The Trump Loyalist Who’s Challenging Peter Meijer in Michigan

GRAND RAPIDS, Michigan—“Father, I just pray that you rain down fire on Peter Meijer’s campaign.”

It was Thursday evening, and Zach Lahring was praying for John Gibbs, the Donald Trump-endorsed challenger to Rep. Peter Meijer in Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District. Just days into his tenure in office in January 2021, Meijer was one of only 10 House Republicans to vote to impeach former President Donald Trump after the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6.

About four dozen people gathered to support Gibbs in Muskegon on Thursday at the Barclay Place Event Center. After Lahring, the county GOP chair, finished his prayer, the attendees all stood for the Pledge of Allegiance before rising from their seats again moments later to give Gibbs a standing ovation.

Gibbs proceeded to walk the audience through the highlights of his biography: earning a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Stanford and studying abroad in Japan, working for Palm and Apple in Silicon Valley, returning to Japan as an evangelical missionary, taking on the libs in the classrooms of Harvard’s Kennedy School while getting his master’s in public administration, and working at a high level in the Trump administration—mostly under Ben Carson at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

It’s an impressive resumé—but it’s not why Gibbs has made it as far as he has as a candidate for Congress. Although his status as a racial minority, software developer’s glasses, and somewhat more restrained manner of speaking set him apart stylistically from the Trumpiest figures currently in Congress, his loyalty to Trump and willingness to indulge the conspiratorial inclinations of the former president’s most fervent supporters are very much the same.

One such supporter in attendance Thursday was Lance Elliott Griffin. A middle-aged black man bedecked with Trump paraphernalia—including a gold-on-white Trump 2024 hat and a T-shirt with the slogan “Don’t blame me, I voted for Trump”—Griffin told The Dispatch that after growing up in Flint, he lived in France for three years while earning two master’s degrees, before eventually moving back to Michigan. In 2000, he was the chairman of the Isabella County Republican Party and endorsed George W. Bush. The Bush administration disappointed him, however, and he said he supported Trump “way before he was president.”

Trump “talked about things that I identified with, and it was always an America First agenda,” Griffin said. “And I appreciate, as a Christian nationalist kind of myself, I like that idea of putting your own country first, as every country should do.”

Gibbs says he does not believe Joe Biden was legitimately elected and considers Trump the greatest president in his lifetime. At Thursday’s town hall, he would not commit in advance to accepting the outcome of Tuesday’s primary, promising that “we’re gonna go after it and pursue it” if any “shenanigans” occur.

Gibbs has a clear track record of wild and conspiratorial comments. In a September 2020 confirmation hearing for Gibbs’ nomination to head the Office of Personnel Management, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney said some of Gibbs’ past remarks were “disparaging of Islam and at the same [time] have fostered or promoted some relatively extreme, if not bizarre or nonsensical, conspiracy theories, including the idea that leaders of the Democratic Party have participated in Satanic rituals of some kind.” 

Gibbs’ nomination, just months before the 2020 election, never received a vote in the Senate.

Although plenty of Republicans in the district harbor a grudge against Meijer for his impeachment vote, Gibbs faces several major obstacles in his bid to unseat the freshman incumbent.

Meijer’s most obvious advantage is name recognition. The Meijer chain of grocery stores founded by his grandfather and great-grandfather 88 years ago has grown into a multibillion dollar business with supercenter stores across the Midwest. That wealth has enabled the family to grow prominent in philanthropy in what has historically been one of the most philanthropic regions in the country.

Grand Rapids business leader and former political operative Michael Lomonaco told The Dispatch that “intense collaboration” around what’s best for the region has been a hallmark of its culture, especially among business leaders. Tim Dye, a former TV journalist from the Grand Rapids area, said moderate Republicans see Meijer as “a West Michigan-connected person.” For his part, Meijer told The Dispatch last week that West Michigan is “a very community-centric place.”

In contrast, though Gibbs grew up in Lansing, he has spent his adult life outside the state and only recently moved to the area.

“Nobody in West Michigan knows who John Gibbs is,” Lomonaco said.

“No one is going out of their way to help” Gibbs, Dye said. And influential GOP power brokers in the state, including the DeVos family, clearly prefer Meijer.

