked for various Michigan-based nonprofits and served as a city commissioner in Bay City.
McDonald Rivet hasn’t said if she’s getting into the race, but Democratic strategists say if she does, she has the electoral chops to secure the seat.
As first reported by Puck News, Kildee’s chief of staff and a Bay City native, Mitchell Rivard, confirmed to The Daily Beast he was weighing a run over Thanksgiving. As of Monday, Rivard said he was still thinking about a run, but hadn’t made up his mind.
Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley has said he will launch an exploratory committee examining a potential run, according to The Detroit News. Saginaw County Clerk Vanessa Guerra is also rumored to be in the mix.
Some of the other names being tossed around in the wake of Kildee’s announcement included Genesee County Sheriff Chris Swanson and former state Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich from Flint. But Swanson and Ananich have both said they will not seek Kildee’s seat.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said they feel confident that the seat will remain in Democratic hands next term.
“Democrats have a deep bench in Michigan’s 8th congressional district and a real record of accomplishments to run on,” DCCC spokesman Aidan Johnson said in a statement.
But the National Republican Congressional Committee has been targeting the district all cycle, and with the longtime and popular incumbent out, Republicans see plenty of electoral potential in the district.
“While Democrats nationwide continue to scramble for the exits, Republicans are expanding opportunities to grow the House majority,” said NRCC spokesman Mike Marinella. “Republicans see this race as a top target begging to be flipped red.”
Two GOP candidates have already thrown their hat in the ring. Paul Junge, who lost to Kildee by about 10 points last year, jumped at the chance for a second stab at the seat the day after Kildee announced his retirement.
Junge, a Trump administration alumnus who worked for U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, seems to think he’s got a better shot at Congress with Kildee out of the picture.
“He’s going to start out with name-ID advantages that other candidates might have to build up and he’s got some personal wealth that he can put in,” said Cabel Roe. “But, you know, as of now, I wouldn’t say that the NRCC seems to settle on him as the best candidate.”
A Republican Army veteran, trauma surgeon, and police officer triple-punch named Martin Blank also jumped into the race while Kildee was still running.
(For the DCCC’s part, Johnson referred to GOP candidates as “a perennial loser who can’t make it out of a Republican party primary for the state legislature and a California carpetbagger who recently moved to the district to run for office.”)
There is chatter about a handful of other Republican names that haven’t gotten into the race—like Tom Leonard, the former speaker of the Michigan House, and former state Sen. David Robertson.
Then there’s the Bill Schuettes, a formidable father-son pair of potential candidates. The elder Bill Schuette served as Michigan’s attorney general from 2011 to 2019. If he gets in, Cabel Roe said he would “probably clear the field,” though in recent years, he has been more focused on his son’s political career. The younger Bill Schuette was elected to the state House in 2022.
Regardless of the candidate, Republicans in the state won’t get much of a boost from the Michigan GOP, which is strapped for cash and roiled with infighting—a brawl during a committee meeting last summer led to a literal fistfight.
But Michigan Republicans are enthused by recent state-wide polling that shows President Joe Biden trailing Trump by 5 points in a 2024 rematch. The GOP sees a chance to ride that wave in Michigan’s 8th. And Republicans might be able to overcome the state GOP’s infrastructure challenges with the right candidate by piggybacking on GOP operations for Michigan’s Senate race to replace retiring Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI).
“In the absence of a functional state party, all candidates in the state are going to rely on our Senate nominee to be the statewide infrastructure,” Cabel Roe said.
Still, longtime Michigan pollster Bernie Porn told The Daily Beast that he thinks Democrats have an edge in the district and he doesn’t see it “as close as the NRCC seems to think.”
“The 8th is close enough so that both parties will probably spend a lot, but I assume that if the polling in the district doesn’t show that the GOP has a good enough chance, they may end up pulling their money as the election nears,” Porn said.
If last cycle is any indication, the 2024 election is expected to be pricey. Last time around, Kildee raised nearly $5.6 million while Junge raised about $3.1 million. Political observers expect the campaign could see more investment this year, given the attention the area will get as the parties battle over control of the Senate and the White House. Michigan will be critical in both contests.
Kildee himself has a million-dollar war chest and suggested in his retirement announcement that he intends to use it to keep the seat in Democratic hands.
“I am confident that Michigan will re-elect President Biden, entrust Democrats with legislative majorities and elect a Democrat to serve Michigan’s Eighth District after I retire from Congress,” Kildee said. “And while my name will not be on the ballot next November, I will be doing everything I can to help elect common sense, principled and results-oriented leaders.”