GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Democrats faced a backlash Wednesday — including from within their own ranks — after inserting themselves into a GOP primary in western Michigan, helping a far-right candidate who has embraced false claims about the 2020 election to topple a Republican who had voted to impeach Donald Trump.
Democrats this year have tried to interfere in multiple GOP primaries, using ads that appear to be attacks on more extreme candidates as a way to subtly promote those contenders. The idea is to line up opponents who the Democrats believe to be more easily beatable in the general election.
But Tuesday’s vote was the first in which the closeness of the outcome — Trump-endorsed challenger John Gibbs won with 52 percent of the vote, according to unofficial returns — suggested that the Democrats’ meddling may have tipped the results.
Now, Democrats will see whether their high-stakes gambit to take out Rep. Peter Meijer will win them the seat in November. Regardless of what happens, critics say the attempt to boost Gibbs is reckless and undermines Democrats’ argument that they are the party upholding democracy.
“It’s cynical and dangerous,” said Richard Hasen, a UCLA law professor and director of the Safeguarding Democracy Project. “We know that the Trumpian wing of the Republican Party is doing a lot to undermine people’s confidence in the fairness and integrity of elections. The idea that Democrats would be willing to gamble on electing more of these people because they think they’ll be easier to beat in the general election really is playing with fire.”
Some of the criticism has come from within the party.
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat who has made protecting democracy a hallmark of her work, called out the decision of some in her party to provide support to Gibbs.
“If we are going to say as a party — or as leaders — that we believe in a healthy democracy, which requires citizens to be informed and engaged, we have to live out those values in everything we do,” Benson said in an interview with The Washington Post. “Interference with another party’s primary does not reflect those values.”
She called it “a dangerous game to play for anyone, as part of some strategy, to support election deniers.”
“That type of playing the other side stuff is, I think, a very risky proposition,” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) told The Post on Wednesday. “It’s a dangerous proposition for a campaign committee to instead of propelling Democrats, trying to propel a Republican in a primary. Because they actually may win in the end and you’ll have someone who’s even more extreme.”
The second-guessing from Democrats had been building before primary day.
“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.) posted on Twitter last week when the ad debuted.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent $435,000 on its ad, which showed a string of images of Gibbs with Trump and called him “too conservative for west Michigan.” Those apparent criticisms may have struck many Republican primary voters as a compliment.
Meijer, who is in his first term, had earned the ire of Trump and many of his supporters by becoming one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach the him after the Capitol insurrection.
“Democrats got the matchup they wanted and in the process threw overboard one of the few members of the House Republican Conference who was willing to stand on principle and stand up for the Constitution. It’s reprehensible,” said Kevin Seifert, a campaign adviser to Meijer.
A couple of hours before conceding the race Tuesday night, Meijer told reporters it was too soon to tell what effect the ad had had. He called the effort a troubling move by a party that has repeatedly warned that Trump and his allies are trying to undermine democracy.
“I know a lot of people — my Democratic colleagues in Washington — have been outraged by just the cynicism and hypocrisy that that represented,” he said at a downtown Grand Rapids bar where his supporters had gathered.
In an essay he posted online on Monday, Meijer accused the Democrats of not just helping Gibbs but “subsidizing his entire campaign” because their ad cost more than Gibbs’s campaign has spent on the race, a figure that campaign finance filings show was $334,000. Meijer noted that he has been censured by Republican Party chapters in his district and called a traitor by some of his onetime allies.
“Watching this unraveling inside my party has been utterly bewildering,” Meijer wrote. “The only thing that has been more nauseating has been the capacity of my Democratic colleagues to sell out any pretense of principle for political expediency — at once decrying the downfall of democracy while rationalizing the use of their hard-raised dollars to prop up the supposed object of their fears.”
Hasen, the UCLA law professor, echoed that sentiment.
“Democracy cannot be sustained by just having one party believing in it and helping to purge the other party of democracy-supporting members,” he said.
As voters went to the polls Tuesday, Gibbs downplayed the role of the ad, arguing that the work of his supporters had given him momentum. He rejected the Democrats’ premise that they could more easily beat him than Meijer in a district that leans slightly Democratic.
“Meijer, first of all, has lost so much Republican support that he would never be able to win that general election in November,” Gibbs told reporters outside a community center in the Grand Rapids suburb Byron Center after casting his ballot. “Many Republicans will stay home or skip over his selection on the ballot because of the way he betrayed Republican voters. So he’s completely unelectable in a general.”
Gibbs in November will face Democrat Hillary Scholten, who was unopposed in Tuesday’s Democratic primary. Scholten lost to Meijer by six points in 2020, but since then, the district has been redrawn to favor Democrats.
Scholten issued a statement Wednesday saying that “the ad by the DCCC is exactly the kind of thing that makes me fed up with Washington and ready to fight for the people of West Michigan.”
Terri Itter, a sterilization technician in a dentist’s office, cast her ballot for Gibbs on Tuesday at a fire station in Alpine Township, north of Grand Rapids. She said she was bothered by Meijer’s impeachment vote because she didn’t think anyone had done anything wrong on Jan. 6
As for Gibbs, she said she received a mailer criticizing him for his support for Trump, but she considered that trait an asset. “I know that they think that he’s too conservative,” Itter, 59, said of Gibbs.
Other voters said Trump’s endorsement had the opposite of its intended effect.
“I’m not a Trump fan,” said Jessica Morgan, a 38-year-old stay-at-home mom who considers herself a libertarian.
Gibbs “was very heavily endorsed and very firmly believes that everything is corrupt and we have to hate our government as it is,” Morgan said. “And I like to have more faith than that, so Peter Meijer was the safer bet.”
Kris Trevino, who voted in the Democratic primary, said he didn’t agree with Meijer on many issues but respected his vote to impeach Trump. He had hoped to see Meijer beat Gibbs, and said he thought Democrats should have focused on their own contests instead of helping a candidate they view as willing to usurp democracy.
“I personally don’t want anybody who’s endorsed by Trump just because I don’t believe the whole election lie stuff,” said Trevino, 29, who works in cybersecurity. “And so anybody that has anything to do with election denial, I just want them out.”
Tom Hamburger in Washington contributed to this report.