Editor’s Note: This interview is part of our Running Women project following 15 compelling women candidates in 2018.
Republican Lena Epstein is running in a crowded open Michigan congressional race as a “conservative outsider” and successful businesswoman who would be a strong ally to President Donald Trump in Washington.
The former co-chair of the Trump campaign in Michigan, Epstein, who is 36 and Jewish, is competing against three Republican rivals who also want to represent Michigan’s 11th District in the U.S. House of Representatives. (Because the seat is considered a toss-up, the Democratic primary is just as competitive.)
Epstein, who is a new mother and was pregnant when she declared her candidacy, is competing aggressively. Her war chest is by far the largest in a GOP field. As of Dec. 31, she had amassed $1.34 million, including $930,100 in personal loans to her campaign. Her closest two Republican competitors have each raised around $150,000. Two Democrats have raised more than $500,000.
Epstein says she’s “prepared to put more” of her own money into an Aug. 7 primary that will be “very, very expensive.” She will get an assist from VIEW PAC, a political action committee founded by Republican women for Republican women that has endorsed her.
We spoke with Epstein in January about running as a “job creator,” her promise to shrink government if elected, and about why the GOP needs more women leaders. Excerpts from our conversation, below, have been edited for length and clarity.
Why are you running for Congress? What are the driving issues for you?
As a business person, a job creator and somebody that has spent the last 15 years running a family business — called Vesco Oil Corporation started by grandfather 70 years ago — I am running to grow the economy, to protect American jobs and to grow our security nationally. I am also going to be fighting to expand the America-Israel relationship and be supportive of President Trump’s America First policy agenda.
You call yourself a conservative outsider. What does that mean to you?
I’ve never run for public office before. I’ve been spending the last 15 years creating jobs. Under my leadership, the company has doubled in size. Today we employ over 200 people and have revenue exceeding $175 million.
It is my firm belief that the federal government is distended, bloated, dysfunctional and not serving the needs of the people. So, I will work to repeal Obamacare. I will work to abolish Common Core and provide school choice for our children to give the next generation the opportunity for excellence and growth that every American child needs and deserves.
I’m a Constitutional Conservative. So, I look to Article I of the Constitution, and, if the powers are not granted to the Congress in Article I, then those powers are deferred to the states. I think that the federal government is overreaching.
Tell me a little bit more about your company.
We’re now into our 72nd year, and we’re three generations family-owned. I got involved in politics because of my love for the business. The Recession hit in 2008, and a third of Vesco’s customers closed their doors. It was at that point that I started looking at Washington, D.C., and I realized that 95 percent of elected officials had never created a job. That’s really what got me involved. It was out of a love for my business, a love for my family, a love for the community, and the concern that we are electing career politicians who run over and over and over again and write legislation or support bills that they know nothing about.
Our business distributes industrial and automotive lubricants to the automotive and manufacturing industries across the Midwest. Our [main] office is in Southeast Michigan. Our main warehouse is in downtown Detroit, and we distribute over 4,000 products and services to car dealerships, quick lubes, manufacturing facilities, et cetera.
I grew up in a male-dominated industry. I think that that’s one of the aspects of my career experience that will prepare me for Congress.
Right now, women are really underrepresented in the Republican party and, particularly, in Congress. So, I think it’s very important that if Congress is truly intended to represent the people, there need to be professional, wise mothers in Congress to represent the people as intended.
How do you want to impact the GOP as a female leader?
I think it’s important to communicate to other female members of the GOP to inspire individuals to get involved. We need to identify women to serve. Our Founding Fathers designed the Constitution so that we would have a citizen legislature. I encourage Republican women who are interested in serving this country as public servants to explore a run for public office. We need to support each other.
That’s why the work of VIEW PAC is so incredibly important. They do assist and promote and fund female Republican candidates that have a strong chance of winning and that will advance the conservative agenda in this country.
How important has VIEW PAC been to your campaign? Do you feel like you’re getting the support you need?
I do. It’s been an excellent endorsement. I think it’s so important that this organization thrives. I can’t say enough good things about Julie Conway’s leadership, and it’s very inspiring to me.
I do believe that I am the strongest candidate in the 11th Congressional District race. I want to be measured by my ability to lead, by my ability represent the constituents of the 11th District. I don’t want this to be a game of identity politics, but I do think it is important that women serve and represent because we make up 50 percent of the voting bloc. It’s important that we serve and represent the people.
Are you getting the support you need from the GOP?
I have been met with tremendous support from activists, grassroots leaders, Republican donors, business leaders. I think the fact that I am a fresh face in a crowded field of career politicians makes my candidacy very unique. We have the resources necessary to compete, and my opponents will struggle to amass the resources necessary to compete in a very, very expensive primary.
I think what’s really important to convey, too, is that I’m a mom. I spent my entire pregnancy preparing to run and then running for federal office. I can tell you that it can be done with the right amount of love and support surrounding me. I had a tremendous experience, a tremendous pregnancy, and I have a thriving beautiful 3-month-old daughter named Emma.
I’m extremely motivated not just to run, but to win and to serve the public, so that I can do my part to ensure that Emma has the brightest future available in arguably the greatest country in the entire world.
What is your strategy for the Republican primary race? How are you differentiating yourself?
I am the business outsider in this race. I was the statewide co-chair of President Trump’s campaign, one of his earliest and most vocal supporters in the state of Michigan. We turned Michigan red for the first time since 1988.
I’ve been very blessed with the support of the grassroots, while also having the respect and support of the business community. The fact that I am a 36-year-old wife and new mother makes my candidacy very unique.
I’m very optimistic. I do believe that with a lot of hard work and commitment that we will be the nominee in August. I am prepared to compete and go up against any Democrat that they put up.
As co-chair of the Trump campaign, what did you learn that you’re using in your own campaign?
Citizens of the 11th District and citizens across this great state have felt underrepresented by the federal government for far too long. Donald Trump spoke to the hearts and minds of so many wonderful Americans across the country who have truly been forgotten and left behind. I also think that President Trump did a wonderful job explaining how and why we need to put our country first.
I learned that the American people are looking for job creators or political outsiders to go to D.C. to shake things up, to ultimately drain the swamp that is a field of career politicians running over and over again, relying on their reelection for their livelihood.
I learned that the American people want and need to feel heard. And future Congresswoman Epstein is going to do everything that she can to listen to the needs of constituents and, most importantly, support and introduce legislation that is going to put our country first.
What I loved about Donald Trump was his authenticity, his candor and his directness with the people, and that is exactly the type of candidate that I am. I’m direct, I’m up front and I am aggressively pursuing support across Southeast Michigan, and really across the country, for this race.
What does it take to win in Michigan? How do you run a successful campaign?
I’m an extremely hard worker. This race cannot be taken for granted, and the amount of work involved is hours, days, weeks and months. It is a grueling schedule, particularly with a newborn. But I am finding the balance, and I’m finding that the hard work is paying off, and citizens of the 11th are very excited about our campaign.
As you mentioned, it’s a very competitive race on both the Republican side and on the Democrat side. It’s going to be a long haul to the general election.
Yeah, it’s gonna be a long haul, but I love the campaign trail. For me, listening to what’s important to people and meeting with people across our beautiful region is exciting. I can’t imagine anything that I would rather be doing. It’s really been very, very rewarding.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated how much money Lena Epstein’s closest GOP competitors have raised. Her top two rivals have each raised around $150,000, not more than $1 million.