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Peter Meijer Falls to Trump-Endorsed John Gibbs in Michigan
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Peter Meijer Falls to Trump-Endorsed John Gibbs in Michigan

Gibbs was boosted by $435,000 in spending on ads by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

GRAND RAPIDS, Michigan—In January 2023, a new member of Congress will be sworn in to represent Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District. And for the first time since Watergate, it won’t be a moderate conservative.

Incumbent Rep. Peter Meijer, who voted to impeach former President Donald Trump, fell short in the Republican primary on Tuesday, losing to John Gibbs, a former Trump administration official who has promoted conspiracy theories and said he does not believe Joe Biden was legitimately elected.

Gibbs will face off against former Justice Department attorney Hillary Scholten, who lost to Meijer two years ago, when the district was much more Republican-leaning. Joe Biden won the area that makes up the new district by 9 points in 2020. 

“[Scholten] has a strong campaign,” Gary Stark, who served as the chair of the Kent County Democratic Party during the 2020 election, told The Dispatch on Monday. “She has run once before and has learned a lot from it and has a much better political district to run in. I think she’s going to do well.”

In response to Gibbs’ win, Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report changed the district’s rating from toss-up to Democratic-leaning. Multiple current and former GOP operatives believe Scholten is now favored.

National Democrats had been crystal clear about their desire to run against Gibbs rather than Meijer, whose reputation as a moderate was a liability on Tuesday but could have been a strong asset in a general election environment. In the last week of the campaign, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent $435,000 on ads designed to boost Gibbs.

Stark was uncomfortable with the DCCC ad buy and is concerned it could backfire. 

“It is playing with fire if the intent was to promote the most extreme candidates,” he said. “That is not a good long term strategy. Because there’s always a possibility that they’re going to win in the long term, and we don’t want to have contributed to that.”

Stark said he wants Democrats to focus on promoting Democratic candidates instead of trying to influence the outcome of Republican primaries. “I know I’m not alone in that opinion … and I wish they hadn’t done it.”

“There are certainly plenty of folks who wanted to nationalize the outcome of this race in one direction,” Meijer told reporters shortly before midnight. Both the Trump endorsement and the DCCC meddling contributed to that nationalization.

“The very fact that somebody can move into the district and leverage Trump’s endorsement to be competitive, particularly in a community that has prided itself on having a rich local political culture … to me is an indication of nationalizing forces,” Dan Hopkins, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, told The Dispatch before the polls closed on Tuesday.

Meijer is on track to lose all three counties that make up the district—Kent County, where the city of Grand Rapids is located, as well as Ottawa County and Muskegon County. His strongest precincts were in Kent County, particularly in the suburbs of Grand Rapids, where his appeal to Trump-skeptical pro-business Republicans and moderate Democrats found more resonance. (Because Michigan is an open primary state, voters from either party can vote in either primary.)

Local business leader Johnny Brann Jr. supported Meijer but hasn’t ruled out voting for Gibbs in the general election.

“I’d like to meet John Gibbs at that point,” he said when asked about how he might vote in a Scholten-Gibbs matchup in November. “There’s a high likelihood that I would [vote for Gibbs] because I typically politically will lean more conservative. But I like to meet who I vote for … and so I would look for that opportunity to have that meeting, and then continue down the process from there.”

A Gibbs win would not be “a long term or long standing change for our community,” Brann said. Regardless of Tuesday’s results, he is proud of the rich political history of the region. He cited Gerald Ford and Peter Secchia as two among many leaders of the past who instilled good values and culture in the community, even as he was ambiguous about what those values and culture were. “What’s important to us, I think, is keeping those values and that culture that we’ve built here, and if there’s somebody that is locating into our community, or is growing up in our community, it’s our job to continue to instill that and to make sure it’s part of what we do, because it’s certainly worked well.”

Brann said that if Gibbs were to win the general election and become a congressman, “he would have some things to learn.”

In that case, “our job as a community would be to do our best to help him be brought up to speed and educate him,” he said.

In his statement conceding the race, Meijer did not endorse Gibbs, but promised to “continue to do everything possible to move the Republican Party, West Michigan, and our country in a positive direction.”

“I’m proud to have remained true to my principles, even when doing so came at a significant political cost,” Meijer said. “A Constitutional Republic like ours requires leaders who are willing to take on the big challenges, to find common ground when possible, and to put their love of country before partisan advantage.”

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