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GOP challengers face huge cash disadvantage in Slotkin, Stevens races

Two Metro Detroit Republican challengers are gearing up to battle two Democratic U.S. House freshmen who have built massive campaign war chests that threaten to turn their swing seats into more securely Democratic outposts. 

The two districts originally were seen as key battlegrounds that could help Republicans take control of the Democratic-led U.S. House. But Democratic prospects for maintaining control have improved as President Donald Trump’s polling popularity has waned across the country.

Still, the Republican House candidates are vowing to raise the money and the issues that will press the Democratic incumbents in the fall.

Incumbent U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly), left, and GOP challenger Paul Junge, a former television anchor and prosecutor. The winner of the November election will represent Michigan's 8th district.

Former television anchor and prosecutor Paul Junge of Brighton will face U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Holly in the 8th District, made up of a portion of northern Oakland County as well as Livingston and Ingham counties.

Lawyer and former nurse Eric Esshaki of Birmingham will challenge U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens of Rochester Hills in the 11th District, which encompasses portions of northwestern Wayne County and southwestern Oakland County.

Slotkin and Stevens have billed themselves as moderates and accumulated millions of dollars in contributions that have included large deposits from out-of-state backers and promises of support from the Democratic National Committee. Republicans have described them as backing the liberal agenda of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California.

Incumbent U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Rochester Hills), left, and GOP challenger Eric Esshaki, a lawyer from Birmingham. The winner of the November election will represent Michigan's 11th district.

Through July 15, Slotkin had $5 million in cash on hand, which was 11 times greater than the $445,000 for Junge.

When Slotkin two years ago defeated Republican then-U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop of Rochester, the combined spending of outside groups and the candidates set a Michigan record at $28.3 million. The spending doubled the prior record of $14.15 million set in 2010 in the Democrat Mark Schauer-Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg contest.

In the 11th District, Stevens had $3 million in money available — more than 14 times as much as Esshaki’s roughly $213,000 through mid-July. Stevens’ 2018 victory over Bloomfield Township Republican businesswoman Lena Epstein resulted in $19 million in spending by the candidates and outside groups.

Despite the large money lead, Democrats don’t consider victory to be a shoo-in in the 8th District, where President Donald Trump won in 2016 and is the more conservative-leaning of the two Detroit area districts. Slotkin won by 4 percentage points in 2018.

"I think it will be a race we’ll have to work very hard in," said Judy Daubenmier, chairwoman for the Livingston County Democratic Party. "This is a district that voted for Donald Trump in 2016, so nothing can be taken for granted." 

The campaigns will help decide partisan control of the House, but will also test whether the once-GOP-leaning districts have fundamentally shifted in the Democrats' favor, said John Sellek, who owns the Lansing public relations firm Harbor Strategic.

"In 2018, did we witness the permanent shift of the suburbs to the Democratic Party in this larger realignment we’re seeing?" Sellek said. "Or are the suburbs going to remain a battleground that goes back and forth every cycle?” 

The question will weigh heavily as the Republican National Committee decides which districts will get financial support among a slew of candidates nationwide competing for financing, said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, the University of Virginia Center for Politics’ newsletter on American campaigns and elections.

"If Republicans would have a shot of winning the House majority back, I would think that they would have to win at least one of these two districts," Kondik said. "These are the kinds of places where they need to stage some sort of comeback."

Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Michigan (Holly).

Junge-Slotkin match-up

The 53-year-old Junge emerged from a field of four Republican candidates Tuesday with 35% of the vote after moving back last year to Michigan.

He spent 2014-18 in Washington, D.C., where he worked for the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee before gaining a senior adviser position at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services when Trump took office. Junge also spent time working in the family business, All Star Maintenance, which maintains military housing. 

Immediately after his win was solidified Wednesday, Junge began to focus on Slotkin, a 44-year-old former CIA agent who he said campaigned in 2018 on a moderate platform but has rarely left the folds of the House’s Democratic majority. 

Paul Junge

"Elissa Slotkin has benefited tremendously from out-of-state funds, and that creates a challenge,” Junge said Wednesday. "But there’s no amount of fundraising that can excuse for the voters of the 8th District a representative who votes 96% of the time with Speaker Nancy Pelosi.”

Junge is set on running "against other people" instead of Slotkin, said Gordon Trowbridge, a spokesman for Slotkin's re-election campaign. Slotkin has garnered bipartisan support for 22 introduced bills and nine provisions passed into law, he said.

"Unlike our opponent, her campaign is relying not on personal wealth but on unprecedented grassroots small-donor support, outraising our opponent in Michigan and in the 8th District, with 88% of our donations at $100 or less," said Trowbridge. He said Slotkin has refused donations from special interest corporate political action committees. 

Voters deserve to hear from each of the candidates and decide for themselves between the Republican and Democratic nominees, Slotkin said in a statement following the primary results. She encouraged "decency and respect" in the race.

"Voters deserve to hear directly from those who seek to represent them, and head-to-head debates, broadcast as widely as possible for the COVID era, are the best way to give voters an opportunity to see the clear differences between us," she said. 

