There aren’t a lot of hard-and-fast rules in politics left now that a former pro-wrestling instigator and reality TV star is president.
But staying true to yourself still remains a good rule of thumb for anyone who wants to appear on a ballot. (Indeed, that worked out pretty well last year for Donald Trump, who made no attempt to stop tossing Twitter bombs in favor of stilted political speeches).
So if you’re a longtime business executive who’s donated to moderate candidates and sent your kids to private schools, you might not want to suddenly reinvent yourself as a Bernie Sanders-style Democrat prepping for the “revolution,” even if the neck beard suits you.
Likewise, if you’re a former chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court who’s built a decades-long reputation for being a thoughtful, judicious conservative, you might want to rethink the idea of running as a Trump-style Republican.
But that’s exactly what Bob Young is doing in his uphill battle for U.S. Senate in 2018.
Since it wasn’t exactly a secret that he was running (he let the cat slip out of the bag earlier this month at a GOP fundraiser in Mt. Pleasant), Young decided to make the announcement this week on Facebook Live, where political consultants think all the youngs hang out. (As the mother of two teenagers, I can confirm that is 100% not true).
“I’m the disruptor that D.C. needs,” Young declared, quite animatedly, outside what he said was his childhood home in Detroit.
“I’m not a politician — I’m a judge,” Young said in a statement. “When I get to Washington, I’m going to lay down the law — no more big government, and no more government getting in the way of businesses and communities solving problems and creating jobs.”
At first blush, you might think that Young was trying to draw a strong contrast to three-term U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing), who Republicans are utterly convinced is beatable.
Young described himself as a “black, conservative Republican” and dismissed Stabenow (who’s just a year older) as a “product of the past.” (That also seems fairly reminiscent of Trump, 71, slamming Hillary Clinton, 69, for not having “the stamina” to be president).
But this is really about the Republican primary. Young was undoubtedly hoping for an uncontested race. Instead, he’ll have to battle with 35-year-old Lena Epstein, who made a name for herself as Trump’s No. 1 defender in Michigan last year. She jumped into the Senate race while Young was still mulling over his candidacy.
While many Michigan Republicans were wary of or even publicly critical of Trump, like Gov. Rick Snyder, Epstein had no such qualms and quickly became the real estate magnate’s state campaign co-chair. That’s something that Trump isn’t likely to forget — and neither will his diehard supporters in the party.
So Epstein has carved out her territory in the Republican primary as the true Trumpian candidate. As a businessperson who’s never run for office before, she’s a true outsider. And, like Young, Epstein is not afraid to play up her identity, stressing in an op-ed last year that she’s a Jewish millennial woman.
That’s going to be a tough combination for Young to beat.
Epstein also seems itching for a fight (and she’s hired GOP consultant John Yob, who specializes in internecine warfare).
Before Young declared, she announced that she “unapologetically” supports Trump’s promised to build a wall with Mexico and punish “sanctuary cities.” And in a move that caused political junkies to break out the popcorn, Epstein bought an online ad in which she challenged Young to “clarify where he stands on these critical issues.”
Epstein didn’t let up when Young made his formal announcement, ripping Stabenow and Young for their combined almost 60 years in elective office. Then Epstein reaffirmed her affinity for all things Trump and asserted that Michigan voters made it clear in 2016 that they wanted “outside leaders with business experience.”
I’m not sure how Young can really compete with Epstein on the Trumpian outsider front. He has a long record of public service. He’s a traditional conservative in the Michigan mold of John Engler and Spence Abraham (who Stabenow beat in 2000 to win the seat).
The problem is that brand of Republicanism just may not resonate with the base anymore. But it’s probably a more believable look for Young, who just isn’t cut out to sell Trump-like rants.
Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.