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Republicans get a closer look at 4 candidates vying to take on Slotkin

Elissa Slotkin
Cheyna Roth

“This is gonna be a really tough seat to win back,” Orion Township Supervisor Chris Barnett told four of the Republicans vying to take on Democratic Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin in 2020. This is going to be an expensive race, Barnett said, before asking the panel of four relatively unknown candidates about electability. “How can you win?”

It was a fair question. When Slotkin, then a political newcomer herself, beat Republican incumbent Mike Bishop in 2018, the race set a new record for most expensive US House election in Michigan. It was also the first time the 8th district voters sent a Democrat to Congress in nearly 20 years. The district, which includes Ingham, Livingston, and northern Oakland counties, went for Trump in 2016, and is widely expected to be one of the most competitive congressional seats in 2020.

Slotkin already has a major financial head start, with more than $2 million cash on hand heading into the campaign. Meanwhile, Republicans don’t even settle on a candidate to run against her until the primary in August.

So Thursday night’s Greater Oakland GOP event offered an opportunity for four relatively unknown candidates to introduce themselves, even to members of their own party. Nikki Snyder, who sits on the state Board of Education; Kristina Lyke, a Lansing-area lawyer; Paul Junge, a former prosecutor and TV news anchor; and Alan Hoover, a Marine veteran, showed varying abilities to answer policy questions during a 2-hour, candidate roundtable taped by Orion Neighborhood Television. A fifth candidate, Mike Detmer, pulled out of the event.

Their platforms were largely similar: glowing support for President Donald Trump, generalized promises to cut environmental, educational, and economic regulations, and strong criticism of Slotkin’s support for impeachment and the War Powers Resolution.

Asked how she’d bring jobs back to the US, Snyder said she’d, “definitely support Trump’s policies...USMCA was something he championed. Part of that was making sure that more parts of automobiles are made in Michigan again, like we once did. So, definitely champion his economy. Because Trump’s economy is all about opportunity. More people are willing to invest under his leadership. Construction is booming. People are turning work away. So unemployment is at its lowest. So definitely continue to support the policy that Trump has.”  

Junge, who appeared the most comfortable in front of the small audience and TV cameras, repeatedly pivoted back to attacking Slotkin.

“She made promises that she would approach things in a bipartisan fashion. That’s been exposed as a fraud. And that’s what I’m hearing from voters all across the 8th district, is anger and disgust and a strong desire for change in representation.”

Hoover’s pitch centers almost entirely on his personal story, which he shared in detail on Thursday. He grew up in poverty, he told the audience, raised by a single mom in 16 cities around Michigan.

“I also grew up in shelters, as well as being a ward of the state in foster care for five years…I know what it’s like to grow up without electricity as a child, because I’ve been there.”

Hoover says he joined the Marines straight out of high school, served 20 years and was deployed 5 times.

Lyke, meanwhile, stressed her experience in criminal and family law, but frequently struggled to offer concise answers. Asked for her definition of American exceptionalism, she gave a meandering answer that involved staying in Italy and France for a few weeks and being disappointed by her apartment.

“We do not realize what we have in our country. We didn’t have like, in Italy and over in France, it was amazing that the apartment that I had was actually called a luxury apartment because it had a dishwasher. Wow. We don’t realize, when I came back – and I remember singing the Star Spangled Banner when I got sick over in Italy, because I drank too much cappuccino. The point I’m trying to make is, America is just, we have so much to offer. We have great lands. We have the lakes. We have our natural resources. And look at what we’ve come about. Look what we do. We come to people’s rescues.”    

The president of the Greater Oakland GOP, Mari-Ann Henry, felt underwhelmed by the candidates’ performance.

“I didn’t see that fire, that passion, in any of them,” Henry said.

Each candidate has diffrerent strengths, she said, but she’s concerned whether any of them, at least at this point in the race, has the chops to take on Slotkin.

Lyke’s campaign manager, Danny Gustafson, said the night “started off slow” but improved over the course of the debate. His candidate still needed to “shake the rust off,” he said, but noted it was her first time running for federal office. Asked to assess the other candidates, he ran down a quick hit of strengths: Snyder is the only one to actually hold statewide office. Junge is quick with the polished answer. Hoover has a compelling personal story. And Lyke, he says, “has spent her whole life working for people,” and is running now because she “wants to keep working for them.”

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health and the COVID-19 pandemic.
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