Dems Boosted an Extreme Republican in a Key Race. Will It Backfire?

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty
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When hard-right Republican John Gibbs defeated anti-Trump incumbent Rep. Peter Meijer (R-MI) in their primary matchup last week, it was the first piece of the plan for Democrats to take back the seat.

That plan—elevate a more extreme, less electable Republican and help the Democrat win in November—could work out perfectly. It could also fail spectacularly.

When elections prophet and pollster Dave Wasserman announced on election night that he was projecting the “Trump-endorsed John Gibbs” to defeat Meijer in the primary, he announced in the same tweet that he was moving the race from a “Toss Up” to “Lean Democrat.”

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It was a direct manifestation of what operatives at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had been arguing: that if they could help Gibbs win the primary, they might just help the Democratic candidate, Hillary Scholten, ultimately take the seat.

Gibbs’ win, in the eyes of election forecasters at least, did just that. It tipped the scales of the race in Democrats’ favor—granting the left an extra pickup opportunity for the House in a year where those are in short supply.

But Democratic meddling also carries substantial risk. For one, Gibbs may actually win. Instead of a moderate Republican who voted to impeach Trump, Democrats could be part of handing the seat to a hard-right, election-denying conspiracy theorist with a history of Islamophobic remarks.

Even some Republicans questioned the move. In a CNN interview, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) called it “disgusting.”

“Don't come to me after having spent money supporting an election denier in a primary... and say, ‘Where are all the good Republicans?'” he said.

For another, Democrats have already angered some members of their base by using DCCC money to boost an extremist Republican in some puckish bankshot gambit—money that could have been used to defend seats Democrats already occupy, potentially raising questions for donors about where their dollars are going.

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All the consternation has just underscored that the seat is now even more of a must-win.

Enter Scholten—and Democrats’ endgame push to get her across the finish line.

An attorney by trade, Scholten ran against Meijer in 2020 and lost by 6 points. But in running against Gibbs this cycle, Scholten believes she can tap into the more “compassionate, moderate” base of Republicans in western Michigan, where Republican politicians like Gerald Ford used to be beloved fixtures of district politics.

“The contrast could not be starker between me and my opponent—and, you know, the consequences of who wins this election more severe,” Scholten told The Daily Beast in a phone interview Thursday.

Just as Wasserman’s shift in forecasts pointed out, there’s no denying that Meijer losing is a disproportionate point in Scholten’s favor for courting swing and moderate voters. Scholten claims she’s already begun to see support from former Meijer supporters over the past week.

“The morning after the election, we had over a dozen emails by noon, and phone calls to our campaign from Peter Meijer supporters saying that they wanted to get involved in our campaign,” she said.

As for what specific issues Scholten’s trying to push, she highlighted abortion as a key topic. The future of abortion in Michigan remains in flux while Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the judiciary, and an almost-century-old law play figurative five-dimensional chess over whether abortion access will continue to be allowed in the state.

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A source working in Democratic congressional campaigns also told The Daily Beast they expect fallout from the overturning of Roe v. Wade to be a significant part of her campaign strategy. The recent vote in deep-red Kansas to protect abortion, they said, is an example that abortion access can be a mobilizing issue.

“Hillary has a really strong story to tell about being a pro-choice Democratic woman,” the source said.

Gibbs is adamantly against abortion—and called the overturning of Roe “great news for women and for protecting innocent babies.”

Gibbs campaign spokesperson AnneMarie Schieber told The Daily Beast in a statement, “John has been out meeting [and] talking [to] voters and the issues that come up over and over again are inflation, gas prices and the recession. Crime and protecting the border are also on the top of the list. [The] country is really facing a crazy time when they talk to Gibbs, they [are] convinced he is on the side of normal. That is what’s going to win November.”

Democratic operatives say there’s more reasons to hype up the seat than just having Gibbs to run against. After the latest round of redistricting, MI-03 is substantially more blue, moving from a Republican +9 to a Democrat +3, according to FiveThirtyEight.

The House Majority PAC has set aside approximately $1.15 million for TV and digital advertising spends in the Grand Rapids market this cycle. And though there are multiple congressional seats that dip into the greater Grand Rapids area, MI-03 is the only especially competitive seat for Democrats around.

After the primary, the DCCC also told The Daily Beast that the group is “prepared to invest the resources necessary to win in November,” per spokesman Matt Corridoni.

“The DCCC will do whatever it takes to keep the gavel out of Kevin McCarthy’s hands,” Corridoni said. “Last Tuesday, Donald Trump’s dream became the GOP’s nightmare. John Gibbs’ winning this primary seals the fate of Republicans hoping to keep this now Democratic-leaning district. An anti-choice radical who sided with violent insurrectionists and would throw out your vote if he doesn’t like it, Gibbs is no match for Hillary Scholten, who has dedicated her career to bringing people together to get things done.”

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Summing up the strategy, Corridoni added that “Republicans have no choice but to embrace their unelectable MAGA extremist candidate.”

Asked if she’s been satisfied with the national investment in her race thus far, Scholten answered with a bit of a chuckle.

“I wish the DCCC had sent me that money. That’s all I’ll say about that,” she said.

Bill Saxton, chair of the Kent County Democrats, which is partially included in the 3rd Congressional District, told The Daily Beast, “What’s gonna help Hillary as well is not just all the great things about her… down-ballot races are going to be huge.”

When the greater Grand Rapids area underwent redistricting and was drawn as a tighter Democratic pod, that didn’t just help Scholten’s prospects; it helped down-ballot Democrats, too. According to Saxton, the left is now more energized in the district.

Michigan is also undergoing a tense gubernatorial election this year between incumbent Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) and Republican nominee Tudor Dixon, a conservative media personality.

“Volunteers are fired up, and we’re all helping one another because these districts overlap,” Saxton said of coordination between the varying Democratic campaigns on the ground. He’s aiming for multiple flipped seats—including Scholten’s—and a blue wave for the district just off Lake Michigan.

“The eyes of the country are going to be here,” he said.

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