Will a Republican’s vote to impeach Trump cost him in Tuesday’s primary?
Three days after U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Grand Rapids) took office in 2021, he found himself pulling a smoke hood over his head and running for safety as supporters of then-President Donald Trump attacked the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to overturn the 2020 election.
A week after that, Meijer became one of 10 House Republicans to join all 222 Democrats and vote for Trump’s impeachment for inciting the insurrection.
In the days after his vote, Meijer said his decision to impeach “came when the president continued to fail to take any sense of accountability or acknowledge that he may have been responsible, or even at least partly responsible, for the horrible events we saw on Jan. 6.”
The decision enraged the former president, who has since gone on to endorse Meijer’s GOP opponent, John Gibbs, to represent a West Michigan congressional district that was redrawn last year to be far more Democratic than the one Meijer won in 2020. The seat was left open after U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (L-Cascade Twp.) announced he was retiring after GOP backlash to his vote impeaching Trump the first time in 2019.
Michigan’s primary will be held Tuesday.
Now, Meijer — a 34-year-old U.S. Army veteran who served in Iraq and whose great-grandfather and grandfather started the Meijer grocery store chain — is running to once again represent the 3rd Congressional District, pitted against a far-right candidate who previously worked for the Trump administration and pushes the conspiracy theory that the 2020 election was stolen.
Meijer, meanwhile, is no fan of President Joe Biden but said he knows the Democrat won the election fairly, as Republican-led investigations and hundreds of local and state audits have confirmed. And he’s running in a redrawn district that has shifted from one where Trump triumphed by 3 points in 2020 to a new one where Biden would have won by 9 points.
If he wins the primary, Meijer will face Hillary Scholten, a Democrat he defeated in the 2020 race, in November’s general election — but this time in a district that’s more amenable to left-leaning voters.
In other words: “It’s a significantly more competitive district,” Meijer said in an interview with the Advance this week.
J. Miles Coleman, an associate editor at Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan political analysis newsletter run by the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said they’ve rated the 3rd District as a “tossup” in terms of if a Republican or Democrat would win. If Meijer wins the primary, Coleman said “we might put it as Republican-leaning” — although that’s not certain and it’s something that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to avoid.
This week, the DCCC launched an ad that political analysts said aims to hurt Meijer and boost Gibbs in an attempt to land a victory for Gibbs, who analysts said could be easier for the Democratic candidate to beat in November’s general election.
The $435,000 ad labels Gibbs as “too conservative” for West Michigan and highlights the candidate’s connection to Trump — something that Coleman and other political experts said is meant to appeal to the district’s Trump supporters and undermine Meijer’s campaign.
“You have Democratic groups trying to meddle in the Republican primaries,” Coleman said. “The thinking there is getting someone that’s easier to beat — that’s something they’ve done across the country with some mixed success. They’re saying candidates like John Gibbs, Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania — they’re saying they’re threats to democracy but let’s prop them up in primaries.”
Mastriano, the Republican nominee for governor in Pennsylvania, is, like Gibbs, a far-right candidate who has been endorsed by Trump and pushes conspiracy theories about the 2020 election.
The DCCC’s move has garnered ire from some House members, including Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the vice chair of the House’s committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and, like Meijer, is a Republican who voted to impeach Trump.
“No party, Democrat or Republican, should be promoting candidates who perpetuate lies about the 2020 election and try to undermine our democracy,” Cheney said in a statement Tuesday, the day the ad first aired. “We all have a responsibility and obligation to put our duty to the country above partisan politics.”
Some Democratic lawmakers have also lambasted the DCCC’s move.
“No race is worth compromising your values in that way,” Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), who sits on the Jan. 6 committee, told Politico.
But, Coleman said, the DCCC’s job is to get Democrats elected — and if Gibbs wins, they could have an easier time doing that.
“If Republicans end up renominating Meijer, I think they would be much more secure in that seat, but if they want to prove a point and nominate Gibbs, I think they could still win but it’s going to be much harder,” he said.
That “point” Republicans could want to prove is that Republican lawmakers and candidates who go against Trump will be punished. Meijer is one of four Republicans who voted to impeach Trump and will face primaries over the coming months. The other Republicans facing primary challengers include U.S. Reps. Dan Newshouse (R-Wash.), Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.) and Cheney.
Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) also voted to impeach Trump, but, after serving in the House since 1986, the Michigan Republican is retiring in part due to death threats he has received after his votes for impeachment and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
“I think we’re definitely going to be looking at a majority of pro-impeachment Republicans who are either retiring or will lose primaries,” Coleman said. “… You have a Republican Party that sees that one thing. You can’t go against them on that.”
Meijer, who in addition to being lambasted by other Republicans for his impeachment vote continues to receive death threats for penalizing Trump, said he believes that there’s a shift happening in the district when it comes to the former president.
“I’ve seen the question shift from, ‘Why did you vote to impeach Trump?’ as an accusation to, ‘Why did you vote to impeach Trump?’ as a point of curiosity, and I think that’s worth noting,” said Meijer.
Meijer could be the Republican who loses in a very pro-Republican year because he’s on the wrong side of Trump.
After voting to impeach Trump, Meijer did make some moves to the right. He went on to vote against the creation of the current Jan. 6 committee and this year said the Jan. 6 insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol because they suffered from “riot envy” after seeing Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020.
Voters, Meijer argued, are nuanced — they may be upset about the impeachment vote, but it doesn’t mean they won’t back his reelection bid, he said.
At a Fourth of July parade last year, Meijer said a man with a MAGA (Make America Great Again — Trump’s campaign slogan) hat coming towards him.
“He says, ‘I have a bone to pick with you: It’s about the estate tax,” Meijer said. “I think voters have a much wider view … than the national narrative.”
That’s not to say the animosity towards his vote has disappeared, and, in terms of the death threats he continues to receive, “things ebb and flow.”
“We’re at a toxic and polarizing position,” he said and added that the way political violence has become “normalized and excused is very, very detrimental.”
Gibbs is a 43-year-old former Housing and Urban Development official in the Trump administration who has a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University and previously worked as an engineer in Silicon Valley. A spokesperson said Meijer’s Trump impeachment is one of the top issues voters bring up with Gibbs.
“Some reporters have dismissed [the race] as being Trump worship, the demagogue of Trump, but it’s way more than that,” said AnneMarie Schieber, the media relations manager for the Gibbs campaign. “People are very mad about the impeachment not because they’re big fans of Trump but because of what Trump stands for.”
“We always hear about impeachment when John meets new people,” Shieber continued. “Gas prices and inflation are a close No. 2.”
As far as Gibbs clinging to the falsehood that Trump won the 2020 election, Shieber conceded that Trump’s loss “has gone through the courts.”
But those court defeats, in addition to the countless audits of the 2020 election across the country, are not enough to convince Gibbs, or a slew of far-right Republicans running for office, that Trump lost. When talking about Gibbs’ promoting the conspiracy theory about the 2020 election, Shieber compared Trump’s court losses to mafia members being acquitted in court.
“For a long time we couldn’t go after the mafia because they were well protected,” Shieber said. “They’d go through the courts and get acquitted.”
Gibbs’ attachment to the lie about the 2020 election isn’t the first time the candidate has promoted a conspiracy theory. He previously spread a conspiracy theory falsely alleging that Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign chairman participated in a satanic ritual.
In 2020, Trump nominated Gibbs to be the director of the Office of Personnel Management. At Gibbs’ nomination hearing, U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) criticized Gibbs over his statements about Clinton’s chairman and past remarks Gibbs had made about Islam. (In 2016, Gibbs tweeted that Democrats were focused on “Islam, gender-bending, anti-police.”)
If Republicans end up renominating Meijer, I think they would be much more secure in that seat, but if they want to prove a point and nominate Gibbs, I think they could still win but it’s going to be much harder.
“There have been things that you have written in the past, which have been 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 had participated in satanic rituals of some kind,” Romney said during the Sept. 16, 2020, hearing.
Gibbs’ nomination was never confirmed.
Ultimately, Meijer’s name recognition and the fact that he rarely breaks with his party in his voting record — although he did recently pass a bill to protect the right to same-sex marriage, something Upton also supported but the majority of House Republicans did not — could work in his favor, Coleman said. And, Coleman noted, there are plenty of examples of Trump-endorsed candidates losing their primaries.
Still, there’s reason for Meijer to be concerned, Coleman said.
“Meijer could be the Republican who loses in a very pro-Republican year because he’s on the wrong side of Trump,” Coleman said.