GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Eighteen months ago, Rep. Peter Meijer joined just nine other House Republicans and voted to impeach Donald Trump. This week, he learned that the Democrats he stood with then were spending nearly half a million dollars to help his Trump-backed challenger defeat him.
Desperate to retain control of Congress in November in the face of stiff political head winds, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has become the latest party entity this election year to aid a Trump-endorsed Republican in a primary against a candidate who has resisted the former president. The $435,000 investment calls Gibbs “too conservative” in ads and highlights his connection to Trump — a winking message meant to boost his appeal to conservative primary voters.
The calculation: Come November, a far-right GOP nominee with polarizing positions will be easier to defeat. But some Democrats have voiced alarm that their party would elevate the kinds of Republicans they have argued present a threat to democracy and would punish the rare GOP official who joined their stand against Trump after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob. Not only is it risky, they said, but wrongheaded.
“I’m disgusted that hard-earned money intended to support Democrats is being used to boost Trump-endorsed candidates, particularly the far-right opponent of one of the most honorable Republicans in Congress,” Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) wrote on Twitter.
“Disappointing that Ds are trying to help Trump exact vengeance,” former top Obama White House official David Axelrod tweeted.
Tuesday’s primary is shaping up as a test for both parties on dynamics that have been more broadly present in intraparty contests this year. For Republicans, it will offer a fresh glimpse of attitudes among GOP primary voters toward Trump and incumbents who have stood against him. For Democrats, it will be measure of their ability and willingness to affect the outcome of Republican races.
While Democratic meddling is nothing new, it has taken on greater significance this year, becoming a go-to tactic for well-funded organizations aligned with the party in some marquee statewide races where GOP candidates have embraced Trump’s false election claims and have run on hard-right platforms. The results have been mixed, and the strategy will be tested again in the next round of primaries, even beyond Michigan.
The DCCC’s investment in Michigan’s 3rd District — which was redrawn in the decennial redistricting process to become more Democratic — marks the first time the House Democratic campaign arm put money behind an ad interfering in a GOP primary. The investment is more than the $334,000 that Gibbs has spent on his own campaign.
“Obviously, our focus is on winning 218 seats, and each race will require a slightly different strategy,” DCCC Chair Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) told NBC News. “We think this makes sense in this case.”
House races tend to follow the national mood more uniformly than Senate and gubernatorial contests, making the gambit especially perilous at a moment when anger with President Biden and his party, inflation and rising crime is running high.
“I think it’s pretty dishonest and dishonorable,” said Jason Roe, a GOP operative in Michigan. “They risk electing people who are incapable of governing.”
Of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump, three are on the ballot Tuesday, including Meijer. In Washington state, Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler and Dan Newhouse also face Trump-backed primary challengers who argue that they insulted their constituents with their “aye” votes.
The DCCC commercial, which began running in the Grand Rapids media market this week, repeatedly shows Gibbs next to the 45th president, using imagery and language not far off the billboards the candidate has paid for in the district.
In an interview, Gibbs, who served in the Department of Housing and Urban Development during the Trump administration, said he learned about the DCCC ad in Michigan only when he saw it trending with his name on social media.
“I guarantee you: He was not going to be able to win in November,” Gibbs said of Meijer, arguing that he is the more electable Republican choice and that primary voters could see that. “There’s no way he’s going to get enough Republican votes to win. People will stay home or leave the congressional line on the ballot blank.”
In the past, Gibbs has promoted a baseless conspiracy theory about Democrats, and in 2016 he suggested in a tweet that Democrats were focused on “Islam, gender-bending, anti-police.” He has been criticized for his comments by lawmakers in both parties, including Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah). Romney later said when Gibbs was nominated to head the Office of Personnel Management that his remarks were “disparaging of Islam and at the same [time] have fostered or promoted some relatively extreme, if not bizarre or nonsensical, conspiracy theories.”
Meijer has run as a defender of “West Michigan values,” voting with his party on most bills but breaking with most of his colleagues to support a bill to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act and a limited rewrite of gun laws. The congressman, who has defended his impeachment vote, said that he has increasingly found that constituents were willing to hear why he cast it.
“The tone has kind of shifted from ‘why did you vote to impeach,’ as an accusation, to ‘well, why did you vote to impeach?’ ” he said. “It’s more out of curiosity. That’s anecdotal, but it’s noticeable.”
Other House Republicans have preferred not to endure the difficulties Meijer has encountered. Four of the 10 who voted to impeach Trump opted not to run for reelection. One fell in defeat this year while another advanced from an all-party primary.
Many Republicans in Meijer’s district were furious that he bucked Trump, and several county-level GOP groups censured him for his impeachment vote, though the larger state party voted down a censure resolution. In recent interviews around the district, several voters brought up Gibbs’s false insistence that Trump won the 2020 election and said they saw Meijer as part of a dying GOP establishment that Trump allies want to purge.
