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The GOP race is now officially on in the 8th Congressional District

Emma Winowiecki
Michigan Radio
Candidates at Michigan's 8th Congressional District Republican forum on Feb. 20, 2020.

The five Republican candidates vying to take on Democratic U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin in November had their first major audition for likely primary voters Thursday night. And they knew the packed crowd at this Livingston County Republican candidate forum was looking for two things above all: fierce support for President Trump, and an aggressive attack on Slotkin. 

“The most important thing is, is how they think they can beat Elissa Slotkin,” said Marcia Dicks, a retiree from Hartland who’s active in the county party. Electability is the most important thing, she said, as she manned one of the well-trafficked Trump merchandise tables ahead of the event. “I’m watching for how strong they are.” 

In a deeply conservative county with a well-organized, highly-involved GOP base, some in the crowd came wearing t-shirts and holding campaign signs for a particular primary candidate. But many voters said they were here because they didn’t know anything about the candidates yet. 

Barbara Tonkavich of Genoa Township brought a handwritten list of questions she’d prepared that morning. “These are my questions: how their Trump support is; the abortion and the [gay] marriage, what are their thoughts in regard to if it’s possibly reversed? I’m praying for that,” she said, leaning on crutches (her sciatica was acting up, she said, but she wasn’t going to let that stop her from coming to the forum.) “Then I combined the [questions about the] border wall with amnesty for illegals, and sanctuary anything -- city, state, what have you. What is their stand on these things?”

Trying to break out of the pack

While early primary races are often about candidates simply introducing themselves to voters, several skipped the bio portion in their opening remarks, opting instead to jump right into their support for Trump and their attacks on Slotkin. 

And as the night went on, each candidates strove to out-conservative the others, from being passionately opposed to abortion rights, vehemently against any gun control legislation, and horrified at the Democratic party. 

When moderators asked which Democratic presidential candidate “scared them the most,” four out of the five mentioned Bernie Sanders. “We will feel the Bern, OK? We will,” said candidate Kristina Lyke, a family law attorney with a private practice in Lansing. “With the healthcare. Our taxes. I don’t know, like, we’re going to have ice cream for everyone? We’re going to have healthcare for everyone? We’re going to have college tuition for everyone? That’s ridiculous. Who’s going to pay for that?”  

More than halfway into the night, Paul Junge, a former prosecutor and Lansing news anchor who talks about working for the Trump administration at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, acknowledged the universal policy positions on display. 

“Ladies and gentlemen, we would all be good Repbulican votes. But we’ll need financial resources to defeat Slotkin and the left wing,” Junge told the crowd, saying he was the only candidate there to have raised any significant amount of money. According to last quarter’s FEC filings, Junge has raised some $273,000. None of the others have raised more than $6,000. “We can all make arguments. We can all knock on doors. But if we don’t have money, we can’t answer the onslaught that’s going to come from Elissa Slotkin and the Democrats.”

Credit Emma Winowiecki / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
A capacity crowd at the 8th Congressional District Republican candidate forum on Feb. 21, 2020.

Mike Detmer, who started his campaign running for the state legislature before pivoting to the congressional seat, fired back. “Donate to the campaign you believe in,” he told the crowd. “Whichever one of us wins this primary, will have all the money they need coming in from the national party and the state party and big donors to defeat Elissa Slotkin.”

Detmer, who worked for years in the mortgage industry, before switching to a job with an auto company, lives in Howell and had several vocal supporters in the audience. He’s campaigned heavily on being a “grassroots” candidate, appealing to conservative groups active on Facebook and showing up to a gun rights rally and a Livingston County meeting about creating a Second Amendment “sanctuary.” 

He pointed out that about half of Junge’s fundraising came from loans and donations Junge himself has given his campaign, with several other contributions coming from family members and donors in California, where Junge lived previously. 

“But to say that ‘I’m the best candidate for the job’ because you raised $275,000, when $150,000 was your own money, and the rest was front-loaded from family and friends and business associates in California? You don’t own a home, you don’t have a business, you don’t work here, you don’t have a stake here -- is to me, absurd.”

What’s resonating with voters 

Howell resident Sharon Lollio says she feels “like we’re fighting for our lives right now,” as conservatives. “I don’t want to go back to wondering how we’re going to pay a bill, or do I have to lay people off or do I have to sell equipment or move into an apartment? I just think as people in Michigan, maybe we feel a little differently about this economy and what this president has done for us.” 

Lollio says it was refreshing to hear those views echoed by the candidates. “I feel like every time we try to express something, we get a big backlash.... I feel like we’re made to feel like there’s something wrong that we agree with the president who’s putting Americans back to work and putting Americans first.” 

She likes that Paul Junge is a “well-rounded candidate. But I like Alan Hoover, too -- I feel like Alan Hoover, with the military, if I’m going to choose somebody who’s going to be a fighter, I like Alan Hoover too.” 

Credit Emma Winowiecki / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
The merch table at the 8th Congressional District Republican candidate forum on Feb. 21, 2020.

Hoover, a Marine veteran who served in Iraq, is a vocal advocate for veterans' issues and stresses his powerful personal story growing up in poverty. He refers to his military service frequently, and talks about “the deep state” he believes liberals are using to undermine the country. 

“We see us being positioned into a position of silence, by those who seek to do great harm to all of us in this room,” Hoover told the audience. “They are using tactics to make us think that we are closet racists. Or that we seek to do harm to the rest of the planet. When ultimately all we want to do is work our jobs. Worship Jesus and God. Go out and shoot some guns on the ranges. Cook dinners with our families.” 

Barbara Tonkavich liked Hoover, as well. “Being myself a strong Christian and not afraid of my beliefs, the fact that Alan Hoover was also not afraid to speak on that,” she said.

Tonkavich says Nikki Snyder, the only candidate to hold statewide office as a member of the Michigan school board, grew on her over the course of the event. Especially when Snyder, who describes herself as “one of the most passionate pro-life women you’re ever going to meet,” described seeing a baby survive an abortion procedure during her time working in a hospital. 

“I walked into a procedure room ... and in that procedure room was a baby that had been aborted, and was dying,” Snyder told the crowd, which was quiet enough at that point to hear a pin drop. “And it changed my life. It changed everything about who I am and how I identify. And then the issues continued when I became a nurse at that same hospital, and I was bullied for not participating in abortion. I refused.”  

“I wasn’t sure in the beginning, but when Nikki became more personal and was sharing what she experienced?” Tonkavich said. “The fact that she stood up [impressed me.]”

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Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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