When Republican Congressman Dave Trott announced last year that he was retiring from the U.S. House it left more than just an open seat representing Michigan’s 11th Congressional District.
It created a campaign many experts view as a microcosm of the 2016 presidential contest — with a millennial twist.
Touting Trump and Business
Both major party contenders in the district are women.
Both are in their 30’s, both have business backgrounds and both have worked for the most recent U.S. president in their respective parties.
And neither one’s ever held public office.
It seemed historic.
That was certainly the way Republican Lena Epstein saw it as she rallied volunteers at a campaign event.
“We have gone viral. We have had impact,” Epstein told them. “We have the Washington Post here today. I was on the phone with the New York Times this morning. We are national. And President Trump! When you see this I want you to know that I look forward to working with you.”
Epstein was the co-chair of Trump’s 2016 campaign in Michigan and is a frequent surrogate for the President in the media.
“God willing there’ll be a million Donald Trumps after him. Because he has helped pave the way for a young woman like me.” – Republican Congressional candidate Lena Epstein
“I was real, real inspired by Donald Trump. And God willing there’ll be a million Donald Trumps after him. Because he has helped pave the way for a young woman like me who has been in business, who is not part of the establishment, to come and serve,” Epstein said.
Yet as this year’s primary season faded Epstein’s message moderated.
She still touts the strong economic growth during the Trump presidency and predicts the tax cuts passed by Congress will erase the skyrocketing federal debt.
But now Epstein also talks about reaching across the political aisle to get things done, while airing campaign advertisements promoting her experience running her family-owned oil company.
Epstein says in one ad that she often is not respected as a woman in business.
“I have an MBA. I’ve created hundreds of jobs. But I still face the same obstacles. I’ve been underestimated, talked down to and dismissed. But it won’t stop me from working hard. Because I’m from Michigan. Working hard is what we do.”
Pitching Autos and Obama
It’s almost an echo of Democrat Haley Steven’s pitch to voters.
Stevens’ ads highlight her background designing programs to help small manufacturers as well as hot-button Michigan issues like the state’s crumbling roadways, plus her work in the Obama Administration.
”Michigan built the auto industry. It’s unbelievable we would have the country’s worst roads,” Stevens says in one ad. “I worked on President Obama’s auto rescue. We build the world’s best cars. We deserve to drive them on the country’s best roads.”
Stevens was the de-facto Chief of Staff for Obama’s auto bailout task force before briefly serving in his administration.
“I worked on President Obama’s auto rescue. We build the world’s best cars. We deserve to drive them on the country’s best roads.” – Democratic Congressional candidate Haley Stevens
And she has remained a staunch supporter of Obama’s signature health care plan, even while running in a district that traditionally leans to the right.
In a Facebook post Stevens lamented the GOP push to gut Obamacare.
“I was watching my television as Dave Trott, our current Congressman from Michigan’s 11th District, was standing behind Donald Trump in the Rose Garden after the House Republicans voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act,” Stevens said. “We need to come together to make improvements to our current health care system. We need to make health care accessible to every man, woman and child.”
Like Lena Epstein, Stevens has campaigned as much on social media as she has in person, posting scenes like a meeting with volunteers that was part strategy session and part political messaging.
In the video Stevens tells the workers, “When you get to someone’s door say ’Are you planning on voting?’ (Then) ask them what they do. And rope them in based on if they’re a retired teacher or an engineer. We got a lot of engineers in this district. I’m a woman in manufacturing. We will stand up to Donald Trump. We will stand up to Betsy DeVos’ reckless agenda. And we will make a government that works for us again,” Stevens said.
Do Two Parties Equal No Change?
But the district’s other congressional candidates argue government will never change as long as it‘s operated mainly by two political parties.
Libertarian Leonard Schwartz says a vote for him sends a message that “government busybodies” cannot spend the public’s money and manage voters’ lives better than the individuals who are actually taxed.
“I think there’s a big common ground that we’re all overlooking right now…actually serving and representing people instead of the interests that have essentially hijacked our system.” – Independent Congressional candidate Cooper Nye
And independent candidate Cooper Nye says the country’s deep political divide could be bridged if special interest money was removed from the equation.
“I think there’s a big common ground that we’re all overlooking right now. And that’s on issues like campaign finance reform,” Nye said. “Things that will get the system back to actually serving and representing people instead of the interests that have essentially hijacked our system. Michigan’s 11th Congressional District, especially this year, is an excellent example of why we need this reform. The flood of outside spending, not only from PAC’s but even (from) the campaigns themselves.”
Is Trump Key to Victory or Defeat?
In recent days that spending has increasingly been on behalf of Democrat Haley Stevens.
A political action committee backed by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, called House Majority PAC, is targeting several races in Michigan including the contest in the 11th.
That spot notes Epstein worked for Trump and alleges that she would be more concerned with the President’s agenda than the needs of constituents in the 11th.
Bashing a sitting Republican president seems an unlikely way to gain traction in such a reliably red region.
Only one Democrat has represented the 11th in the U.S. House since the district was redrawn in 2003, and then for only a few months to fill the rest of a term after Republican Congressman Thad McCotter resigned.
And President Trump’s popularity has been on an upswing in recent weeks.
But Siena College pollster Don Levy, who recently surveyed the district in conjunction with the New York Times, says voters in the 11th seem to have the same lukewarm opinion of the President that Levy says he’s found in a handful of other wealthy suburban areas.
“In fact we asked the question as to whether voters in Michigan 11 would prefer that their next representative support President Trump and his agenda or serve as a check on the President,” Levy said. “And by 13 points voters in this district said they’d rather see their representative be a check on the President and his agenda rather than supporting it.”
Yet Levy notes that any poll is just a snapshot of voters during a moment in time.
This one was taken during the height of the controversy over Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Levy says the only poll about Michigan’s 11th Congressional District that really counts is the one voters take when they cast their ballots on Election Day.
Click on the audio link above to hear the full story and the complete interview with independent candidate Cooper Nye.
And here’s a sample of the campaign advertisements airing across the district: