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Michigan’s Race to ‘Normal’
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Michigan’s Race to ‘Normal’

The contest to represent Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District will test whether local forces can buck national trends.

John Gibbs, center, talks to supporters. (Photo by Sarah Rice for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee will find out in three weeks if its gambit to boost election-denying Republicans in primaries this year will pay off, and one revealing case will be Michigan’s 3rd District.

In July, the DCCC dropped $435,000 in advertisements subtly boosting John Gibbs, the Trump-endorsed challenger to incumbent freshman Rep. Peter Meijer—who voted to impeach former President Donald Trump after the events of January 6. 

Gibbs defeated Meijer by 3.6 points, which led political analysts at the Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball to change the district’s rating from tossup to lean Democratic.

Gibbs—who says the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump and questions whether November’s election will be fair—has for months framed the race as “not Democrat versus Republican so much as crazy versus normal.” His Democratic opponent, Hillary Scholten, is hoping she can be the one to come across as normal—and she’s disavowed the DCCC helping candidates Democrats say are a threat to the country.

“Our campaign had nothing to do with the ad by the DCCC,” Scholten campaign manager Carissa Best said when asked about the tactic. “I would encourage you to direct any questions about it to them.”

In her television ads, Scholten—who in 2020 lost to Meijer by 6 points—presents herself as a common-sense suburban mom. She touts her Christian faith, talks about her experience as a Department of Justice lawyer (“When someone broke the law, that meant they went to jail or were deported,”) and confronts her own party on inflation.

“Democrats: Stop spending,” she asks in two separate ads.

The Grand Rapids area has a history of electing members who work across the aisle, Michael Lomonaco, a Grand Rapids business leader and former political operative, told The Dispatch.

“What we’re going to see on Election Day is, do voters in the district believe that she will be that person?” he said of Scholten.

Notably, none of Scholten’s advertisements thus far have mentioned abortion, despite a statewide ballot initiative on the issue. And while she does not shy away from her pro-choice views, her public communication is more nuanced than the abortion-on-demand position of some other Democrats.

“When women feel that abortion is the only option, that’s no choice at all!” Scholten tweeted on Monday. “When I’m in Congress, I’ll fight for choice.”

“I think this district is much more conservative on that issue, and I think she knows that,” Lomonaco said. (Gibbs, on the other hand, has said in cases of rape to “kill the rapist, not the baby,” though he has indicated support for abortion exceptions to save the life of the mother.)

Scholten’s campaign has spent more than twice as much as Gibbs’ campaign, and she has more than eight times as much cash on hand, according to Federal Election Commission filings. That’s translated to more TV exposure: According to Federal Communications Commission filings, Scholten’s campaign has purchased 672 spots at the CBS affiliate in Kalamazoo, while the Gibbs campaign has bought 229 spots (not counting outside ads for or against either candidate).

But winning won’t be a walk in the park for Scholten. Grand Rapids hasn’t sent a Democrat to Congress since Watergate, and although redistricting now tilts the district more toward the left, national political winds are blowing in Republicans’ direction. 

A consultant who formerly worked for the Meijer campaign said that Gibbs’ best chance is “just to ride a red wave—but we’re not sure how big that wave is going to get.” 

“He’s preaching to the faithful, he’s not trying to convert the masses,” the consultant said.

While Gibbs has fewer resources than Scholten, he is doing his own work to appear “normal,” including letting his mom boast about him in one TV ad.

After meeting with Gibbs (and his mom), local business leader Johnny Brann Jr. decided to support him after backing Meijer in the primary.

Brann described Gibbs as likable, intelligent, and accomplished. “From what I’ve been able to see with John, he would do a really nice job of representing West Michigan with West Michigan values,” Brann said.

Not everyone agrees. The political action committee of the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce declined to endorse either candidate. (It’s not unprecedented: The PAC also did not endorse in the 2018 contest between then-Rep. Justin Amash and his Democratic challenger.)

Another non-endorser? Meijer himself, who has stayed out of the fray since appearing at a Kent County GOP unity breakfast the day after the primary.

“The silence alone speaks volumes, from my perspective,” John Helmholdt, a Grand Rapids native who formerly worked in Michigan Republican politics, said of Meijer.

Gibbs has a history of controversial remarks and has given oxygen to conspiracy theories, including one about Democratic political staffers participating in Satanic rituals. Recently, he has had to downplay comments he made in college about how “the United States has suffered as a result of women’s suffrage.”

When the Associated Press asked Gibbs about a 2016 tweet referring to Democrats as the party of “Islam, gender-bending, anti-police, ‘u racist!’” he struck a Trumpian tone.

“I don’t apologize. I never have and will not,” he said.

Such comments may not matter much to Trump’s base, but they make it more difficult to persuade moderates and swing voters.

“I think there are a lot of Republicans who voted for Meijer who are not willing to vote for Gibbs,” Helmholdt said. “They’ll just skip that box, and/or you may see crossover.”

Democrats, meanwhile, remain optimistic.

Gibbs doesn’t think Joe Biden got enough votes to win in 2020. “But I would turn that around,” Gary Stark, a former chair of the Kent County Democratic Party, said of Gibbs. “How is it going to be mathematically possible for him to get enough votes in this election to win? I don’t see it.”

Price St. Clair is a former reporter for The Dispatch.