Slotkin’s campaign painted a dire financial situation despite the congresswoman’s substantial cash advantage, arguing in a Wednesday email that Junge has "super significant capacity" between himself and his family to spend millions of dollars in campaigning. "So we have to prepare for an onslaught of spending from his bank account and from his national Republican backers," according to Team Slotkin.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee criticized Junge Wednesday, saying he was the result of poor recruitment and "a recent Michigan resident with a second-rate resume." 

“Rep. Elissa Slotkin knows that country — and her constituents — come before political party, no matter what," DCCC Chairwoman Cheri Bustos said. "She’s taken that belief to heart, delivering for her district on important issues, like bringing the supply chain back to America and lowering the cost of prescription drugs." 

Esshaki-Stevens race

Esshaki, 36, acknowledged that a tough race is ahead, but said his messaging and ideas will win over the well-financed Stevens, 37. 

Eric Esshaki, Republican candidate for the U.S. House

“I think I won because people responded to my message that politics is broken. I think they want government to tackle real problems,” he said. “I think they like that I was a nurse. I think that I stand up for what’s right.”

Stevens isn’t a moderate, Esshaki said, adding that his key to victory would be in proving her left-leaning loyalties to voters through keen messaging on issues such as health care and the economy.

“When you contrast that to Haley Stevens and solutions that she puts forward in terms of health care in going towards a government-run system, people will see that contrast,” Esshaki said. “I think that she ran as a moderate and has been anything but. She’s voting with Nancy Pelosi. She’s called for Medicare for All on more than one occasion. Every policy she supports is (for) higher taxes. None of that is good for business, none of that is considered moderate.”

Stevens said this past week that her campaign would rest on the imperatives to combat the coronavirus pandemic, provide safe school options, give access to affordable health care and rebuild the economy. 

"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," Stevens said in a statement. 

U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens, who represents Michigan’s 11th District, speaks during a town hall discussion to address mental health and related issues, including suicide prevention and substance use disorder, at Sarah Banks middle school, in Wixom, February 18, 2020.

The national parties were quick to weigh in. The National Republican Congressional Coalition called Stevens an "unhinged, radical liberal whose explosive rants at her constituents and complete adherence to Nancy Pelosi’s socialist agenda make her completely unfit to represent Michigan families in Congress."

The reference is to an October 2019 townhall on curbing gun violence where Stevens and other participants were often drowned out and interrupted by protesters at a Commerce Township gun club, where some repeatedly shouted "NRA" in reference to the National Rifle Association. Stevens at one point responded by shouting, “This is why the NRA has got to go," according to a snippet of video from WJBK-TV (Channel 2) that the Michigan Republican Party posted online.  

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee criticized Esshaki’s fundraising total and argued Republicans wouldn’t invest in Esshaki "in the expensive Detroit media market."

“There is no tougher fighter for Michigan manufacturing and business than Rep. Haley Stevens," Bustos said about the former chief of staff to President Barack Obama’s auto industry task force. "Her fierce advocacy for her district — from holding China accountable for their unfair trade practices to safeguarding the auto industry — are unparalleled." 

Stevens won in 2018 by seven percentage points.

The path ahead

The high percentage of residents with college degrees in the two Detroit area districts — ranging between 40% and 50% — reflects a landscape where Republican support has eroded, Kondik said. These kinds of voters have turned against Trump, with whom Junge and Esshaki will be tied, he said.

"I think the hopes for these candidates is that Trump wins re-election and performs in Michigan pretty similarly or a little better" than in 2016, Kondik said. Trump barely won Michigan by 10,704 votes in 2016.

In addition, both districts are in expensive media markets, making financing paramount to ad placement and name recognition in the district, said Sellek, a Republican consultant. 

"It’s hard for a challenger to break through the noise without a lot of funding," he said. 

While acknowledging the fundraising gap, Esshaki said there is a lot of interest in winning the district back to the GOP column, “and that we will have the support that we need to get our message out and show that we’re serious about actually tackling these problems that we’re facing from a policy position.”

“The reality of it is the incumbent in any race is going to have the advantage when it comes to the financial side of the race, but I don’t think that speaks to all the other variables that are important like messaging, like enthusiasm on the ground,” he said. “And these are things we relied on in the primary. We were outspent and nevertheless came through with a win.”

Esshaki and Junge are “pretty strong candidates,” but fundraising “is the mountain they’ve got to climb," said Stu Sandler, a longtime GOP consultant and partner in Grand River Strategies based in Lansing.

“They’ve got to catch up in resources pretty quickly,” Sandler said. “I think there are people nationally and in Michigan who see both Slotkin and Stevens as vulnerable. They’re both in districts that Trump won in 2016, and Paul Junge and Eric Esshaki are strong candidates with good backgrounds. I think they’ll both be very competitive.”

Both men, he said, “have to tell their story. Eric Esshaki is a former registered nurse and, in terms of the health care crisis, I think he brings an important perspective that could be helpful in Congress. And Paul Junge has a business background and has helped create over 500 jobs.”

eleblanc@detroitnews.com