Democrat Scholten may face Trumpist conspiracy theorist Gibbs for Michigan House seat

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Hillary Scholten is running for the seat held by GOP Rep. Peter Meijer in Michigan's redrawn 3rd Congressional District.

Democrat Hillary Scholten has been here before: facing Republican candidate Peter Meijer, now an incumbent Republican congressman, in a race for Michigan's 3rd Congressional District. 

In 2018 she lost to Meijer by six percentage points. The pair were vying for the vacated seat of Rep. Justin Amash, a Republican who voted to impeach Donald Trump after the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and then resigned from the GOP entirely. 

For Scholten's second attempt, the lay of the land has changed. Due to redistricting, Michigan's 3rd District now contains Grand Rapids, the largest city in the state after Detroit, with a metropolitan population of over one million people. Joe Biden won Kent County, where Grand Rapids is located, by 20,000 votes in 2020. In the same year, Scholten won it by 2,000 votes, but lost the district as a whole owing to its more conservative rural areas. Meijer garnered just over 53% of the vote to Scholten's 46.9%.

Redistricting in 2020 is one change affecting Scholten, creating a more Democrat-friendly district and giving her a solid chance of flipping it. The Cook Political Report now lists it as a toss-up. 

"The new district certainly has more Democrats," Scholten said in an interview with the Michigan Advance in February, "and a broader makeup of people who support candidates like me, and that is certainly going to change the game and is an exciting factor in the race." 

Scholten was born and raised in West Michigan, daughter of a teacher and a newspaper reporter, and trained as a lawyer, working for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, and for the Department of Justice under President Barack Obama. She subsequently worked as a volunteer attorney for women who face sexual harassment in the workplace and as an immigration rights lawyer.

The second change she faces is her general election opponent: It may not be Meijer, but his primary challenger, far-right election denier John Gibbs, a former Trump appointee at the Department of Housing and Urban Development under Ben Carson and a sometime conspiracy theorist. In 2016 Gibbs tweeted multiple times to the effect that John Podesta, who was then Hillary Clinton's campaign manager, took part in Satanic rituals. His current campaign website declares without evidence that there were "widespread irregularities and statistical anomalies in the 2020 election."

Donald Trump endorsed Gibbs in November 2021 and then re-endorsed him this month. 

Meijer has been castigated by grassroots Republicans as a "RINO," or Republican in name only, but he has considerable cachet in Western Michigan as the scion of a large and very wealthy family of grocers. As political consultant Adrian Hemond, CEO of the consulting firm Grassroots Midwest, put it in an interview with the American Independent Foundation: "Meijer is in a slightly different position than some of the other candidates facing Trump-backed challengers in that he has a very good family name in this state. If you live in Michigan there's a very good chance that you buy your groceries at Meijer. And so the name ID is off the charts, and it's a largely positive name – it's a pretty beloved brand. Overall Congressman Meijer is in a pretty decent position."

Meijer also has deep pockets: Federal Election Commission filings show that his campaign has raised more than $2 million, and, according to a financial disclosure he filed in 2019, he also has access to multiple trusts. One of them listed its assets at over $50 million.

Gibbs' FEC filings for 2021 showed total receipts of just over $100,000. Asked about his fundraising deficiencies, his campaign manager told the American Independent Foundation: "Incumbents are always able to raise more money, but John is encouraged by the tremendous grassroots support he has gotten. When you drive around the district, you see way more Gibbs signs and bumper stickers and hardly any for Meijer. Television ads are now mostly viewed on the internet, so viewing is fractured. We don't think this will be a factor in the primary. Mailers, too, are also important."

It remains to be seen whether mailers and bumper stickers can compensate for lack of cash, but, says Hemond, "The Trump endorsement counts for a lot in this state. Meijer will still have to run a good race." 

Meijer may not toe the election-denying line, but that does not mean he does not support key Republican positions. He signed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade. He also voted "no" on the Women's Health Protection Act, which would codify the right to provide abortion. He also voted against Biden's infrastructure bill, a piece of legislation that is providing billions of dollars in funding to the states for improvements to transportation systems.

Hemond said of Gibbs' continued pushing of the 2020 lie, "It's what they've got to work with. The insurgent challenger in this race is on the right side of this issue as far as the voting base of the Republican Party is concerned, and he doesn't have much of a track record in terms of politics. What he's got to go on is the Trump endorsement and the fact that the Jan. 6 commission and hearings are very unpopular, and he's not talking about much else."

Recently, Meijer lost the endorsement of the Muskegon County Republican Party to Gibbs over his support for the Safer Communities Act, a recent bipartisan gun safety House bill. The party's executive committee released a resolution saying that Meijer had violated the Second Amendment in supporting the bill and that he had "voted without evidence of misconduct" to impeach Trump, concluding, "NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED: The Muskegon County Republican Executive Committee disavows Representative Peter Meijer. BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED; We do not support Peter Meijer's candidacy for Michigan's 3rd Congressional District."  

In April he was booed at a rowdy Kent County Republican Party convention.

A poll of likely Republican voters in Michigan's 3rd Congressional District conducted in January 2022 by Impact Research, a Democratic polling organization, and obtained by Politico showed that Meijer is unpopular and that a majority of likely Republican voters would prefer another Republican candidate by a margin of 26%-62%.

The contest will be decided in the Republican primary on Aug. 2.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.