Trump looms large in West Michigan race to replace presidential critic Amash
Twenty minutes into a debate hosted by a Grand Rapids television station, the Republicans who hope to replace U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, L-Cascade Township, faced a six-word question with potentially resounding implications.
"Do you support President Trump unequivocally?" a WOOD-TV viewer named Chris from Grand Rapids wanted to know.
The question is pressing in Michigan's 3rd U.S. House District this summer as two political forces collide in the race for Amash's seat.
One is President Donald Trump, who remains popular among GOP primary voters. The other is Democrats' momentum in West Michigan, where the party made inroads during the 2018 election that they argue are fueled by hesitation about Trump among general election voters.
The five Republicans running in the 3rd District, including a state representative and the grandson of the founder of the Meijer supermarket chain, are facing a balancing act. They have to win the support of primary voters before facing a general election fight with a well-funded Democratic opponent, Hillary Scholten, an attorney from Grand Rapids who is unopposed in her primary.
The eventual winner will replace Amash, a former Republican who publicly has feuded with Trump, parted ways with the Republican Party and eventually decided against running for reelection as a Libertarian.
"The easiest way to win the primary is the easiest way to lose the general," said Peter Meijer, a 32-year-old military veteran from Grand Rapids.
Meijer, who's been criticized by his opponents for not being a strong enough supporter of the president, said the candidates need to focus on "solutions" instead of feeding into the "hyper outrage" of the day.
Meijer is considered the favorite to win the GOP nomination because he has raised more money than his primary opponents and garnered the endorsements of U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California and U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas.
But state Rep. Lynn Afendoulis, R-Grand Rapids Township, and former Sand Lake Village Trustee Tom Norton have emphasized their grassroots support. Afendoulis, Meijer and Norton have been the most active candidates in the race.
Norton's yard signs identify him as pro-Trump. Afendoulis says her campaign has received contributions from more than 17,000 donors. She's run TV ads calling Meijer a "never Trumper."
Afendoulis, 61, who was first elected to the state House in 2018, acknowledged that the general election will be "exceedingly difficult." But she argued that she has a track record while Meijer doesn't.
“Who are you? What are your beliefs?” she asked of Meijer.
A swing district?
Brandon Dillon, former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party who represented a portion of Kent County in the state House, said he doesn't envy Republicans' position in the 3rd District.
“They don’t want any daylight between Republican candidates for Congress and the president," Dillon said of GOP primary voters. "It makes it difficult for a Republican candidate in a swing district."
Democrats' argument that the 3rd is a potential "swing district" is a new development. And Republicans don't necessarily agree.
The district features a large swath of West Michigan, including Grand Rapids in Kent County and Battle Creek in Calhoun County, which are favorable to Democrats. But it also has rural areas, like Ionia and Barry counties, where Republicans are heavily favored.
Democrats haven't made a strong push to win the district since it was redrawn for the 2012 election. Amash, who was first elected in 2010, was reelected in 2016 by a 22-point margin. In 2018 — with Democrats still not spending money on the district — Amash won by 11 points.
But Gov. Gretchen Whitmer won Kent County, the largest county in the district, by 4 points in 2018 and narrowly lost the 3rd District. Dillon and other Democrats contend the county is trending their way as suburban voters trend against Trump.
The former party chairman predicted Amash's district would see a similar level of attention to Michigan's 8th District in 2018, when Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, unseated Republican incumbent Rep. Mike Bishop of Rochester. It was one of the most expensive congressional races in the country two years ago.
Republican political consultant Greg McNeilly, who lives in Grand Rapids, doesn't buy the Democratic hype. While Trump might win the 3rd District with a lower margin than other Republicans have, he'll still win the district, McNeilly predicted.
“I hope they spend their money there," he said of Democrats.
"Every dollar spent there protects Fred Upton," he added, referring to U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, who is expected to see a challenging reelection campaign in Southwest Michigan after winning by 4 percentage points in 2018.
Third District voters don't align with Democratic policy positions, McNeilly said. Trump's problems in the region lie in the struggle between the policies of his administration, which people in West Michigan like, and the drama in the White House, which makes people uncomfortable, the GOP consultant said.
