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Gibbs holds narrow lead over Meijer in Michigan GOP race for Congress

Aug. 2, 2022 Updated Tue., Aug. 2, 2022 at 10:20 p.m.

John Gibbs, a candidate for congress in Michigan's 3rd Congressional district, speaks at a rally hosted by former President Donald Trump on April 2 near Washington, Michigan.  (Getty Images)
John Gibbs, a candidate for congress in Michigan's 3rd Congressional district, speaks at a rally hosted by former President Donald Trump on April 2 near Washington, Michigan. (Getty Images)
Riley Beggin Detroit News

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — John Gibbs, the Trump-endorsed challenger to U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer, held a narrow lead in the nationally watched results of west Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District race.

A political appointee in former President Donald Trump’s Housing and Urban Development agency, Gibbs has pitched himself as an ultraconservative replacement for incumbent Meijer of Grand Rapids Township, who was one of 10 House Republicans to impeach then-President Donald Trump after the Jan. 6, 2021 U.S. Capitol riot.

Gibbs had about 51% of the vote to Meijer’s 49% with about 54% of precincts reporting.

If Gibbs prevails, he will face a general election in a district President Joe Biden won in 2020 and that has been identified as one of the few districts Democrats may be capable of flipping in a tough election year.

The contest between Meijer and Gibbs has garnered national attention as the Republican Party continues to grapple with cleavages between traditional conservatives and Trump loyalists. If he loses, Meijer will be the sixth of the 10 House Republicans who voted for impeachment to leave at the end of his term. Two others face primaries Tuesday.

Trump endorsed Gibbs but notably did not come to Michigan to campaign for him in the final days of campaign, despite Gibbs’ struggles with fundraising as Meijer and allies poured millions into opposing him.

Dave Wasserman, the U.S. House editor of Cook Political Report, tweeted around 10 p.m. Eastern time that the “biggest surprise of the night so far” was Meijer’s strength in the primary.

“If he maintains this pace in Kent County, he’s got a great chance to hang on,” Wasserman wrote.

Gibbs, 43, grew up in Lansing and studied computer science at Stanford University. He worked as a software engineer for startups in Silicon Valley and eventually joined Apple to work on the iPhone. A fluent Japanese speaker, he left California for Japan to serve as a Christian missionary for seven years.

He did a one-year master’s in public administration at Harvard University before joining the Trump administration’s HUD, overseeing homelessness programs and community development block grants. He moved to Byron Center, south of Grand Rapids, after Trump allies recruited him to run against Meijer.

Gibbs has branded himself as a Trump-approved replacement who says it was “mathematically impossible” for Biden to have won the 2020 election and defends claims of election fraud that have been dismissed by courts, legislative investigations and audits for a lack of evidence.

After casting his ballot in Byron Center south of Grand Rapids Tuesday morning, Gibbs was asked whether he would accept the results of this election.

“We’ll see,” he said. “If the election’s on the up-and-up there will be no problem.”

He has framed the race as a battle between the moneyed establishment and an insurgent right-wing grassroots.

“There’s somewhat of a low-grade civil war happening in our party right now,” Gibbs said Monday. “The feeling among the bulk of the voters is that the party is going in a direction that doesn’t represent what regular people want anymore.”

Meijer, 34, is the son of Meijer Inc. superstores Executive Chairman Hank Meijer. He grew up in East Grand Rapids, went to Columbia University and served in an Army intelligence unit in Iraq.

He later worked as a conflict analyst in Afghanistan and got an MBA at New York University before running to succeed Republican-turned-Libertarian former U.S. Rep. Justin Amash in 2020.

He’s billed himself as an effective lawmaker who has fought for veterans and pushed back against Biden administration policies he argues have contributed to high inflation and gas prices.

The campaign is focusing on “all my work to strengthen Congress’ hand, to re-establish some of the checks and balances between branches that have eroded over the years,” he told The News. “We’re talking about pursuing actual solutions, rather than just getting stuck in a realm of rhetoric.”

But he has faced backlash from within his party for his impeachment vote, cast shortly after Trump supporters mobbed the capitol on Meijer’s third day in office. He stands by that decision, saying it was the only choice that “was right and necessary at that moment.”

Outside groups have poured more than $3.6 million into the 3rd District GOP primary race, primarily supporting Meijer and opposing Gibbs. One political action committee backed by Meijer’s family, Principled Leadership for Michigan, has spent almost $1.4 million on the race this cycle.

Meijer’s campaign and leadership PAC have spent more than $2 million so far this cycle, compared with just under $334,000 spent by the Gibbs campaign.

But last Tuesday, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced it would spend $425,000 to run a TV ad in the Grand Rapids area boosting Gibbs in the last week before the primary.

The ad was a fake attack on Gibbs that was seen by many in both parties as a move to promote his name among Trump’s base. It claimed Gibbs is “too conservative” for west Michigan but also said he was “handpicked” by Trump to run for Congress, worked in his administration and would pursue Trump’s policies in office.

Meijer has decried the spending as hypocritical. Gibbs said of the ad: “I don’t know what their strategy is and I don’t really care.”

Sue Atkinson, a poll worker in Grand Rapids Township, said she cast her vote for Gibbs.

“I just voted for a change,” Atkinson said. She added that it felt like Meijer was assuming he would get her community’s support, and that she was receiving two to three mailers a day from his campaign.

“Then we knew he was running scared because he did so much mailing. That was the biggest turnoff.”

Later Tuesday night, Meijer supporters gathered at Social House Kitchen and Bar in downtown Grand Rapids to watch the results come in.

State Rep. Tommy Brann, a Wyoming Republican, attended the party. He said he supports Meijer because he’s an honest, humble and “good human being.”

“I make mistakes too,” Brann said of Meijer’s impeachment vote, which he disagreed with. “Just because he made one mistake doesn’t mean you run away from somebody you like.”

About 10 miles south, Gibbs supporters held a watch party at his campaign office on top of a real estate brokerage in Wyoming, a Grand Rapids suburb.

Some supporters sang “M-A-G-A” to the tune of “YMCA,” miming the letters with their arms raised high. Cheers erupted when early returns showed Gibbs leading 63% to 37% shortly after 9 p.m.

Brenda Wodarski of Rockford was among those dancing.

“If they don’t win, people haven’t done their homework,” she said of Gibbs and Republican gubernatorial candidate Ryan Kelley. “They’re listening instead of researching. Everybody needs to do their own research.”

Gibbs and Meijer share similar stances on many conservative policies, including abortion, immigration, inflation and government spending. Both Meijer and Gibbs support the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and do not support exceptions for abortion in cases of rape or incest.

They disagree on the results and fallout from the 2020 presidential election: Gibbs argues that the 2020 election was rife with fraud and that Trump was the true winner of the national presidential race, despite multiple audits and court cases at nearly every level of government failing to turn up evidence that supports his theory.

Meijer acknowledges that Biden won the election and has said Trump “bears responsibility for inciting the insurrection.”

Analysts suspect he’s the only candidate who stands a chance at beating Democratic nominee Hillary Scholten in the general election in the newly formed 3rd, a toss-up district.

“If John Gibbs wins that primary, then Democrats will take that seat as long as Hillary Scholten is alive on Election Day,” Adrian Hemond, CEO of the consulting firm Grassroots Midwest, told The Detroit News last month.

“This is a hypercompetitive seat, and if the Republicans didn’t have a well-heeled incumbent with a very good biography and a more moderate tone in this district, they would be in trouble here. And if Congressman Meijer loses, that’s where they’ll find themselves.”

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