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When Rep. Dan Kildee led the program that assists House Democrats facing competitive re-elections, he’d tell them they know their district better than any strategist possibly could.
In an interview between greeting voters at a handful of local events in the district, the Michigan Democrat recalled telling his colleagues: “You run your race. Don’t let anybody tell you there’s some formula that they use somewhere else, and that that’s what you should do here.”
He’s now taking his own advice.
Kildee, first elected a decade ago, is one of a handful of lawmakers who became GOP targets thanks to redistricting. His once-safe district, which includes Flint and Saginaw, became more Republican with the addition of Midland. And as one of more than two dozen endangered incumbent Democrats, the House majority will be decided in his own backyard.
Despite the changes to his district and his party’s political headwinds in the midterm elections, Kildee downplays any differences to his re-election approach this time around.
“Obviously this will just be a campaign that looks bigger to a lot of people,” Kildee said in his campaign office in downtown Flint. “But to me, it’s pretty much just another race where I go to the voters and ask for their support.”
Still, Kildee’s campaign is being far more aggressive than in past years: He aired his first TV ad in June, five months earlier than in 2020; he raised more than $3.3 million by mid-July, almost twice as much as he raised in the entire previous cycle; and he’s held more than 100 events and the campaign has held weekly canvasses since he formally kicked off his campaign on March 19.
Michiganders are taking notice. Nancy Tesauro, a lifelong Democrat who’s lived in Saginaw since she was five, said she never volunteered for Kildee until she got a call from his campaign this year asking for help.
“Dan, I don’t think, has had to do a lot of campaigning in our county,” Tesauro said as she prepared to hold his signs in a local parade. “I realized, well, it must be serious.”
Cheryl Hadsall, a Democrat and former Saginaw County commissioner, has known Kildee since his days in local government. “This is going to be the hardest he’s going to ever have to work,” Hadsall said.
Kildee will officially get a Republican opponent after Tuesday’s primaries. Paul Junge (R), a former prosecutor and news anchor who narrowly lost to Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D) in 2020, was named to the National Republican Congressional Committee’s Young Guns program in anticipation of him winning the nomination.
The NRCC and aligned outside groups including Congressional Leadership Fund and American Action Network have booked a combined $2.7 million worth of airtime in the Flint-Saginaw Bay market since the start of the year, compared to about $1.6 million so far from Kildee’s own camapign and Democratic groups such as House Majority PAC, according to AdImpact data. The DCCC has not yet made an ad buy in the district.
In an interview, Junge said he’s spoken to Democrats and independents who are ready for someone other than a Kildee to serve them in Congress. Kildee succeeded his uncle, Dale Kildee (D), who held the seat from 1977-2013.
“Mr. Kildee has had a safe Democratic district for the last 10 years, so — to some degree — you didn’t have quite the engaged contest,” Junge said.
Kildee is one of 14 lawmakers who went from holding a safe seat to being added to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s list of most vulnerable members because of redistricting.
Included are members who’ve served for decades: Marcy Kaptur in Ohio and Sanford Bishop in Georgia. Two others elected with Kildee for the first time in 2012, Bill Foster in Illinois and Ann Kuster in New Hampshire, are also running with less favorable lines.
Former Rep. Steve Israel, who was DCCC chairman during the last redistricting cycle ahead of the 2012 elections, said the key for any incumbent in a tough race is to be aware of how their district is changing — and change with it.
“If you can’t adapt because you’re seeing a new environment through rose-colored glasses, you’re gonna lose,” he said.
Michigan’s new 8th District has changed substantially in the last several decades after being hit hard by the housing crisis and major automakers leaving the area, as well as the water crisis in Flint. The drastic change has led a new generation of union workers to support Republicans.
Knocking doors in Midland earlier this month, Kildee held off on making a hard sell to the voters whose support he needs but whom he’s never represented. Instead, he explained that he wasn’t their lawmaker yet but could be thanks to new district lines. He talked about his daughter who until recently lived in Midland. And yes, he’s Dale Kildee’s nephew.
Kildee said he doesn’t believe the country is as divided as it seems. His approach when introducing himself is to get voters talking about their families and situations, and then work on breaking down preconceptions they might have about the “D” next to his name.
He said he wants to “help them understand that the way I approach the job is probably something they can relate to, that they would appreciate.”
Along with seeking to persuade Republicans and independents to back him, Kildee needs Democrats to turn out.
Krysta Vincent — who stepped away from cooking zucchini fritters to go outside when her husband told her Kildee was at the door — spoke with Kildee about her frustrations with Roe v. Wade being overturned and the direction Republicans had gone in recent years. But after Kildee moved on to the next house, Vincent said she was also frustrated with the Democratic Party for not achieving more of their agenda.
“You see the Republican Party being so aggressive in their actions that make everybody mad,” Vincent said. “And you see Democrats who are trying to play nice but at some point—” she trailed off.
Later, Kildee said he understood the concerns of voters such as Vincent. He defended how the House chose which bills to bring to the floor and said the Senate needs to “wake up” and get rid of “undemocratic” rules, including the filibuster.
To contact the reporter on this story: Emily Wilkins in Flint, Mich., at firstname.lastname@example.org