Asked if he's worried about the GOP candidates too closely aligning with Trump in the primary, McNeilly said he's not concerned but he thinks it's a strategic mistake.
Following the money
With a pandemic limiting the candidates' opportunities for face-to-face encounters with voters, Afendoulis said she has been running much of her campaign from her den.
The mother of two said she's done more Zoom meetings than she can count and has participated in many, many phone calls. Nearby, in the same den as Afendoulis worked on her campaign, her daughter, Katharine, completed her college education over the computer, she said.
Afendoulis, who previously worked as director for corporate communications for Universal Forest Products, raised more money than Meijer did last fundraising quarter.
Overall, however, Meijer has a financial advantage. He's given $475,000 to his own campaign since the beginning of the race. Afendoulis has given $256,000 to her campaign.
Outside spending in the race has been low, which could point to the similarities of the candidates on some stances. In Michigan's other open U.S. House district, independent groups have poured more than $1 million into the 10th District GOP primary race where candidates are running to replace U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Dryden, who decided against running for reelection.
The top outside spender in the 3rd District is a group called Fix Congress Now, which reported nearly $60,000 in expenditures in opposition to Afendoulis. The group has been funded by Colorado-based Unite America, which supports vote by mail and independent redistricting measure commissions.
Meijer's top campaign donors have featured Michigan GOP powerhouses, including members of the DeVos family and former Michigan Republican Party Chairman Ron Weiser.
As for Norton, his campaign has raised about $35,000 with most of the money coming from himself. Norton, 37, who, like Meijer, is a military veteran, got into the race when Amash was expected to run for reelection as a Republican.
He works in home improvement sales and calls himself the "most pro-Trump" candidate in the race. He said 90% of his customers are Republicans and rejects the idea the district is trending toward Democrats. Republicans need to nominate candidates with principles to be successful, Norton argued.
According to Norton, the question facing voters is whether they are tired of representatives going to Washington, D.C., with "family names," being "bought and paid for" and producing the same "garbage" they always have.
"Or do voters actually want to take out the garbage?" Norton asked. "Do they actually want to send somebody who has the same experience that everybody in the district can actually relate to?"
Term limits difference
Asked about the July 14 debate question of whether she "unequivocally" supports the president, Afendoulis said the query was a bit of a "gotcha question." People want absolutes, she said, but there aren't absolutes.
“I support the president," she explained. "And I will work hard with him to bring the economy back.”
"To say that I agree unequivocally with anybody on this planet is a bit of a stretch,” Afendoulis said.
On her disagreements with Meijer, Afendoulis pointed to her experience in the Legislature and said she's hoping to go to Washington only after having a long career.
"I want to do it for three terms," Afendoulis said of serving in the U.S. House. "I believe in term limits. And then, I want to hand it over to somebody else."
Meijer doesn't believe in term limits, she argued.
Asked about the issue, Meijer said term limits are the wrong solution to the problem of the incumbency advantage.
"We absolutely need more competitive elections, but putting an expiration date on elected officials only empowers bureaucrats and lobbyists and ultimately undermines the legislators who are actually accountable to the people," Meijer said.
On where he disagrees with Afendoulis, Meijer said he's not sure where Afendoulis stands on policies. But Meijer said he has a more "substantive vision" that includes embracing a forward-thinking position on the environment and ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The cheapest way for some candidates to win a primary nomination is being the "anti-candidate," like running on a "squash Amash" platform or being the "anti-Whitmer," Meijer said. Afendoulis has described herself as the "anti-Whitmer."
“Voters care a lot more about what you stand for than what you’re standing against,” Meijer said. “Who are you going to be?"
The two lesser-known Republicans in the race are Emily Rafi, 40, who's an attorney and a Battle Creek native, and Joe Farrington, who owns a bar in Lyons. Farrington has been campaigning against "special interests" and has been openly critical of Trump.
When he was asked if he "unequivocally" supports Trump during the WOOD-TV debate, Farrington called the president "somewhat of an idiot."