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How a swing district Democrat is running as a ‘conversations’ candidate

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A Democrat locked in one of the swingiest House races in Michigan isn’t afraid to appear with the president, even as President Joe Biden faces tough approval numbers in the state.

“If the president comes to my district, just like if any president came to my district and invited me, I’ll be there. I think that’s important,” former Michigan state Sen. Curtis Hertel told Inside Congress Wednesday. “And I want to talk to him about the values and what’s important to our district. Obviously I would be happy to.”

Hertel is running to succeed Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) in a district that Biden narrowly won in 2020, but with Slotkin’s decision to run for Senate, Republicans see the Lansing-area district as one of their top pickup opportunities this year. Hertel said he is confident he can keep the seat blue, acknowledging voter frustration with both parties but pledging to be “somebody who will listen to them.”

Biden has some ground to make up in the Mitten State, with a Wall Street Journal poll out last night showing him trailing Donald Trump by 3 points. He won the state in 2020, rebuilding Democrats’ so-called blue wall of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin after Trump won all three in 2016.

Hertel indicated he wanted to focus on his own race, declining to give any advice to Biden’s campaign on turning around their poll numbers: “I’ve got to focus on my own race here. I know what’s working for us and [it’s] having conversations with voters. … And so I assume it’d work for anybody else.”

Although Democrats won’t have an abortion measure on the ballot to boost turnout like it did in 2022, Hertel believed it will still be a potent issue this election cycle. He said voters could recognize the “potential for Republicans to take control of all branches of government and [pass] a national abortion ban.”

Hertel is aggressively raising money, raking in over $1.3 million last quarter, according to fundraising numbers shared exclusively with Inside Congress, giving him more than $2 million to spend in the coming months. He’s preparing for a matchup with fellow former state Sen. Tom Barrett, a Republican who ran against Slotkin in 2022 in what was one of the nation’s most expensive races that cycle. Barrett had about $650,000 on hand at the beginning of the year.

Trump has put Michigan in the spotlight, traveling to the state Tuesday evening for a campaign appearance in Grand Rapids where he focused on immigration and the recent murder of Ruby Garcia, allegedly by an undocumented immigrant. He falsely claimed to have spoken with her family, drawing pushback from them and Democrats.

“I think in politics, we get so selfish these days, we forget that these people are people. And I just — I just find that to be wrong,” Hertel said. Asked about Trump’s immigration rhetoric, he knocked both parties for not doing more on the border and criticized Trump for helping scuttle a bipartisan border deal earlier this year.

Biden also faces the challenge of winning back Michiganders who opted to cast a protest vote in the state’s primary over his handling of the war in Gaza. More than 100,000 voters opted to vote “uncommitted” in February.

Hertel again emphasized the importance of “conversations” with voters to bring them back into the Biden fold for the general election.

“There’s a lot of pain,” he said. “I think we need to keep having conversations, and I think that conversation is the only thing that actually will solve any of this.”