Lena Epstein hasn’t been afraid to throw some sharp elbows since embarking on her first run for office.
So it’s been interesting to watch the 36-year-old businesswoman, who’s Jewish, navigate her first controversy, allegedly “liking” a former Klan leader David Duke tweet. Epstein has insisted her account was hacked and aggressively fought her critics, particularly Democratic Party Chair Brandon Dillon.
Epstein was now-President Donald Trump’s Michigan campaign co-chair, best known for frequently spinning for him on TV. Now she’s hoping to take on three-term U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) — but first, Epstein will have to slay a competitive — and possibly growing — GOP primary field.
To separate herself from the pack and play to the Trump faithful, Epstein hasn’t shied away from taking the fight to her Republican opponents.
After dominating much of the early coverage, Epstein has found herself overshadowed by Kid Rock, the Macomb County native who’s been hinting about joining the esteemed company of the World’s Most Deliberative Body. The rock/rap star has led some polls, providing an irresistible story for the Washington press corps.
In an interview last month on Kid Rock’s candidacy, Epstein insisted that the general public “is not taking this seriously.” Then she released an choppy, face-to-the-camera YouTube video titled, “Lena Epstein Welcomes Kid Rock 2 the Party,” which has to be one of the most awkward 55 seconds ever to be (willingly) posted online.
Epstein begins by talking about her Senate candidacy as a rock-guitar version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” blares in the background. Then she announces to her celeb competition, “I might have to kick your butt in a primary first,” followed by an awkward, Sarah Palin-style wink and an invitation to “team up” on the campaign trail.
Kid Rock would likely cannibalize the Trump support Epstein needs to win in August 2018, so it makes sense that she wouldn’t go full throttle. She’s saved her best barbs for former Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bob Young, who’s been endorsed by former Gov. John Engler and enjoys some establishment backing.
Even before Young jumped in, Epstein was on the attack, announcing her “unapologetic” support for Trump’s wall with Mexico and his policy to punish “sanctuary cities.” She also bought an online ad challenging Young to “clarify where he stands on these critical issues.”
After Young declared, Epstein lumped him in with Stabenow and slammed their combined almost 60 years in elective office, in contrast to her outsider credentials.
Her campaign launched BobYoung.com, where he’s blasted as “The Insider’s Choice” and she bizarrely told the Detroit News that “the reality of the situation is he was recruited by a couple of party insiders that are essentially trying to gerrymander a primary.” (There’s no clarification about what she meant, but it is, of course, impossible to gerrymander a statewide race).
So after relishing doing battle with her Republican competition, Epstein found herself on the defensive this week after Dillon circulated tweets she allegedly “liked,” including one by Duke praising the “alt-right” (which is just failed rebranding of white supremacy).
That came after Epstein had tweeted against the white power rally in Virginia: “Racially-motivated hatred & violence have no place in our society. I condemn white nationalists & pray for the victims of #Charlottesville.” But she also went on Fox News to defend Trump — who was widely criticized by Republicans for “both-sidesing” Nazis — declaring she supports “a president who has come off strongly against racism and bigotry and violence.”
Epstein said she was hacked and her private investigator backs her up. Now the Michigan State Police are investigating. I’ve been covering politics for awhile and I’ve never heard of a candidate’s social media account getting hacked only to “like” a few tweets, but we’ll have to see what the police uncover.
Regardless, Epstein’s combative, best-defense-is-a-good-offense approach to the mini-scandal is a window into how she’ll handle bigger challenges as a candidate.
She issued a statement reminding people of her Jewish identity, which is understandable — no doubt, she faced some tough questions from those who share her faith. But then Epstein declared she was “disgusted by Chairman Brandon Dillon and the Michigan Democrat Party for exploiting what is so obviously false. I am more committed than ever before- and will work tirelessly between now and November of 2018- to defeat Debbie Stabenow and demonstrate that the slander fueled by the opposition will not deter or intimidate me. The hateful rhetoric must stop now."
Complaining about “slander fueled by the opposition” doesn’t exactly come off as the Trumpian bravado that’s so enthralled the GOP base. It’s hard to imagine Kid Rock issuing such a statement. (He’d probably just do something like flip the bird to his haters and move on).
Most Michigan political observers don’t expect the rock star to really run. But Epstein’s over-the-top response to a minor scandal will probably make many Republicans wish he would.
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.