Zach Lahring, chairman of the Muskegon County GOP, which censured Meijer, said the congressman is not in line with the current Republican Party. “Peter Meijer does not represent the Republican platform at all,” he said. “He does not represent me as a Republican. He doesn’t represent Christian conservative values. It’s just a big, huge ‘no, thank you.’ ”
The DCCC is aiming to amplify such sentiments with its ad. The words “Endorsed by Donald Trump” flash on screen below a photo of Gibbs and the former president.
The committee declined to comment beyond Maloney’s remarks on the strategy. A party operative familiar with the committee’s strategy described it as an easy call. Michigan’s redistricting commission, the operative explained, had reshaped the historically Republican 3rd District into a winnable seat, carried by Biden in 2020. Even if Meijer wins, he would be a vote for the GOP speaker and would present a threat to democracy, argued the operative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid.
Meijer, in the interview, said such an approach will end up electing more politicians whom Democrats — and Republicans like him — consider dangerous.
“If they have a handful of just absolutely harebrained folks doing and saying zany things,” Democrats “will be rolling in the dough and the body politic will continue to disintegrate and degrade,” Meijer said. “And consultants are only paid for one of those things.”
Some voters in the district said they still supported Trump but were willing to give Meijer a pass on his impeachment vote. At a sparsely attended Meijer event at a mixed martial arts gym in Grand Rapids, Tim Fosse, a retired veteran, said he is less worried about Washington political infighting than he is about fixing the economy.
“I’m not going to hold it against him because, you know, of his opinion about what he thinks, you know, or doesn’t think. To me, it’s like two brothers having a dispute,” Fosse said. “What matters is how he represents the people and what is he going to do to help Michigan, to help Grand Rapids, to help the people.”
Democrats have elevated other pro-Trump Republicans this year in places where they are confident that they can beat them, despite the sour national mood and the unpopularity of the Biden administration. Polls have shown Biden’s approval rating plunging, with clear majorities expressing disapproval of the job he is doing.
“As a general strategy, there’s no surprise that DCCC would favor the elevation of a far-right Republican candidate in a toss-up district, and this is cleverly aimed,” former DCCC chairman and ex-New York congressman Steve Israel said in an interview. “You just don’t want to commit overkill and take your eyes off the ball, which is your own candidate.”
Hillary Scholten, a former Justice Department attorney who lost to Meijer in 2020, is running again. The Democrat said in an interview that the DCCC ad was a “bit of a distraction,” and she did not know it was coming. “People have a chance to vote for Meijer if they think that he is the more rational and sane candidate [in the primary],” Scholten said. “We are in a very dire situation here in our American political system. Everyone needs to have the best possible understanding of who their representatives are.”
In Pennsylvania, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Josh Shapiro adopted the strategy during the primary this year. State Sen. Doug Mastriano, who organized buses to the “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, won the Republican nomination and Trump’s support. Democratic commercials claimed that he is “too conservative” to govern Pennsylvania.
In last month’s California primaries, House Majority PAC, a group aligned with House Democratic leaders, ran ads that tried and narrowly failed to boost a pro-Trump candidate past Republican Rep. David G. Valadao, who voted for impeachment.
The Democratic Governors Association bought or shared the costs on ads in several of its targeted states — including Maryland, which voted last week — to help Trump-endorsed Republicans defeat candidates whom they see as more appealing to independents.
“I think the DGA wants to make sure they educate the public early and often about these candidates,” North Carolina Gov. and DGA chair Roy Cooper (D) told The Washington Post in an interview last week, after a $1.1 million spend in Maryland helped state Del. Dan Cox (R-Frederick) win the GOP nomination for governor. “It’s also important to point out that most of these candidates in these primaries embrace the ‘big lie,’ and certainly end up lining up in the MAGA camp.”
Weigel reported from Bloomfield Hills, Mich. Itkowitz reported from Washington. Singh reported from Grand Rapids, Mich.
Understanding the 2022 Midterm Elections
November’s midterm elections are likely to shift the political landscape and impact what President Biden can accomplish during the remainder of his first term. Here’s what to know.
When are the midterm elections? The general election is Nov. 8, but the primary season is nearing completion, with voters selecting candidates in the New York and Florida primaries Tuesday. Here’s a complete calendar of all the primaries in 2022.
Why are the midterms important? The midterm elections determine control of Congress: The party that has the House or Senate majority gets to organize the chamber and decide what legislation Congress considers. Thirty six governors and thousands of state legislators are also on the ballot. Here’s a complete guide to the midterms.
Which seats are up for election? Every seat in the House and a third of the seats in the 100-member Senate are up for election. Dozens of House members have already announced they will be retiring from Congress instead of seeking reelection.
What is redistricting? Redistricting is the process of drawing congressional and state legislative maps to ensure everyone’s vote counts equally. As of April 25, 46 of the 50 states had settled on the boundaries for 395 of 435 U.S. House districts.
Which primaries are the most competitive? Here are the most interesting Democratic primaries and Republican primaries to watch as Republicans and Democrats try to nominate their most electable candidates.