HOLLAND, MI — Inside Lighthouse Baptist Church, where Ottawa County residents gathered recently for a Republican candidate forum, congressional hopeful John Gibbs made his pitch to voters still angry over temporary COVID-19 restrictions and former President Donald Trump’s impeachment.
He found a receptive audience.
Gibbs, a former software engineer and political commentator who wants to defeat U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer in the Aug. 2 Republican primary for Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District, drew cheers as he touted his endorsement by Trump and called out the first-term congressman for voting to impeach the former president following the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
“What I want to do, two weeks from now, is win by a large enough margin that we beat the cheating,” said Gibbs, who has supported Trump’s baseless claims of fraud in the 2020 election. “And God willing, I believe we are on track to do that.”
With less than two weeks before the election, Gibbs is hopeful Trump’s endorsement and support from grassroots activists will carry him to victory.
Although he has raised significantly less money than Meijer, has lived in the district for less than a year, and has little advertising presence on television, radio and social media, two political observers say Gibbs poses a threat to the congressman.
“I think John Gibbs has gained real ground,” said Jase Bolger, former speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives and a longtime Republican who lives in Norton Shores. “That is because the primary voter is very attune to elections, primary elections in particular, to the candidates, and to the stances that their elected officials take.”
Meijer, who cast his vote to impeach Trump just 10 days after being sworn into office, has defended his decision to hold the former president accountable for his role in inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection.
He has acknowledged the vote was “probably an act of political suicide,” but says his duty is to uphold the Constitution and that he voted accordingly.
Ottawa County GOP Chair Keith den Hollander said Gibbs has made progress in building his name recognition since coming into the race largely unknown las year. However, for some voters, the race is less about Gibbs than it is about casting a protest vote against Meijer.
“I think, to some extent, folks that are discontent may find themselves in a camp where they’re voting against someone versus for someone,” he said, adding that there’s still a lot of voters in the race who are undecided.
Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District includes a large chunk of Kent County, including the city of Grand Rapids, and stretches as far north as Rockford and as far south as Byron Township. It also includes the northern half of Ottawa County, including Allendale and Grand Haven.
Southern Muskegon County, including the city of Muskegon, Norton Shores and Fruitport Township, is included in the district as well.
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Gibbs, 43, grew up outside Lansing, and has a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Stanford University and a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University. He has worked as an engineer in Silicon Valley, a Christian missionary in Japan, a political commentator, and served in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development during the Trump administration.
He was appointed in 2020 by Trump to serve as director of the Office of Personnel Management, but the Senate did not confirm him, according to reporting by The Detroit News.
He was scrutinized because of inflammatory tweets, reported by CNN, that called Democrats the party of “Islam” and “gender-bending.” He also tweeted a false conspiracy theory claiming that “Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign chairman took part in a satanic ritual,” CNN reported.
During the candidate forum, which was hosted by the group Ottawa County Patriots and featured lengthy presentations questioning the efficacy of vaccines and the 2020 election results, Gibbs took aim at Meijer for more than his impeachment vote.
He called out the congressman, who did not receive an invitation to attend the forum, for supporting a $40 billion humanitarian and military package for Ukraine. He also criticized Meijer for voting for a bipartisan gun safety package following the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that killed 19 students and two teachers.
But it was Meijer’s impeachment vote that seemed to upset attendees the most.
“He does not support Donald Trump, and so that’s my main issue,” said Cal Peters, 68, of Grandville.
Meijer has been endorsed by the DeVos family, the Grand Rapids Chamber, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, and has received financial support from U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, and various Grand Rapids business leaders.
He acknowledges he and Trump have “had our differences.” But he says he supports policies put forward during the former president’s administration surrounding border security and domestic energy production.
Disappointment with Meijer’s impeachment vote has not hurt his ability to raise money.
Meijer, 34, of Grand Rapids Township, has more than 10 times as much money available as Gibbs, and he has used those dollars to spread his message and tout his conservative principles. He has booked $520,787 on advertisements between January 2021 and the Aug. 2 primary, according to data from the firm AdImpact provided by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.
Gibbs, meanwhile, has spent $14,286.
Meijer’s campaign has released at least four commercials and a radio advertisement in the past month. The spots focus on his 2010 deployment to Iraq as a non-commissioned officer with the Army Reserves, take aim at President Joe Biden’s “botched” withdrawal from Afghanistan, and promote his efforts to strengthen the economy and secure the southern border.
One of the ads, a radio advertisement called “A Fighter for West Michigan,” attacks Gibbs for moving to the district to run for Congress, and contrasts that with Meijer’s family’s longstanding ties to the region.
Speaking after his appearance at Lighthouse Baptist Church, Gibbs said his fundraising and advertising disadvantage hasn’t hurt his candidacy. He also defends his decision to move to West Michigan to run for Congress, saying he was born and raised in the state and that he believes he’s the best candidate for the job.
“Money does matter — yes,” he said. “You need enough money to get your name out there and pay your staff. But it doesn’t quite mean what it used to. People are getting sick of money being able to buy elections.”
Gibbs says he’s focused on beating Meijer by pounding the pavement.
“We’re hitting the ground every single day,” he said, adding this his campaign’s internal polling show he’s ahead of Meijer in the race. “We’re going out door knocking. We’re going and visiting every single city and township in the district. We are meeting voters. We’re putting out yard signs.”
David Ryden, a political science professor at Hope College, said Gibbs represents “a serious threat to Meijer.”
Normally, Meijer’s name recognition would be a big benefit for his campaign, he said. But in the primary race, it may, for some voters, serve as a reminder of his impeachment vote, and it’s unclear if Meijer’s advertisements to boost his conservative credentials will resonate with voters.
“I think we’re in an era now where money can have far less salience,” Ryden said. “The thing working against money being the determinant is people’s cynicism, people’s quick with the remote to turn the add off, or more importantly to simply disbelieve what they hear.”
Zach Lahring, chair of the Muskegon County GOP, which has endorsed Gibbs, says Meijer has the support of some business owners and “the established elite Republicans.” Gibbs, on the other hand, is supported by grassroots members of the party, he said.
“The grassroots are alive this year,” Lahring said. “They’re very active in supporting John Gibbs. I do know it’s difficult to beat money, and Peter Meijer is spending it like it’s going out of style.”
He predicts a strong turnout among grassroots voters, and says he expects Gibbs to beat Meijer.
“They’re very mobilized to get out and vote for their gubernatorial candidate, and I think that is going to motivate the Gibbs people to get out also,” Lahring said.
In Ottawa County, there’s grassroots energy for Gibbs, but Meijer has enthusiastic supporters too, den Hollander said.
“There’s definitely an element of the party that would agree with his voting record and the decisions he’s made,” he said, referencing Meijer’s impeachment vote and bipartisan gun safety vote. “I’ve certainly talked with people who are supporting Peter. There are people who are supporting him because of those votes, people who feel like that’s where they are.”
While polling released by the Gibbs campaign says Gibbs has an18-point lead over Meijer, den Hollander says “he’s hesitant to make any predictions,” and that “it’s anybody’s race” to win.
Bolger, the former House speaker who lives in Norton Shores, says he believes Meijer will win but that “Gibbs will give him a heck of a race.”
“I see him out doing the work,” he said, describing why he thinks Meijer will prevail. “I see him making earnest effort to listen to voters. I think ultimately people do want someone who stands for what they believe in. Even for voters that’s a tough balance. They want somebody who’s honest with them, somebody who tells them where they stand, somebody who doesn’t blow with the wind, and they’ll respect somebody even when they disagree with them.”