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Esshaki's lead widens in 11th District GOP primary for Congress

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Birmingham lawyer Eric Esshaki has opened more than an 8 percentage point lead Wednesday in the five-candidate Republican primary for the right to face U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Rochester Hills, in November.

Esshaki, 36, a lawyer from Birmingham, appeared headed toward victory with 31.4% of the vote to about 23% for arts foundation owner Carmelita Greco. Former U.S. Rep. Kerry Bentivolio of Mildford had 22% in with 86% of precincts reporting.

Eric Esshaki

The Associated Press had not projected a winner yet on Wednesday afternoon.

Despite the outstanding votes that were still be tallied in Wayne County, Esshaki declared himself the winner.

“I am very thankful for the outpouring of support. People responded to my message that politics are broken and they want government to tackle real problems," he said in Wednesday a statement.

"They respect that I was a nurse and have a real-world perspective on the challenges America faces. They like that I stand up for the Constitution and for what’s right, and they are tired of liberal Democrat Haley Stevens voting with Pelosi 100% of the time.”

Esshaki says he is a constitutional conservative who favors less government and is pro-border security. He won a major victory in federal court that forced Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson to ease the burden on congressional candidates during the coronavirus pandemic for meeting a signature threshold to qualify for the ballot.

The 11th Congressional District, which covers portions of northwestern Wayne County and southwestern Oakland County, is a swing district that was held by the Republicans for eight years until Stevens' victory in 2018.

The GOP primary featured four candidates with low name recognition and a former congressman with high name identification but with struggles at winning at the ballot box.

ELECTION RESULTS: Follow along as they come in

Kerry Bentivolio

Bentivolio of Milford, 68, who held the seat in 2013-14, is among the contenders that include Esshaki, who also is a former emergency room nurse, Greco, Army veteran and longtime salesman Frank Acosta and Whittney Williams, a former marketing specialist for the auto industry and GOP committeewoman.

"It's a roller coaster. You've got to learn to enjoy the ride no matter what it is," Bentivolio said Tuesday just before the polls closed. "I've been up and I've been down, but this is my hometown. I'm fighting for my country against the socialist left."

The most experienced candidate is Bentivolio, who lost by 33 percentage points to the well-financed foreclosure attorney David Trott in the 2014 GOP primary. The Army veteran was elected in 2012 to a seat left vacant when Republican former U.S. Rep. Thaddeus McCotter failed to collect enough signatures to make the August 2012 ballot.

Bentivolio ran as a "proven conservative" who can defeat Stevens. 

The former school teacher and reindeer rancher has made repeated bids to reclaim his congressional seat but has fallen short. In 2018, Bentivolio finished last in a five-candidate primary with 11% of the vote against well-known elected officials and political operatives. 

Bentivolio filed for bankruptcy in early 2015 after he left office, listing nearly $300,000 in debts and unpaid bills. He made $174,000 a year during his two years in Congress.

Whittney Williams

Williams, 37, of Canton Township said President Donald Trump was an inspiration for her to "stand up and share" her talents with the 11th District "because we want to make America great." Williams emigrated from Taiwan. Williams has accused Stevens of not reaching across the aisle enough to Republicans and failing to work in a bipartisan fashion.

Greco, 44, of Northville said she is in the race "simply on principle" and how she sees "our personal liberties being threatened." She wants to protect constitutional freedoms and promote less government and lower taxes.

The rise of left-wing politics is what brought Greco into politics, she said.

Acosta, 75, of Northville said he has beaten the odds before, especially overcoming Stage 4 throat cancer, which he said was an act of God. He is of Mexican heritage. Immigration, lower taxes and less regulation are among Acosta's top issues.

Stevens won the seat two years ago by nearly 7 percentage points over Republican businesswoman Lena Epstein. She has a formidable war chest of nearly $4 million. The amount is approaching the $4.2 million she raised and spent two years ago to win the seat vacated by Trott. 

In a statement on election night, Stevens said that she has more left to do in office.

"The stakes in this election could not be higher. In the months and years to come, we will reflect on this time, where we stood, what our values were, and feel pride in our efforts and results," she said.

"I am running for re-election because Michigan's 11th District deserves a champion who will fight for our manufacturing economy, expand economic opportunity, and help get Michigan workers and small businesses back on their feet."  lfleming@detroitnews.com

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Twitter:@leonardnfleming