A Michigan Republican Who Broke With Trump Fights For Survival

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. ― When Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.) visited Blues Gym on July 25, Tim Faasse, who teaches karate to the disadvantaged youth who frequent the gym, pressed him on the causes of the country’s inflation and supply chain problems.

Faasse, a blockchain technology entrepreneur, felt strongly that U.S. supply chain infrastructure had only begun to buckle under the weight of consumer demand when President Joe Biden took office. He even suspected that Biden might be holding up imports deliberately to push through some kind of liberal agenda.

Meijer responded by explaining in granular detail how the COVID-19 pandemic had increased demand for manufactured goods ― thereby exposing, among other problems, the United States’ overreliance on foreign imports; inadequate physical infrastructure at domestic ports; and unnecessarily high labor costs for longshore workers.

“Administration policies are making it harder for us to adapt, but the issues preceded Biden,” Meijer concluded.

It was vintage Meijer: cerebral, business-friendly, and unwilling to discard policy nuance to score partisan points. Those characteristics are what endear Meijer to many moderate voters and colleagues on both sides of the aisle.

They could also cost him his seat in Congress.

Meijer, an Iraq War veteran, former risk analyst, and heir to a supermarket fortune, cast the most fateful vote of his first term in Congress mere days after taking office as the representative of Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District. He was one of just 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach then-President Donald Trump after the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

“The President betrayed his oath of office by seeking to undermine our constitutional process, and he bears responsibility for inciting the violent acts of insurrection last week,” Meijer declared at the time.

Of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump, four have since opted to retire. Another, Rep. David Valadao of California, survived a right-wing primary challenge, albeit not from a candidate who had Trump’s backing. And a sixth, Rep. Tom Rice of South Carolina, lost to a Trump-backed challenger.

Now Meijer, a mainstream conservative with an independent streak, is widely viewed as an underdog in Tuesday’s Republican primary against John Gibbs, a former Trump administration official endorsed by the former president. Two other House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump, Washington Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler and Dan Newhouse, are also facing Trump-backed primary challengers on Tuesday.

John Gibbs stands outside his campaign headquarters in Byron Center, Michigan, on July 25. Gibbs has limited campaign cash in his bid to primary Meijer, but he has the support of Donald Trump.

Brittany Greeson for The Bharat Express News

To veteran observers of Republican Party politics, Meijer’s troubles ― and those of his pro-impeachment colleagues in the House GOP conference ― reflect the degree to which loyalty to Trump has become a litmus test in Republican primaries.

“It underscores how completely and totally Donald Trump dominates Republican primary voters and kind of clouds the lens,” said Jeff Timmer, a former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party who abandoned the GOP when the party nominated Trump. “Gibbs is very likely to win because ― and only because ― of that impeachment vote.”

‘A Good Analogy Here Is The Mafia’

Gibbs, of course, has another important requirement: a professed belief that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. He has described Trump’s defeat as “mathematically impossible” because of Trump’s strong performance in bellwether counties and the increase in the number of votes he received from 2016 to 2020. (Neither of those factors precluded Trump’s defeat.)

The Bharat Express News asked Gibbs why, if Trump won, his team failed to demonstrate enough fraud to successfully challenge the results in court.

Gibbs, sporting a business-casual look that included a massive crucifix necklace on top of his button-down shirt, said that outcome is evidence of just how sophisticated election tampering has become.

“A good analogy here is the mafia,” he said, standing outside his campaign office at a strip mall in the Grand Rapids suburb of Byron Center. “For many years there, they were throwing guys off of roofs, but you couldn’t prosecute them for it, so you had to get them for money laundering and tax evasion.”

Gibbs, a computer scientist who served as a top deputy to former Housing Secretary Ben Carson, suggested that busting election officials for more minor crimes would be an important stopgap until the legal system adapts enough to uncover the hidden webs of election fraud.

“With election integrity, it’s very similar,” he said. “Because of the way it works, it’s very difficult to get prosecutions.”

