Jewish businessman loses to Trump-backed pick in Michigan Senate Republican primary


WASHINGTON (JTA) — Sandy Pensler, a Jewish businessman once considered a shoo-in for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in Michigan, lost to a candidate who was provided a significant boost by President Donald Trump.

John James, 37, a businessman and former Air Force pilot, was doing unexpectedly well even before the Trump endorsement, and it seemed like the race would be close. But the presidential nod on the eve of the election sent James over the top, and on Tuesday he defeated Pensler, 55-45 percent, and now faces incumbent Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat.

A James victory in November would bring the number of African-American Republicans in the Senate to two. Tim Scott of South Carolina is the only black GOP senator.

“Congratulations to a future STAR of the Republican Party, future Senator John James,” Trump said late Tuesday on Twitter. “A big and bold victory tonight in the Great State of Michigan — the first of many. November can’t come fast enough!”

James hit Pensler, who is 61 and was the establishment pick, on his support for abortion rights expressed decades ago, although Pensler said he had changed his mind on the subject.

Elissa Slotkin, a former CIA and Defense Department analyst who lives on a farm in the 8th District in southeast Michigan, handily won the Democratic primary and will face incumbent Rep. Mike Bishop, a Republican, in November. Slotkin, who is Jewish, last year told JTA she was running because of Bishop’s support of rollbacks of health care protections introduced under President Barack Obama.

She is among a number of female candidates that Democrats hope will galvanize opposition to Trump and help win back the U.S. House of Representatives in November.

A Michigan Jewish dynasty looks set to continue in the state’s 9th District, where Andy Levin appears to have won the Democratic primary for the seat to be vacated by his father, Sander Levin, who is now the dean of Jewish members of Congress. Levin’s uncle is Carl Levin, who retired in 2015 after 36 years representing Michigan in the U.S. Senate.

Andy Levin, 58, a former senior employment official in the state, is an environmental consultant.

In Michigan’s 11th District, northwest of Detroit, Lena Epstein won the Republican nomination, earning her congratulations from Trump on Twitter. “Congratulations to @LenaEpstein of Michigan on a job well done,” Trump said, addressing the 37-year-old businesswoman who co-chaired his 2016 campaign in the state. “Also, thanks for your great support!”

Epstein faces Democrat Haley Stevens in the race to replace David Trott, the GOP incumbent, who is leaving Congress after two terms. The race is seen as competitive.

Epstein’s Jewishness became a factor in the race when the Franklin Hills Country Club canceled a fundraiser for her just days before it as to take place in June. A member had complained on social media, saying Epstein’s candidacy, closely identified with Trump, should be offensive to members of a club founded in 1927 because other clubs were closed to Jews.

“My deep connection to this place is why I’m so heartbroken to see FHCC’s leaders affiliate themselves with the racist campaign being run by Lena Epstein to tear children from the arms of their parents,” Michael Simon, the son of a former president of the club, said in a Facebook post, the Detroit News reported. Simon apparently was referring to Trump’s policies of separating migrant families, which have drawn widespread rebukes in the organized Jewish community.

Epstein said the cancellation was emblematic of an increasingly toxic environment, likening herself to Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House spokeswoman who was asked to leave a Virginia restaurant the same month. “We need to learn how to have civil discussions and be cordial with those we don’t always agree with,” she said.

In a first, Rashida Tlaib will likely be the first Arab Muslim and the first Muslim woman to serve in Congress. Tlaib, a Palestinian American, defeated five opponents in the Democratic primary for the Detroit area’s 13th District seat being vacated by veteran Rep. John Conyers, who earlier this year was felled by allegations of sexual harassment. No Republican is running, guaranteeing Tlaib a win.

Tlaib, 42, a former state representative, will not be the first Palestinian American in Congress. She was preceded by Justin Amash, a Republican who was unopposed in the 3rd District primary in western Michigan and is likely to be re-elected, and John Sununu, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire. Two Muslim men, both Democrats, are serving in Congress, and non-Muslim Arab-Americans have served in Congress for decades.

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