In race to replace Amash, Meijer may have edge but he’s got competition
For all their business successes, the big family names of west Michigan — the DeVoses, the Strykers, the Van Andels — haven’t themselves won too many elections when their names were on the ballot.
That may be about to change.
If, as many expect, Peter Meijer, a member of the family that founded the eponymous grocery store chain, wins the Aug. 4 Republican primary in west Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District, he will become the favorite to win come November in what has traditionally been a Republican-held district.
That’s no guarantee he’ll do so, with Democrats believing the district’s in reach and hoping that Joe Biden’s presidential campaign will lift the numbers of their nominee, immigration lawyer Hillary Scholten, significantly in and around the district’s biggest city, Grand Rapids. But flipping the 3rd District — currently represented by U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, a Republican-turned-Libertarian who is stepping down after having served five terms in office and considering a run for the presidency — won’t be easy, since no Democrat’s come with 9 percentage points of winning in its current configuration.
But first, Meijer, the 32-year-old grandson of grocery store founder Frederik Meijer and an Iraq War veteran, has to win the primary. He comes into the race with some distinct advantages, including fundraising prowess; endorsements from well-known Republican figures like U.S. Senate candidate John James and U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and deep ties to the business community.
And, of course, that name.
“He’s just got a huge name, it’s mammoth,” said political pundit Bill Ballenger, who writes the Ballenger Report and does a weekly radio show on Michigan politics. “Meijer’s going to win this thing.”
Still, in a crowded five-person field for the Republican nomination, strange things can happen. And Meijer does have competition: State Rep. Lynn Afendoulis, R-Grand Rapids, is also from a relatively well-known west Michigan family, and former Sand Lake Village president Tom Norton has been doing his best to fire up grassroots support on a shoestring budget by carping that Democrats are “deleting conservatives” and comparing the current political atmosphere to Nazi Germany while charging that Meijer and Afendoulis aren’t consistent conservatives, despite scant evidence to show that.
Meijer supports Trump, responds to criticisms
On the campaign trail and in interviews, Meijer presents himself as both a generational change agent and as a thoughtful conservative. On the issues, he doesn’t stray far from current Republican orthodoxy — anti-abortion, smaller government, less regulation, supportive of gun ownership rights. He supports President Donald Trump’s tactics of using tariffs to promote better trade deals; he believes in “market-based reforms” to health care, while saying any system put in place of the Affordable Care Act must protect coverage for preexisting conditions.
Meijer, who went to Iraq as an Army Reserve sergeant and served as an intelligence officer and worked with aid groups in Afghanistan and Sudan, also agrees with Trump that American involvement in foreign wars needs to be curtailed. When a reporter mentions to him that former Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., voiced similar beliefs at times, he said: “It just goes to show you how much the political winds have shifted.”
“Anyone who has been there knows these are political fights we’re trying to address through military means and we have to take a different approach,” he said. On the issue of climate change, he said he doesn’t care for the “certainty with which the Democrats often present these issues … but I’m a believer in risk awareness and risk prevention.”
“I don’t think the world is going to end in 10 years. But it’s reasonable to be concerned about what the impacts on our environment may be,” he said.
He has come under some criticism, however, especially from Norton, who has claimed Meijer is trying to buy the election — he’s raised nearly $1.5 million and of that loaned himself $425,000, compared with the $33,000 raised by Norton, who also loaned himself about $12,000 as of June 30 — and, perhaps more significantly, that Meijer has had ties with groups he suggests are anti-conservative.
For instance, Norton has noted Meijer’s work with the Truman National Security Project, a group that advocates on national security measures and once included Biden’s son Hunter Biden as a member of its board. Meijer, however, said he has never had any contact with Hunter Biden.
Afendoulis, meanwhile, has criticized Meijer’s work with a political action committee, With Honor, that has funded both Republicans and Democrats, some of the latter of which voted to impeach Trump. Meijer is quick to note that its overall purpose is to elect veterans to Congress.
“I’m not going to try to apologize for trying to get more veterans into office,” he said.
On the question of recent protests against police brutality, Meijer said while some have spun out of control “on the extreme end” with vandalism and fires and that action must be taken to protect communities and authorities, “you can’t let that distract from a lot of the legitimate feelings our neighbors in the community have that they feel unsafe in their skin.”
Afendoulis, Norton appear to be Meijer’s chief rivals
Meijer’s chief opponent may be Afendoulis, a former journalist and spokeswoman for Universal Forest Products before winning election in 2018 to a state House seat formerly held by her cousin, Chris Afendoulis. She also is the granddaughter of Greek immigrants and her father ran a restaurant in Grand Rapids.
Her current district includes suburbs of Grand Rapids and stretches northeast of the city through some more rural parts of the 3rd Congressional District, including Ionia, Barry and Calhoun counties, as well as portions of Kent and Montcalm counties.
As a candidate for Congress, she is trying to make a claim to having more experience than Meijer and suggesting that the race really comes down to whether voters prefer her or him.
“It’s a two-person race essentially,” she said. “I feel good about my position in the race.” On the campaign trail, she adheres to the Republican themes, but also on her campaign website hits hard a message suggesting — without evidence — that Democrats have embraced ideologies that will inevitably result in a “government that controls more, allows for fewer personal freedoms and nationalizes whole industries.”
While Democrats are in support of larger government programs to provide access to health care and some other services, relatively few elected Democrats have declared themselves Democratic “socialists,” and those that have generally do not support government ownership of business, despite Republican rhetoric to the contrary.