Gibbs believes it is already legal for state legislatures to nominate alternate slates of electors that are at odds with the results that the state’s election authorities have certified.

He also wants to look at prohibiting electronic voting, and dramatically narrowing the criteria for obtaining an absentee ballot.

But he declined to say whether a victory for Meijer in the primary would be the result of fraud. He insisted that a win for Meijer is such a far-fetched possibility, he is not even countenancing it.

“I’m trying to focus on just winning,” Gibbs said.

The Bharat Express News’s conversations with some conservative voters outside a supermarket in Byron Center suggest that Gibbs’ confidence is warranted.

Bob Vandewege outside the Family Fare supermarket in Byron Center, Michigan, on July 25. He is one of many Republican primary voters who are angry at Meijer.
Bob Vandewege outside the Family Fare supermarket in Byron Center, Michigan, on July 25. He is one of many Republican primary voters who are angry at Meijer.

Brittany Greeson for The Bharat Express News

Bob and Greta Vandewege, retirees from Byron Center, knew little about Gibbs, but had heard enough to decide he was preferable to Meijer.

Meijer “voted to impeach Trump,” Bob said. “And he always adds that he’s a military guy and he backs everybody. You don’t do that to your commander in chief.”

“He’s a traitor,” Greta interjected.

The limited polling available to the public indicates that there are plenty of primary voters who agree with the Vandeweges. Gibbs is ahead of Meijer by 18 percentage points, according to an internal poll Gibbs’ campaign released in mid-July. Meijer has not released his own figures.

Gibbs’ apparent lead is that much more remarkable because of Meijer’s enormous cash advantage. As of mid-July, Meijer had spent more than $2.1 million, compared with Gibbs’ outlay of less than $340,000. Meijer also enjoys millions of dollars in outside super PAC support from fiscally conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Meijer is virtually uncontested on the airwaves, since Gibbs has chosen not to spend his limited money on TV ads.

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In fact, the only significant outside support that Gibbs has received is from House Democrats’ campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The DCCC has spent about $450,000 airing a TV ad that touts Gibbs’ right-wing credentials, because the party believes Gibbs will be easier for Democratic nominee Hillary Scholten to defeat in November.

Meijer’s campaign cites the ad as evidence that Gibbs is a weaker candidate. A new Meijer radio ad blasts Gibbs over the boost he has gotten from Democrats, calling him “another politician bought and paid for by Nancy Pelosi.”

Gibbs insists that he is the more competitive general-election candidate, arguing that too many Republicans will stay home if Meijer is the nominee. “He’s absolutely unelectable in the general election,” Gibbs said.

Democrats See An Opening

Democrats are intervening in the race partly because, thanks to nonpartisan redistricting, Michigan’s 3rd is a rare pickup opportunity for the party during an otherwise challenging election cycle.

Biden lost Michigan’s current 3rd District by three points. But he would have carried the new one, which includes the lakeshore cities of Muskegon and Grand Haven, by nearly nine points.

The party sees a chance to replicate in West Michigan the success it has had in the suburbs of Detroit. In southeast Michigan, a combination of moderate female candidates and revulsion to Trump helped Democrats flip two seats in 2018.

The Grand Rapids metropolitan area ― whose business-friendly brand of Republicanism produced former President Gerald Ford decades ago, and Republican-turned-independent Rep. Justin Amash more recently ― has already been drifting into the Democratic camp.

“This area surrounding Grand Rapids has become a real political battleground, become real purple,” said Timmer, who predicted that the region’s electorate will decide the fate of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) and other statewide elected officials. “It’s a higher predominance of college-educated white voters, and it’s just the type of behavioral Republicans who are fleeing from the Republican Party in the last five, six years since the insanity of Trump.”

Democratic nominee Hillary Scholten, seen here at her campaign headquarters in Grand Rapids, Michigan, says she is prepared to run against either Meijer or Gibbs for the House seat in Michigan's 3rd District.
Democratic nominee Hillary Scholten, seen here at her campaign headquarters in Grand Rapids, Michigan, says she is prepared to run against either Meijer or Gibbs for the House seat in Michigan’s 3rd District.

