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Commerce Township — Vice President Mike Pence’s wife rallied a crowd here Friday, urging them to vote for Republican Lena Epstein in her bid for Congress as well as other GOP candidates in the Nov. 6 midterm election.

With less than two weeks to go before state voters head to the polls, Karen Pence noted her presence as a sign of Michigan's significance.

“Michigan is once again a pivotal election state,” the second lady told nearly 100 people at the campaign office of 11th Congressional District candidate Epstein. "...The road to the majority is going to lead right through Michigan, this seat."

The state has a 9-5 GOP advantage in its U.S. House delegation, but two Republican-leaning districts including the 11th are considered toss-ups. 

The vice president plans to return to Michigan Monday to campaign for Epstein in Waterford Township. It would mark the fifth time that the vice president has campaigned in Michigan during the midterm cycle, raising money and campaigning to support candidates from gubernatorial nominee Bill Schuette, U.S. Senate candidate John James and U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Rochester.

Karen Pence's stop coincided with a visit from former President Barack Obama, who rallied Friday in Detroit for Democrats including Epstein's opponent, Haley Stevens; U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Lansing; and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer. 

Epstein, an Oakland County native and businesswoman who co-chaired President Donald Trump’s Michigan campaign, is in a tough match-up with Stevens to succeed retiring U.S. Rep. Dave Trott, R-Birmingham. The Cook Political Report recently tipped its rating to slightly favor Stevens in a district Trump won by 4 percentage points in 2016.

But Karen Pence and other supporters say Epstein, a first-time candidate in her 30s who would become the first representative of the millennial generation in Michigan’s delegation, is the best fit for the job and can win.

"Lena will be a voice for hard-working men and women," Pence said. "She has the skill set. She has the experience. ... She can support economic growth. This is a businesswoman."

Epstein, who co-owns her family’s Vesco Oil, an automotive and industrial lubricants distributor in Southfield, has campaigned as a political outsider and supporter of Trump’s agenda. She has also described herself as a constitutional conservative and "red meat Republican," who opposes abortion and belongs to the National Rifle Association.

Karen Pence noted Epstein would be "a powerful voice" in furthering the Trump administration's America First agenda and its gains — including efforts to continue enhancing "a booming economy" as well as tackle the opioid crisis and border security.

"She’s the kind of strong, principled, conservative leader who will stand with this administration to deliver results," Pence told the audience. "She’s a business owner, so she gets it. She’s a community member. She’s an independent, an outsider, someone who knows the auto industry inside and out. ... We need conservatives like Lena in Congress so we can keep the momentum going."

In brief remarks before Pence's speech, Epstein blasted Stevens, who has earned an endorsement from Obama and raised more money last quarter by 4-1. 

The Bloomfield Township resident argued House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi is helping to support Stevens by appearing Friday night at a private fundraiser in Birmingham. .

The Bloomfield Township Republican also repeated a claim that Stevens inflated her resume by saying she was chief of staff of the Obama auto rescue task force, which the Democrat's campaign and Obama task force leaders have dismissed as false.

Stevens has also defended her record on the federal auto task force that planned and oversaw the financial bailout and bankruptcies of Chrysler and General Motors from 2009-11. 

While asserting that Stevens has generated support from out of state, Epstein believes the Democrat's chances of winning are diminishing.

Michigan Democrats pushed back against the criticism.

“Lena Epstein can lie all she wants, but it won’t change the fact that Haley Stevens fought to protect 200,000 Michigan jobs as chief of staff to President Obama’s Auto Rescue," said Michigan Democratic Party spokesman Austin Laufersweiler in a statement.

Epstein told her supporters she still was confident in emerging victorious in the race, citing the number of women in the room.

"I have never been prouder to be a woman in the Republican Party, and the future Is incredibly bright," she said "… We will not let the Democrats take Michigan’s 11th Congressional District from us."

The event encouraged attendees such as Ann Hoyt, a longtime Republican from Clarkston who also planned to join the Mike Pence event next week.

“I believe in Lena,” she said while wearing a campaign sticker on her jacket.

Karen Pence urged her and other followers to remember what's at stake in the midterm.

"Elections are won by those who show up and the side with the most enthusiasm," she said.

Thomas Meyer of White Lake Township, who attended with his family, stayed after the event for a photo of Epstein and Pence. Their message is important in showing how politics can shape the community, he said.

"It was wonderful — all of us coming together to make America a better place,” Meyer said.

In a statement before the rally, Michigan Trump Republicans co-founder Meshawn Maddock noted the significance in "building voter enthusiasm" because "the ‘red wave’ will be built from high energy events like this.”  

mhicks@detroitnews.com

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