Meijer gets GOP primary challenger after impeachment vote

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — West Michigan Republican freshman U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer has drawn a primary challenger after voting last week to impeach former President Donald Trump.

Tom Norton, an Afghanistan veteran and Trump supporter, announced his intent to knock out Meijer in the 2022 GOP primary and went on Trump adviser Steve Bannon's podcast last week to drum up financial support.

"If people contribute to us, we'll be able to really destroy him this time," Norton told Bannon, who called for the primary defeats of Meijer and nine other House GOP members who backed impeachment. 

Tom Norton

A spokesman for Meijer, who represents the Grand Rapids area, declined to comment.

Norton, 38, is a small businessman from Ada who previously served as a trustee and village president in Sand Lake.

He had a poor showing last August in the five-way Republican primary for the 3rd Congressional District, finishing third with nearly 16% of the vote behind Meijer (50%) and former state Rep. Lynn Afendoulis, R-Grand Rapids Township (26%). 

Norton said he spent $160,000 of mostly his own money for the primary election, compared with Meijer, who brought in about $3 million for the cycle, including the general election. Meijer defeated Democrat Hillary Scholten by 6 percentage points on Nov. 3.

This month, he succeeded Rep. Justin Amash, a Libertarian who quit the GOP after clashes with Trump and voted to impeachment him in 2019. Like Meijer, Amash also attracted GOP challengers after his vote to impeach Trump.

"When you sit there and you launch a campaign saying you're going to defend the president, and one of your first votes to impeach the president without a real process, you destroy the trust with voters," Norton said of Meijer.

Meijer was in the House gallery on Jan. 6 when a violent mob, egged on by Trump, breached and ransacked the building in an effort to stop Congress from affirming President Joe Biden's victory. Five people died in the chaos that day, including a Capitol Police officer. 

A week later, Meijer cast his vote to impeach, saying that while it may have been "political suicide," it was what he felt was needed for accountability and the good of the nation, especially after Trump took no responsibility for inciting the riot. 

"If he hadn't held that rally, if he hadn't lied to those who trusted him about a massive 'stolen' election, and hadn't lied and said that this was the time that they could change the results of that election, then five people wouldn't be dead today," Meijer told The Detroit News after the vote last week.

Meijer also said that a primary challenge was "to some extent, going to be inevitable," but he stood by his vote. 

File photo - U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Grand Rapids Township

"If someone's in office and looking over their shoulder the whole time, they're probably not going to be making decisions within the best interests of their constituents," Meijer said. 

Norton slammed the impeachment process as a rush to judgment and a violation of due process. 

"There should have been actual full hearings, evidence presented to the public. It was just that people got out of control, but the president wasn't involved in it," Norton said.

"We've set the bar for impeachment so low that if Joe Biden trips wrong or anything else, we could essentially impeach him for anything we don't like."

Norton said he wasn't condoning violence, but that if Trump is to be blamed for the angry rioters who went into the Capitol, then Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris should be blamed for any violence stemming from racial justice protests last year. "I see them all equally the same," he said. 

Norton backed Meijer in the general election and campaigned for him. Norton said he and Meijer became friends, and that the congressman called him the morning of the impeachment vote to inform him of his decision to support the article charging Trump with “incitement of insurrection."

"He told me, 'Tom, I can't look myself in the mirror if I don't vote for it. You do what you have to do — if you got to, put your (campaign) website back up,'" Norton recalled.

Norton did put his campaign site back up. He said he received $30,000 in donations in the first week. 

"When I ran last time, we couldn’t get anybody to donate to us because we were running against Peter Meijer," he said. "Now, people are willing to donate to us because we are running against Peter Meijer."

Other Republicans who backed Trump's impeachment are also being targeted by primary opponents, including Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, who is part of House GOP leadership.

Michigan's Republican primary is more than 18 months away, and political analysts said conservative outrage at Meijer might subside by then.

An Iraq veteran and the grandson of retailer Fredrik Meijer, Peter Meijer has widespread name recognition in his district and has money to help fend off a challenge.

"If there were an election next week, Peter Meijer might lose a primary, but that’s not what's happening here," said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

"A friend of mine from Michigan pointed out that this is a guy who doesn’t need this job, he could do all sorts of other things, has a lot of money, so that might make it a little easier for him to vote his conscience, which of course he did," Kondik added. 

"Some Republicans in the House are betting that the future of the Republican Party is not so Trump-centric, and by making votes like this, are trying to make that happen."

mburke@detroitnews.com