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Battle for Amash's seat in Congress deemed 'toss up'

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

A highly regarded political forecaster, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, changed its rating Wednesday in the West Michigan battle for former Republican Rep. Justin Amash's seat in Congress from "leans Republican" to a toss-up.

The contest features two first-time candidates and Millennials: Republican Peter Meijer, 32, of Grand Rapids Township and Democrat Hillary Scholten, 38, of Grand Rapids.

Two other forecasters, Inside Elections and Politico, also have deemed the race a toss-up, even though the region hasn't been represented by a Democrat in Congress since 1976.

Analysts privy to private and public polling say many Republicans in the district are fed up with President Donald Trump, providing an opening for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden to win there.

Amash, a Trump critic who left the GOP last year, weighed in this week, saying polls showing Trump losing his district "are no surprise to me or others who pay attention to politics in West Michigan."

"2016 was the fluke," Amash tweeted. "This district has been close for many years. While I consistently won by large margins, other Republicans fared worse over the same areas."

Michigan's 3rd District went for Trump by 9 percentage points in 2016, but Democrats are betting they can flip the open seat, noting that fast-growing Kent County — the most populous part of the district — is trending more Democratic. 

Trump won Kent by 3 percentage points, but Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, won it by 4 points two years later.

Michigan's 3rd District includes Ionia, Barry and Calhoun counties along with portions of Kent and Montcalm counties.

Michigan's 3rd District Congressional Republican candidate Peter Meijer speaks at a campaign rally, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Cook Political Report noted that Meijer, an Iraq veteran and grandson of the retailer Frederik Meijer, "has the luxury of running on his family's brand and his humanitarian work around the world and barely mentioned Trump during the Republican primary."

"But puzzlingly, the moderate and wealthy Meijer got a late start on Grand Rapids television, and for several weeks in September, Democrat Hillary Scholten had the airwaves to herself," wrote Cook's House editor, David Wasserman.

Scholten, an immigration attorney and mom of two, has stressed her evangelical faith and work for the charity Mel Trotter Ministries, often mentioning Meijer's $50 million trust fund. The ministry last week clarified that it does not endorse Scholten, asking her to stop using it in her campaign messages.

Democrat Hillary Scholten campaigns at a rally outside Kent County Democratic headquarters in Grand Rapids on Oct. 15, 2020.

GOP leaders say they are confident the district will return to Republican hands, expressing confidence that Meijer will prevail.

Minnesota U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, told The Detroit News on Wednesday that Meijer will win the district "without a problem." 

"My colleagues down the street, they've been doing this a lot, you know. I love the their bravado that, 'oh we feel very confident about this and that,'" Emmer said, referring to his counterparts at the House Democratic campaign arm. 

"I put more faith in our team than I do in them, and if they want to waste their money in Michigan 3, God bless them. Let them waste their money."

Minnesota U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer is chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee countered that Emmer's committee wouldn't be spending over $1 million in broadcast ads to boost Meijer in a district that hasn't elected a Democrat in 40 years if Meijer had the race locked up.

“Hillary Scholten clearly has them worried," said spokeswoman Courtney Rice of the DCCC, which committed $780,000 to broadcast ads in the Grand Rapids market.

Scholten's campaign said Cook shifting the rating toward the Democrat confirms that "people are ready for something new."

“West Michiganders are looking for an independent-minded leader they can trust to work across the aisle to put people first, and they are finding that in Hillary Scholten," campaign manager Wellesley Daniels said.

Meijer's campaign said its polling confirms that voters "prefer Peter's service-first approach over Scholten's hazy background, as noted by the cease and desist letter issued to her campaign by Mel Trotter Ministries," spokesman Noah Sadlier said.

mburke@detroitnews.com