She said she would serve no more than three terms before leaving.
Afendoulis also said she has worked hard in the state House on tax policy to make it more fair for small businesses. “It’s fair to say I’m a strong conservative who believes in conservative values,” she said. Having raised about $860,000 as of June 30 — $256,000 of that in the form of a loan to herself — she only trails Meijer in terms of fundraising in the Republican race.
“I certainly don’t have the resources as the heir to the Meijer fortune,” she said, “but money doesn’t buy everything, and it’s not going to buy a race.”
But Norton — a former Army National Guardsman and veteran of the war in Afghanistan — has questioned Afendoulis’ conservative credentials as well, pointing to several Facebook posts of hers from 2016 that indicated less-than-full support for Trump. If she had reservations then, however — as did many other Republicans — she said she is a strong supporter of the president’s now and has been for some time.
“He’s does what he’s said he was going to do,” she said, adding that she believes he has been “faced with more adversarial conditions than any president I remember.”
It’s Norton, however, who is trying hardest to claim a fervent commitment to Trumpism, openly attacking his chief competitors; invoking images of going “into the darkness” if cuts are allowed to be made to police departments in the wake of protests following George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis in May; repeating claims of state legislation which critics say would allow businesses to require employees to implant microchips when it expressly does not, though it would allow businesses, if a court ordered someone to have a microchip implanted for some reason, such as probation or parole restrictions, to require he or she do so as a condition of employment.
And while Norton, a salesman for home improvement services, said he initially had questions about Trump as well, he said he quickly overcame them. “As I watched him, (I realized) he understands the anger more than anyone else. … He understands the anger of Americans.”
Amash has remained key driver in race
Norton, like the others, espouses Republican orthodoxy for gun rights, getting government out of the health care market and reducing government spending, including reforming Medicare and Social Security for future beneficiaries. But he says that following a televised debate last week in which he was able to go after Meijer and Afendoulis directly, he has seen interest and requests for yard signs increase.
“It was a very, very good night,” Norton said.
Farrington, meanwhile, was also part of that debate on WOOD-TV, but seemed as if he should be on another stage, bashing Trump, accusing him of trying to use the coronavirus pandemic to his political gain and saying he would restore fiscal sanity by allowing taxes on wealthier Americans to be raised. Farrington has reported no fundraising or spending, according to the Federal Election Commission, however, and does not seem a viable candidate in the August primary. Rafi, who didn’t participate in that debate, says on her website she is running as a supporter of the Trump agenda, has also reported little progress in terms of fundraising, having spent $24,000 but having given herself all but $2,300 of that. As of June 30, she has no money in her campaign.
At one point in the campaign, there had been even more candidates before state Rep. Jim Lower, R-Greenville, and DeltaPlex Arena owner Joel Langlois dropped out.
Throughout the campaign, however, the major mover in the race has been the incumbent, Amash.
Having always been an independent-minded Republican willing to break with his party, especially when he believed it was not going far enough to rein in government or acting in an unconstitutional manner, Amash last year dropped out of the party after becoming the only GOP member of the U.S. House to call for Trump’s impeachment.
Amash, a constitutional lawyer, had read the report of Special Counsel Robert Mueller into Russian involvement in the 2016 election and concluded that Trump — whom Amash had unapologetically opposed — had obstructed justice. Trump called Amash a “loser.”
That led to a long road in which Amash became a Libertarian and weighed a run for the presidency before giving that up in May. Still, there was a chance he might try to run for reelection in his district, where he had served since 2011. Last week, he posted on Twitter that he would not run for reelection.
“I love representing our community in Congress. … This is my choice, but I’m still going to miss it,” Amash said in his post. “Thank you for your trust.”
And while it seems that Amash’s leaving the race is good for whoever wins the Republican nomination, Democrats have tried to push back on that assertion, citing some polling they say indicates Amash may have pulled more support from their chances than previously believed. Political handicappers consider the 3rd District race as still leaning Republican, however.
As to who will win on Aug. 4, there is little or no public polling to look at. Afendoulis has lots of endorsements from state legislators and township officials in and around the district. But the endorsements Meijer has racked up suggests top national Republicans believe he’s likely to win.
Brian Ellis, a businessman who ran unsuccessfully against Amash in the Republican primary in 2014, said there is no doubt that Meijer has the name recognition but wondered whether in a time of COVID-19 and limited one-on-one campaigning if it hasn’t hampered his efforts to motivate everyday voters.
“I don’t think Meijer or Afendoulis has captured the grassroots, and Tom Norton … is in the grassroots. … He comes out of that group.”
He said the primary could well be decided by the “hard right of the party … I would call them Trump loyalists to the nth degree.”
“What I can’t tell is whether Meijer or Afendoulis has captured part of that.”
3RD CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT PRIMARY
Five Republicans are running in the Aug. 4 primary for the party’s nomination to the seat currently held by U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, L-Cascade Township, who is stepping down. The winner will face Democrat Hillary Scholten who is unopposed in her primary.
The candidates are:
State Rep. Lynn Afendoulis of Grand Rapids, a former communications professional elected to the state Legislature in 2018.
Lyons trustee Joe Farrington, a small business owner
Peter Meijer, an Iraq War veteran who also worked providing aid overseas; member of the family which founded Meijer grocery stores
Former Sand Lake Village president Tom Norton, a former Army National Guardsman and veteran.
Emily Rafi of Battle Creek, an attorney