Brittany Greeson for The Bharat Express News

If Gibbs is the Trumpian villain Democrats are looking for, Scholten, an immigration attorney and deacon at her local Dutch Reformed church, is exactly the kind of candidate who the Party believes can be competitive in West Michigan. Scholten left the Department of Justice early on in the Trump administration due to her objection to the administration’s hard-line immigration policies, and took a job with a Michigan nonprofit that provides representation to immigrants dealing with legal challenges.

A second-time candidate who held Meijer to a six-point victory in 2020, Scholten maintains that she would be happy to run against Meijer if he prevails in his primary. She notes that he supports banning abortion without exceptions for rape and incest ― a stance that has taken on new significance since the Supreme Court overturned a federal right to abortion in June ― and that he voted against a Democratic bill capping out-of-pocket insulin costs for patients.

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“There are a number of reasons why his policies are out of step with West Michigan, and I am fully prepared to have that debate again with Congressman Meijer,” she said.

It’s true that Meijer says abortion should only be permissible in cases where the mother’s life is in danger. And in an interview with The Bharat Express News on July 26, he declined to rule out supporting a federal ban on abortion, saying he would wait until the House GOP conference decides what it wants to propose on the matter.

Meijer also voted against the House bill codifying a federal right to contraception in July. He was concerned that the language of the legislation risks defining contraception so broadly as to include abortifacients, and that it would override the religious exemption certain health care providers currently have from administering contraception.

“From a constitutional standpoint, it’s very troubling,” he said.

‘With My Shield Or On It’

At the same time, Meijer’s defiance of Trump is not the only way in which he has departed from right-wing orthodoxy. He was among the minority of Republicans who voted to codify same-sex marriage as a federal right in July, and among an even smaller number who voted for the bipartisan gun safety and mental health bill that Biden signed into law the previous month. He is also a co-sponsor of legislation that would allow states to decide whether they want to criminalize marijuana, and of a Republican bill to protect LGBTQ Americans from discrimination that exempts some religious institutions.

Gibbs counts these stances as strikes against Meijer. He also faults Meijer for voting for the United States’ $40 billion security and humanitarian aid package to Ukraine. He argues that the money will simply prolong the bloodshed before Ukraine inevitably has to strike a deal with Russia, a much larger military power.

“The fact that they will get $40 billion for Ukraine’s border security is just really quite unfathomable.”

– John Gibbs, Republican primary challenger

“When I was in the Trump administration, we had to scrap for every dollar for border security,” Gibbs said. “So the fact that they will get $40 billion for Ukraine’s border security is just really quite unfathomable.”

Gibbs goes so far as to question whether Meijer is authentically committed to the GOP. Meijer “has always had a certain belief set, which was probably not compatible with the Republican Party, but he knew that in order to run in this era, he had to join the Republican Party,” Gibbs said.

But Meijer has vowed not to run a write-in campaign if he loses on Tuesday, insisting that as a lifelong Republican, he’ll run with the GOP or not run at all. “My mentality is either ‘with my shield or on it,’” said Meijer, referencing a maxim ascribed to ancient Sparta encouraging warriors to return from the battlefield either victorious or dead.

When asked why it seems like there is no room for someone like him in either major political party, Meijer lamented that “partisan sorting,” and the growth of a national media apparatus at the expense of local outlets, have created a zero-sum mentality where anything less than complete allegiance to one’s political tribe is seen as a betrayal.

“Democrats will say, ‘Well, yeah, great, you did Thing X, Y or Z that we liked, but you still voted against Y,’” he said. “If that’s the way you folks are going to view things, we’re just going to entrench further in our corners, you’re going to have fewer members who actually express complex and nuanced opinions, and we will have government by an army of satellite robots.”

“And that’s not what I’m trying to do,” he concluded. “That’s not how I’ve acted so far in office.”