The Republican race to take on Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow in 2018 heated up Wednesday as former Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bob Young jumped in, a GOP rival fought back and an outside group continued to push for another entrant.
Young announced his campaign in a streaming video from an empty lot at the corner of 14th Street and McGraw in Detroit. The site of his childhood home, Young said it’s where he learned middle-class values that made him a “black, conservative Republican,” three words he noted are rarely used in the same sentence.
“It was the most dramatic physical symbol I could use to demonstrate what liberal policies like those that Debbie Stabenow supports have generated,” Young told The Detroit News in a follow-up interview. “A lot of vacant, empty fields. Programs that cost trillions of dollars and don’t do a thing, except make things worse.”
A 66-year-old Detroit native who now lives in Lainsburg, Young retired from the state Supreme Court in April after nearly 18 years on the job, including six years as chief justice.
Young is “not a politician,” he stressed in his campaign announcement, but has won statewide judicial elections and worked to reduce the size of government by reforming state courts.
“I’ve got the experience and guts not only to challenge Debbie Stabenow, but also to make some changes in Washington, D.C., if I get there – to lay down the law,” he told The News.
Young is the second Republican to declare for the Senate primary, joining 35-year-old businesswoman Lena Epstein, who co-chaired President Donald Trump’s Michigan campaign and has positioned herself as an outsider candidate who has never held political office.
Young is also taking an outsider approach after a nearly 18-year career on the state’s highest court. His new campaign website calls him a “trusted, proven, conservative” but stresses his non-politician status. It also echoes Trump's campaign call to “clean the swamp” and notes that Young is “one of the judges considered by Trump for the U.S. Supreme Court.”
As a candidate last year, Trump included Young on a list of 21 officials he would consider appointing to the nation’s highest court. But Young downplayed his chances, saying his age would make the odds of Trump picking him for the post “extraordinarily remote.”
Epstein fired a shot across the bow Wednesday, lumping Young and Stabenow together in a statement noting they have held elected positions for nearly 60 years combined.
“Voters across Michigan spoke loud and clear in 2016 that they are looking for outside leaders with business experience,” Epstein said, promising to defend Trump, push to end sanctuary cities and “build the wall” at the Mexico border.
“I will offer a vision for the future that looks very different than that of career politicians who have been in office 20 or 40 years,” she said.
Young declined to comment on Epstein but said he is proud of his experience on the bench, which he argues makes him a unique candidate.
He voted for Trump in the Michigan primary and general elections, he told The News, and supports state-level legislation to crack down on sanctuary cities that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration laws.
Young said he does not have a view on the new Senate health care overhaul bill, which he said is “in process.” But he said he wants any reforms to be based on “market-based principles.”
Young has never served in an overtly political position, but he ran for the state Supreme Court as a nominee of the Michigan Republican Party. He was first appointed by GOP Gov. John Engler in 1999 before winning election in 2002 and 2010.
He was chosen by his colleagues to serve as chief justice for an unprecedented three two-year terms, concluding in January, and was the fourth black justice to serve on the high court.
Young may prove a strong challenger for Stabenow, said Susan Demas, editor of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter. “But of course the first step is getting through the primary, and I don’t think that is going to be an easy feat, especially because Lena Epstein seems to have that Trump vote on lockdown.”
Epstein is a new face in Michigan politics, and it remains to be seen if she’ll find a strong foothold, said GOP consultant John Truscott. Young has deeper reach with “typical Republican establishment primary types” and greater statewide name recognition after campaigning across the state as a judge.
“He’s a very smart guy, and as you get to know him, you learn he’s got a wicked-dry sense of humor,” Truscott said of Young. “He will be fun to watch campaign.”
U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, has been courted to run for Senate and has not ruled out the possibility. Detroit businessman John James, an Iraq War veteran and CEO of Renaissance Global Logistics, is also considering jumping into the GOP primary.
A Michigan-based group called the National Security and Opportunity Fund is running online ads calling for a candidate with similar experience to James, although they do not mention him by name.
“We think America needs more leaders who have combat experience and understand how to create jobs, leaders like (Sen.) Tom Cotton in Arkansas, (Gov.) Eric Greitens in Missouri and John James in Michigan who understand national security and business,” said Stu Sandler, a GOP consultant and spokesperson for the 501(c)(4) nonprofit.
Stabenow is poised to run for re-election and has a strong track record in statewide races, but Republicans are optimistic after Trump became the first Republican presidential candidate to win Michigan since 1988.
While Stabenow narrowly beat incumbent Republican Spence Abraham by less than 3 percentage points to win the seat in 2000, the Lansing Democrat easily defeated Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard by 15 points in 2006 and former U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Holland by more than 20 points in 2012.
“Whoever the Republican nominee is going to be is going to fight a strong candidate,” said Democratic consultant Howard Edelson. “Debbie always runs a campaign like she’s running from behind, so she’s going to be aggressive.”
Stabenow is a “very difficult Democrat to beat” because of her strong ties to farm and agriculture groups that often back GOP candidates, Demas said, “but I don’t think you can count Republicans out.”
Upton is an experienced fundraiser with potential crossover appeal in a general election, Demas said, but Young’s announcement may make him more hesitant to get into the race because they could “cannibilize” each other’s support in a GOP primary and give Epstein a better chance to win.
Upon announcing his retirement, Young earned praise from fellow justices who said he helped foster a new era of collegiality between Democratic and Republican nominees.
But Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon blasted Young’s judicial record, suggesting he has “sided with insurance companies, polluters and other special interests” during his time on the bench.
“From the very first law she passed in the U.S. Senate to stop oil drilling in the Great Lakes to her efforts to hold countries like China accountable on trade, Debbie Stabenow fights tirelessly for Michigan every day,” Dillon said in a statement. “We need someone on the side of Michigan families, not the special interests.”