By Eric Bradner, Omar Jimenez and Donald Judd, CNN
In the battleground Michigan congressional district that might be the most controversial example of Democrats’ meddling in Republican primaries, Democratic-leaning voters are fretting that the strategy could leave them with an election-denying Republican in Congress.
“Politics sucks,” said Erick Davis, 31, who runs a coffee business in Grand Rapids and said he is an independent who typically votes for Democrats.
Michigan’s 3rd District is among the congressional contests that will decide which party controls the House in 2023. It could also be the clearest test of whether national Democrats’ decision to pump money into ads in GOP primaries elevating candidates the party views as unelectable — including John Gibbs, an official in Donald Trump‘s administration who has backed the former President’s lies about widespread fraud in the 2020 election, in this district — will backfire. Democrats, whose narrow House majority is on the line, are already facing historic headwinds and economic factors that could tilt competitive races in the GOP’s favor.
Freshman Rep. Peter Meijer, one of the 10 House Republicans to vote to impeach Trump in the wake of the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol, was seeking a second term in the Grand Rapids-based district.
But Trump, who has spent much of 2022 seeking political retribution against those Republicans, endorsed Gibbs. And the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — expecting that Gibbs would be easier to defeat in what, after last year’s redistricting process, now looks like a battleground district — spent $450,000 on television advertising labeling him “too conservative.”
It might have been the difference: Gibbs defeated Meijer by 3.6 percentage points, less than 4,000 votes. He is now taking on Democrat Hillary Scholten, an attorney, in the general election.
“I understand the strategy,” Davis said. “I think Gibbs is a much weaker candidate, and … Pete Meijer is someone that’s in the community, he’s someone that you see around — like, his family has done like a lot for this community. So, like, the strategy is not something I would have spent money on. But like, tactically, I guess I get it.”
There is no evidence in the district of backlash against Scholten over her national party’s tactics in the race. But some Democratic-leaning voters’ discomfort with the DCCC’s approach underscores why Meijer was broadly seen as poised to win re-election if he survived the GOP primary.
“It bothered me, and I know it bothered others,” said Ruth Kelly, a retired teacher and former Grand Rapids city commissioner. “I just think, you know, Peter Meijer had a lot to offer here. However, I’m still really excited about Hillary.”
“They had to make some choices, some very difficult choices, and I disagree with that,” Janice Lanting, a retired teacher from Grand Rapids, said of national Democrats’ involvement in the race. “But I guess I’m not the one to make decisions, and we just want Hillary to do well in the polls.”
‘Risky and unethical’
Michigan’s 3rd District offered a window into a strategy Democratic political groups employed across the map. Democrats also pumped money into similar ads temporarily boosting what would become winning candidates in gubernatorial primaries in Illinois, Maryland and Pennsylvania, as well as House and Senate primaries in New Hampshire.
The practice helped elevate a series of election deniers in key races in November’s midterm elections. Democratic officials have defended the practice, arguing that it is the most effective way of defeating GOP candidates. But some in the party have warned that helping Republicans who have attempted to erode Americans’ faith in its election system — particularly at the cost of helping the GOP purge figures such as Meijer, who sided with Democrats on Trump’s impeachment — could have serious consequences.
“These destructive primary tactics aim to elevate Republican candidates who Democrats hope they can more easily beat in November,” former Indiana Rep. Tim Roemer wrote in an August letter signed by 35 former Democratic lawmakers criticizing the party’s strategy. “But it is risky and unethical to promote any candidate whose campaign is based on eroding trust in our elections. We must stop this practice, and stop today.”
Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, one of two Republicans on the largely Democratic House panel investigating the insurrection, said the DCCC’s actions in Michigan were “terrible.”
“All of us, again, across party lines, have got to make sure that we are supporting people who believe fundamentally in our democratic system,” she said. “And so I think that it’s inexplicable and wrong for the Democrats to be funding election deniers, particularly against one of the 10 Republicans who so bravely stood up and did the right thing.”
Meijer said on CNN in the days after the election that that Democrats’ tactic in the Michigan 3rd District primary showed that “there is no incentive to try to be a productive member” of Congress while working in Washington, and that “it all will come down to partisan benefit no matter what the consequence.”
“Any party that pretends to have a set of principles, any party that pretends to have a set of values and that comes in and boosts exactly the same type of candidate that they claim is … a threat to democracy, don’t expect to be able to hold on to that sense of self-righteousness and sanctimony,” Meijer said.
‘A much better opponent’
In Michigan, Scholten said she does not see Gibbs as necessarily being easier to defeat than Meijer would have been.
“At the end of the day, Republicans decided who their standard bearer was going to be in this race, and they chose Mr. Gibbs. The voters came out, and they elected Mr. Gibbs, and national Republicans wanted him too,” she said in an interview with CNN. “You know, they didn’t spend a dime to try to support Peter Meijer or to keep Mr. Gibbs out of this race.”
Gibbs, meanwhile, has tapped into a Republican base that remains energized by Trump and the former President’s lies about election fraud. He campaigned in recent days alongside GOP gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon, the former President’s son Donald Trump Jr. and former top Trump White House aide Kellyanne Conway.
“My opponent’s name happens to be Hillary. And no matter what, not another Hillary,” Gibbs said recently at an event held by the Muskegon County GOP, to cheers from the crowd.
“I’m losing the country I grew up in. It’s crazy to see what’s happening, but we got to take it back,” he said.
He called the race a “civilizational fight.”
“This is a big deal, we got to let them know that they’re not going to take us down a path of China, North Korea, Iran, whatever it might be, whatever it might be. We are a free country, we have to remain that way,” Gibbs said.
On the Democratic side, Scholten believes the stakes are similar.
“This election is a referendum on our democratic ideals as a state and as a nation,” she told CNN. “There is nothing easy about this race, let me tell you, this is going to be a fight to the finish.”
Gibbs, who worked in Trump’s administration, has wrongly called the results of the 2020 election “mathematically impossible.” He is also under fire after CNN reported that he wrote as a college student in the early 2000s that the United States has “suffered as a result of women’s suffrage.” He’s insisted the writings were satirical.
While Democratic voters fretted about the consequences of helping elevate Gibbs in the primary, some Republican voters said they saw him as the better candidate for November’s general election.
Vicki Ware, a Republican from Norton Shores, said she believes Gibbs is a stronger candidate than Meijer was. She said Meijer had betrayed the GOP by voting to impeach Trump, and that she wants to see Trump run for president again.
“Everyone knew, obviously, that Peter Meijer was a RINO,” Ware said, using an acronym that refers to the phrase “Republican in name only.” “He got into office promising one thing and then completely flipped and so everybody wanted him out, and John Gibbs is the person that beat him and can win.”
Diana Blais, a retiree from Muskegon, said Meijer “was not a good fit for Michigan” and that Gibbs is, in her view, “going to be a much better opponent” against Scholten.
“I think just because his values line up with what we’re looking to gain back again — that we’ve, you know, been under attack by this administration in a lot of different ways; our freedoms are being taken away, kind of slowly but surely, they have been,” Blais said. “And he’s going to help get us lined back up again.”
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