CANTON, Mich. — The affluent suburbs northwest of Detroit will send a millennial woman to Congress in November.
The question is, will the voters of Michigan’s 11th District stick with the Republican Party — as they have for most of the last 135 years — by electing Lena Epstein, 37, or step out of their comfort zone to elect a Democrat, 35-year-old Haley Stevens?
The verdant subdivisions and lake communities of the district have sent a male Republican to Congress for much of its existence since 1883. The only two consecutive terms that Democrats held the seat were during the Great Depression. They won it once again in 1964, and for six weeks in 2012, after a GOP congressman resigned. The current congressman, Republican Dave Trott, is retiring.
Stevens enjoyed an early lead in the polls and is still favored to win by Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight.com as well as the most recent New York Times poll. However, Ed Sarpolus of Target Insyght in Lansing, Mich., released polls done last week for the Michigan Information & Research Service and FOX 2 Detroit that show the outcome is a toss-up. The Cook Political Report calls it a “lean Democratic” race.
Epstein and Stevens have ties to Michigan’s auto industry. Both stress their business backgrounds and promise to bring high-paying manufacturing jobs back to Michigan. Some have characterized the candidates as a choice between support for President Donald Trump and former President Barack Obama because both women worked for their party’s president.
Epstein became an employee of her family’s business when she was a teenager and she still works there. Vesco Oil Corp., a supplier of automotive and industrial lubricants, was founded in 1947 by her grandfather. She was one of the five state campaign co-chairs Trump appointed in late August 2016, who steered Michigan to the surprise 10,000-vote victory that helped seal his Electoral College win.
Stevens worked on Obama’s presidential campaign and later became chief of staff on the auto bailout task force that rescued GM and Chrysler. After the bailout, she worked for the Commerce Department on advanced manufacturing and economic initiatives. Since leaving government, she has worked on an export assistance program for small manufacturing companies and in digital manufacturing and design.
At a recent Democratic fundraiser in Canton — in the southernmost tip of the large district — Stevens supporters at the home of Tania Ganguly were confident that the traditionally Republican district was ripe for change.
“This is the first time in 20 years that more Democrats have voted in the primary than Republicans,” Ganguly said. “We think there is a very good chance that we are going to flip this district from Republican to Democrat.”
It’s not easy to calculate how many Republicans or Democrats are registered in congressional districts in Michigan. The state does not register voters by political party. The Secretary of State website lists only the total number of voters registered in each county, and most districts cross county lines, making calculations by district difficult.
“Candidates usually use voter history data of who has voted in primaries over the years,” explained David Dulio, a political science professor and director of the Center for Civic Engagement at Oakland University, located in the district. In other words, the political make-up of the districts is a data-driven guessing game.
“I think that it’s not necessarily a Republican district in the way you might think of Republicans nowadays,” Plymouth City Commissioner Nick Moroz said. “It’s a district that cares about working hard. It cares about manufacturing. It cares about the legacy industries that are part of Michigan.”
Moroz said a Democrat like Stevens would focus on issues that matter more than tax breaks for corporations. “Things like healthcare, infrastructure, fully funding our education. Those are the issues that, regardless of party, people care about,” he said.
The 11th District is shaped like a giant plumber’s wrench, bending around the city of Pontiac. It is considered one of the the gerrymandered districts in Michigan. In Waterford, an hour north of Ganguly’s home in Canton, the board of the North Oakland Republican Club met at the home of Jim Thienel shortly after Ganguly hosted the Democratic gathering.
“We need to maintain a Republican majority in the House of Representatives,” club president Matt Marko said. “We have to maintain the momentum we have, which is having great results. With the tax cuts and the regulation cuts our economy is responding very well. We don’t want to reverse any of that.”
Steven Perry said he would never vote for a Democrat.
“I’ve never met one that’s pro-life. I’m a very pro-life person. Lena is pro-life. She’s pro-gun. No Democrat is pro-gun. And they are just against everything that I’m for,” he said.
Obama spoke at a campaign rally on Oct. 26 in support of all Michigan Democratic candidates. He mentioned Stevens in the first 10 minutes of his speech. “She was a critical part of my team that helped the American auto industry come roaring back, saving more than 1 million jobs across Michigan and the country,” Obama shouted. “So, we saved the auto industry.”
Trump sent surrogates to support Epstein at multiple rallies, including his daughter-in-law Lara Trump, second lady Karen Pence and Vice President Mike Pence.
The vice president’s Oct. 29 rally got a lot of attention because he asked a controversial rabbi, invited by the rally organizers, to say a prayer. The rabbi is a messianic Jew who believes Jesus is the son of God.
Epstein gave a 10-minute speech, warming up the crowd for Mike Pence, who called Epstein a “born and bred Michigander and a Michigan job creator. … We love her.”
“The race will come down to turnout,” Dulio said. “It will depend on who shows up.”