In Michigan district, Trump factor could turn seat over to Democrats

Both parties fighting over seat being vacated by Rep. Justin Amash

Democratic House hopeful Hillary Scholten, left, campaigns with Jill Biden in Michigan’s 3rd District.  (Courtesy Scholten for Congress)
Democratic House hopeful Hillary Scholten, left, campaigns with Jill Biden in Michigan’s 3rd District. (Courtesy Scholten for Congress)
Posted October 21, 2020 at 6:00am

Corrected 12:45 p.m. | For Hillary Scholten to become the first Democrat in more than 40 years and the first woman to represent Grand Rapids, Michigan, in Congress, she needs voters to act like Jeff Timmer.

A lifelong Republican, Timmer is willing to ignore policy differences — like on abortion — to focus on what matters most to him: defeating President Donald Trump and anyone who defends him.

“I’m not interested in supporting Republicans who are going to perpetuate Trumpism because that’s not conservatism. It’s not Republicanism, and it’s not American,” said the former executive director of the Michigan GOP, whose front lawn sports a Scholten sign. “It is the first time in my life that I have ever supported a Democrat for Congress.”

Timmer’s story is an echo of Scholten’s own. She says she “did not know a Democrat until I was a senior in high school,” a story she says is repeating itself across Michigan’s increasingly young and well-educated 3rd District currently represented by retiring GOP defector Justin Amash.

“I have seen this community shift, like I have, from a deeply conservative, traditionally Republican, faith-based community to one that still holds very dearly to its faith but is realizing that our morals — our values — have a different political home,” Scholten said. “I hear from voters every single day about how they feel politically homeless and they didn’t leave the Republican Party — the Republican Party left them.”

In Scholten’s way is Republican nominee Peter Meijer, heir to a grocery store fortune. The eponymous supermarkets provide Meijer name recognition and access to millions of dollars to impress voters with his résumé: He left college to serve in Iraq as a noncommissioned officer, then worked in disaster relief with other veterans after graduating from Columbia University, before coming home to work in real estate and run for Congress.

Republican nominee Peter Meijer, the heir to a supermarket fortune that gives him easy name recognition, is trying to keep a seat long held by the GOP. (Courtesy Peter Meijer for Congress)

The race won’t come down to the contenders’ strengths: Both are formidable candidates, experts say.

“Hillary Scholten is a great candidate,” said Steve Mitchell, a Republican campaign consultant. “I’d still say that Pete Meijer has got to be the favorite in this race.”

Referendum on Trump

Mitchell thinks — and most Democrats agree — that the race will come down to how voters, particularly young college graduates who’ve settled in and around Grand Rapids, feel about the president.

“You have very affluent, highly educated voters in suburbs … traditionally Republican voters who are turned off by Donald Trump and his tweets and his demeanor,” Mitchell said. “That’s what makes this race more competitive, because of the top of the ticket.”

Polls show a tight race, with a large number of voters still undecided. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race a Toss-up. That would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Trump carried the district by 10 points in 2016, exceeding Mitt Romney’s 7-point margin four years earlier.

But Republicans’ dominance disappeared in 2018, when Democrats in Michigan won all nonjudicial statewide races. The 3rd District still backed the GOP’s losing candidates for Senate and governor, but barely: John James took 51 percent to Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s 47 percent, and in the governor’s race, Bill Schuette narrowly edged Democratic winner Gretchen Whitmer, 49 percent to 48 percent.

Democrats credit that swing to a growing population and shifting party loyalties. White people with a college degree have fled the GOP since Trump took office. In Michigan, they backed Trump 51 percent to 43 percent in 2016, according to CNN exit polls. But an Oct. 6-11 New York Times/Siena College poll gave Trump a narrow 48 percent to 46 percent lead among the state’s white graduates.

The 3rd District is a mix of mostly rural areas and Kent County, home to Grand Rapids and 64 percent of the seat’s population. The county has grown 8.5 percent in the past decade, compared with 1 percent for Michigan as a whole, driven mainly by relatively recent college graduates, said Gary Stark, chairman of the Kent County Democrats. While the median age in Michigan is nearly 40, in Kent, it’s 35. According to Stark, voter turnout in 2016 was higher in Kent too: 69.1 percent versus 64.7 percent state-wide.

Democrats say those changes, plus Scholten’s campaigning skill, mean the district this year will emulate the Detroit suburbs in 2018.

“I worked closely with Elissa Slotkin and Haley Stevens last cycle — both incredible candidates — she’s of that caliber,” said former Democratic Rep. Mark Schauer, who represented the neighboring 7th District.

Seeking suburbia

Slotkin and Stevens both flipped GOP seats in 2018. Detroit’s suburbs weren’t the only ones that Democrats claimed that year. Most of the 43 Republican-held districts they won were on the outskirts of large cities, such as Los Angeles’ Orange County, Philadelphia’s collar counties and New York City’s bedroom commuter communities.

This year, Democrats hope to win slightly more rural districts and those that center around smaller, prosperous cities like Grand Rapids, which at 200,000 residents is Michigan’s second largest.

“Kent County is very similar in its progression to Oakland County,” said Brandon Dillon, a former Michigan Democratic Party chairman, referring to Slotkin’s district. “Whether this is the year the 3rd flips, I think, is 50/50 right now,”

Timmer, who helped draw Michigan’s congressional maps, says the 3rd District is more religious than Detroit’s suburbs. “The political culture is vastly different than, say, Oakland County or Macomb County on the other side of the state,” he said.

Timmer credits that to West Michigan’s concentration of Dutch Americans and their Christian Reformed faith. Another former chairman of the Michigan GOP, Saul Anuzis, thinks the Reformed Church’s opposition to abortion will help Meijer — and Trump — win.

“Even if there are more moderate Christian Reform, Dutch Reform voters, they’re still pro-life,” said Anuzis, pointing to Scholten’s Planned Parenthood endorsement. “I just don’t see how you elect a pro-choice candidate in that area.”

Dillon agrees that abortion might be the one issue that keeps Scholten from winning the 3rd, which is also heavily Catholic.

“One of the things that had Kent County lagging a bit to areas with similar education demographics, there is still the residue here of a pretty strong anti-abortion movement,” he said. “I think you had some folks who held on to that as a way to vote Republican.”

Scholten has run heavily on her Christian Reformed faith and has endorsements from two former church leaders. Like the Roman Catholic Church, the Reformed Church’s views on issues other than abortion — such as immigration, welfare and the environment — tend to run far more progressive.

Scholten has focused on those aspects of her faith, effortlessly weaving allusions to Scripture into speeches and interviews. “If we really care about the poor and the marginalized — the immigrant and the stranger among us — how does that look in terms of policy?” Scholten said.

Timmer says abortion might lose salience as a wedge issue among Christian Reform and Catholic voters now that Republicans appear poised to confirm Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. With Barrett on the court, conservatives will hold a 6-3 majority that many abortion opponents believe will ensure the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the case guaranteeing a woman’s right to abortion.

“There are a lot of people for whom abortion is a motivating factor in their vote. And if there is a solid pro-life majority on the Supreme Court, it gives them the pass to not vote for Trump,” Timmer said. “It gives them the excuse their conscience might need.”

Correction: This report was revised to accurately reflect Jeff Timmer’s title.

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