Jacques: Is ‘pro-Trump’ enough to oust Stabenow?

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Lena Epstein wants to be the youngest woman elected to the U.S. Senate. The millennial businesswoman is also hoping the Republican wave that turned Michigan for Donald Trump last November hasn’t washed out.

As one of the former co-chairs for Trump’s Michigan presidential campaign, Epstein worked on fine-tuning her political chops while campaigning for her candidate.

She was an avid Trump supporter from the beginning. Even after a rocky first six months of the Trump administration and historically low presidential approval ratings, Epstein’s enthusiasm hasn’t waned. And she thinks Trump’s base is ready to push out longtime Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who has held a political office longer than Epstein’s been alive.

“Conservatives in Michigan are looking for a fighter to take it to Debbie Stabenow,” says Epstein, 36.

But is being pro-Trump enough to beat such an entrenched incumbent?

While Epstein is also running on her own record as a job creator managing Vesco Oil Corp., the family business, and as a political newcomer, her main message is that she’ll defend Trump’s priorities in Washington. She is a firm believer in the president’s “America first” agenda, including his policies related to immigration and trade.

Katie Packer Beeson, political consultant and Michigan native who helped run Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, cautions against relying too heavily on this strategy.

“You can’t build your whole campaign on who is the biggest Trump supporter,” she says. “At some point you have to outline to the people of Michigan why you are best suited to their interests.”

Packer Beeson also points to last month’s gubernatorial primary in Virginia. Lawyer and politician Corey Stewart ran as the Trump guy who would take it to the GOP establishment, and although he did much better than anticipated, he still lost. Stewart has now decided to run for Senate against Democrat Sen. Tim Kaine.

“I’m not an insider when it comes to politics, but I am an insider when it comes to business and community activism,” says Epstein, who so far also is the only pregnant candidate — she’s due in October.

Epstein will face robust competition in the GOP primary next August. Detroit businessman John James, an Iraq war vet and traditional conservative, has recently filed to run. And like Epstein, he’s 36, so he’ll have appeal to a younger voting bloc.

Former state Supreme Court chief justice Bob Young has also thrown in his name. Epstein quickly painted him as the “insider’s choice” of the race.

But the biggest wild card is musician Kid Rock. If he gets in, he’d be the ultimate outsider, an enormous celebrity and a favorite of Trump because of his campaign support.

Michigan GOP strategist Dennis Lennox says Kid Rock (aka Robert Ritchie) should be taken seriously and that he probably has the best chance of unseating Stabenow, a generally well-liked senator. And he’d likely clear the field if he got in.

A long, divisive Republican primary could make winning the seat nearly impossible.

“Republicans can’t afford a primary,” Lennox observes. “Sen. Stabenow needs a Republican opponent and she needs one now.”

Though it’s hard to imagine the popular rocker enjoying the daily grind of political life, Epstein recognizes his potential appeal. And she’s (somewhat sarcastically) invited Kid Rock to campaign around Michigan with her to raise awareness of the race.

At this point, Epstein isn’t going anywhere. She’s using her millennial skills to grow a social media audience, and while she says she’s not into identity politics, being the only woman on the GOP side could benefit her, too. Women from 30 states have contributed to her campaign so far.

“I’m unapologetic on the issues,” Epstein says. “It couldn't be a more relevant time.”

Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques