(Bloomberg) -- In one corner is US Representative Peter Meijer, one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Donald Trump after the Jan. 6 insurrection. In the other is challenger John Gibbs, a former Trump administration official who has cast doubt on the validity of Joe Biden’s win in 2020.
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Their match-up in Michigan’s Republican primary Tuesday is illustrative of races nationwide dividing GOP candidates -- and voters -- along the lines of those who support the false theory that the 2020 election was stolen and those who recognize Biden as the legitimate president. Trump has endorsed more than 20 candidates in Michigan, including gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon, who also has said the election was stolen.
In the midterm primaries, Republican voters aren’t just deciding who will take on the Democrats in November but also the future of the GOP. Is it still Trump’s party or are people ready to move on?
“This is a battle for the heart and soul of the Republican party,” Gibbs said in an interview. “What’s happening in my race is similar to what’s going on in the rest of the country. People feel the party isn’t representing what they want.”
Gibbs is correct about the high stakes in Michigan. Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer leads all five Republicans vying to challenge her in November by at least 10 points, according to polls, and Democrats believe they have a chance to take control of the state Senate for the first time since 1984. And despite the headlines of the past few years, whether it be a foiled plot to kidnap Whitmer or gun-rights activists bringing rifles into the statehouse, Michigan elections are often decided by moderate independent voters.
“What we’ll see is whether the backbone of GOP party establishment has any power left,” said Richard Czuba, founder of Glengariff Group, a polling firm. “The Trump people seem to have the advantage. It could also be split.”
On July 29, Trump endorsed Dixon, a former media personality from western Michigan who believes abortion should be banned, with no exceptions. Before working in right-wing media, Dixon was in sales for steel and industrial companies.
The contest between Meijer and Gibbs is among the most crucial, and Trump’s endorsement is an advantage. According to Czuba, in a recent poll 63% of Michigan GOP voters said Trump’s endorsement was important. Gibbs has played up Trump’s backing, saying voters feel betrayed by Meijer because he voted for impeachment.
A similar dynamic played out in South Carolina, where incumbent Tom Rice, who also voted in favor of impeachment, lost his primary in June to state Representative Russell Fry, who was endorsed by Trump.
Gibbs, 43, who is Black, hails from the far-right wing of the party. He served in the Trump administration as director of the Office of Personal Management. He is among those who say the 2020 election was stolen, and has spread falsehoods and conspiracy theories, including about Hillary Clinton and her former campaign manager, John Podesta.
He served as a Christian missionary in Japan, and studied computer science at Stanford University. He worked for Apple Inc. on the first iPhone project, according to his website.
Gibbs criticizes Meijer for voting to impeach Trump and his votes for some bipartisan measures, including the landmark federal gun safety legislation passed by Congress in June. Meijer was one of 14 House Republicans and 15 Senate Republicans who voted in favor of the bill, the first federal gun safety legislation in decades.
Meijer, 34, said that instead of being divided, Republicans should be working together to press an agenda of conservative values and bringing competence to government, which both he and Gibbs say the Biden administration lacks.
Meijer, a military veteran and Columbia University graduate, comes from a billionaire family that made its wealth with the Meijer grocery chain in the 1930s. He worked as a business analyst for Illitch Holdings, the sports and entertainment company created by the late Little Caesar’s Pizza billionaire Michael Illitch.
Meijer’s campaign focus has been on economic issues. He wants to reduce government spending and regulation and to help small businesses. He said his push to support business and promote economic growth will appeal to voters in his West Michigan district, whom he describes as pragmatic.
Both candidates oppose abortion, with Meijer’s only exception being if the mother’s life is in danger. Meijer also voted against the Right to Contraception Act, which would guarantee the right to birth control. Gibbs refused to answer when asked several times if contraception should be legal. That’s a hard-line stance to take, Czuba said, because 91% of Republican voters say they want to keep contraception legal for married couples.
“The real problem is promiscuity,” Gibbs said. “I’d like to focus on overall solutions.”
The district the candidates are competing to represent is traditionally conservative -- the home of former President Gerald Ford. In 2020, Meijer beat Democrat Hillary Scholten, who is running again, with 53% of the vote. Democrats believe Gibbs is easier to beat and have been quietly spending money to boost his campaign, according to Politico.
Gibbs said that pre-Trump, the Republican party was not fighting hard enough for conservative values and didn’t represent its working-class members.
Meijer, too, refers to the pre-Trump GOP as “milquetoast” but said he disagreed with Trump on the his role in the Jan. 6 riots. Meijer recognizes Biden as the legitimate president and said some candidates, including Gibbs, have opportunistically backed Trump’s false claims to garner his support.
“Trump galvanized energy and enthusiasm,” Meijer said. “Some folks grab those issues because it’s a means to an ends and an opportunity for advancement. I can’t count the number of times someone took their MAGA hat off and said they wished Trump would go away.”
Many establishment Republicans share that view and are starting to put money behind it. Trump’s former education secretary, Betsy DeVos, resigned after Jan. 6. The DeVos family has been a stalwart of the Michigan GOP for years. Now, their PACs are endorsing Trump opponents -- with the exception of Dixon.
The DeVos-backed Michigan Freedom Network has endorsed several candidates for the state legislature, including Jay DeBoyer, Greg VanWoerkom, Lana Theis and Kim LaSata, in their races against Trump-backed candidates. DeBoyer’s opponent Jacky Eubanks, a staunch Catholic, told the right-wing website Church Militant that contraception should be illegal.
Between 20% and 25% of the state’s voters are independent, and Whitmer has a 61% approval rating with them, giving Democrats the momentum. Her lawsuit with the state Supreme Court and November ballot issue to protect abortion rights also could play well with independent voters.
Meijer would probably fare better with independents in the November general election than Gibbs because of his stance on the 2020 election, but the primary will be tough for him because of Trump’s sway with the party, Czuba said.
“Meijer is much more formidable as a general election candidate because of all the independent voters,” Czuba said. “They don’t want to re-litigate 2020. This is the district of Gerald Ford. One problem with Trump candidates is they want to talk 2020, but the independents have moved on.”
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