The DeVoses, who still loom large over the state GOP, are well known as the most openly political of West Michigan’s three most prominent billionaire philanthropic families (the other two being the Van Andels and the Meijers). Betsy DeVos served as Trump’s education secretary, and her husband Dick ran for governor in 2006. While the DeVoses have not publicly endorsed Meijer, they have donated to his campaign, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

In total, the Meijer campaign has raised nearly $2.8 million in campaign contributions while the Gibbs campaign has raised less than $500,000. And Meijer is also being supported by independent groups such as Americans for Prosperity and Principled Leadership for Michigan, which have sent a barrage of mailers to voters in the district. 

Country First, a political action committee founded by Rep. Adam Kinzinger, another one of the 10 Republican votes for Trump’s second impeachment, has even sent out mailers encouraging Democrats to cross party lines and vote in the Republican primary in support of Meijer—a counterattack against the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has come under fire in the last week for intervening on Gibbs’ behalf, seeing him as a more beatable general election candidate. The DCCC is the only organization airing pro-Gibbs ads on the local CBS affiliate TV station, according to Federal Communications Commission files. The ads are nominally critical of Gibbs, but highlighting his experience in the Trump administration and Gibbs’ enthusiasm for the former president is sure to appeal to Trump supporters.(Meijer and several independent groups have aired pro-Meijer ads.)

However cynical it may be, the political calculus behind the DCCC meddling makes a certain amount of sense strategically. According to FiveThirtyEight, redistricting changed the partisan lean of Meijer’s district from R+9 to D+3. Hillary Scholten, the Democrat who lost to Meijer in 2020, is running again this cycle. Multiple sources, including former and current GOP operatives, said Scholten might become the favorite for November’s general election if Gibbs were to win the nomination.

Hillary Scholten’s campaign did not grant The Dispatch’s request for an interview, and the Michigan Democratic Party did not respond to our requests for comment.

“Peter’s the Democrats’ worst nightmare,” a consultant with the Meijer campaign told The Dispatch. “They do not want to face him and they are spending a half-million dollars to try to avoid that.”

“These are dollars that Nancy Pelosi raised, dollars that Pramila Jayapal raised, dollars that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez raised,” Meijer emphasized. “I’m confident that voters in West Michigan won’t be fooled by this meddling.” (Although Pelosi has defended the DCCC’s decision, Jayapal and Ocasio-Cortez have criticized the move.)

The fact that the meddling is happening at all indicates that the race is closer than the Meijer camp would prefer. “The DCCC generally does not spend a half-million dollars in a race if they’re confident in the outcome,” the Meijer campaign consultant said.

A Gibbs win would represent a major shift in West Michigan politics. Even as congressional district boundaries have shifted, the region has been defined for decades by a moderate conservatism informed by faith and infused with a spirit of collaboration. The city was represented by Gerald Ford from 1948 to 1973, when he became Richard Nixon’s vice president. Later, from 1985 to 2011, the Grand Rapids seat was held by a pair of professors from Calvin College (now Calvin University), first Paul Henry and then Vern Ehlers. Ehlers was succeeded by Justin Amash, whose strict ideological libertarianism made him less “relevant and effective” than his predecessors, according to John Helmholdt, a Grand Rapids native who formerly worked in Michigan Republican politics. Still, Amash’s brand of politics was distinct from that of the national GOP, and he was the only non-Democrat in the House to vote for Trump’s first impeachment.

Meijer—one of the most moderate Republicans in Congress according to VoteView and FiveThirtyEight—fits squarely into this West Michigan tradition. His primary campaign has focused on his legislative record and Republican bona fides. But Gibbs insists that won’t be enough.

“Peter Meijer cannot win in November. It’s impossible,” Gibbs told The Dispatch Thursday. “He’s lost so much Republican support. People just hate him. It’s unbelievable.”

Whether Meijer has lost enough support to deny him a second term in Congress remains to be seen. Polling of the race has been scant but has tended to show Meijer down.

“Our data is telling us it’s going to be tight,” the Meijer campaign consultant said. “A lot of the House impeachers … start as the underdogs in these primaries, just because of where the base voter is.” Redistricting, being a freshman member, and running head-to-head against Gibbs rather than in a multicandidate field have all added complexity to Meijer’s race, he said.

Regardless of the outcome, Tuesday’s election will teach us a lot.

“He’s not leading with policy convictions,” Meijer said of Gibbs. “It is solely a very narrow question of who he’s endorsed by and what votes I’ve taken against that endorser.”

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