Democrats face backlash after bolstering far-right Michigan nominee

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Democrats clashed backlash Wednesday — including within their own ranks — after inserting themselves into a GOP primary in West Michigan, helping a far-right candidate who adopted false claims about the 2020 election to unseat a Republican who voted to impeach Donald Trump.

Democrats have attempted to meddle in several GOP primaries this year, using ads that appear to be attacks on more extreme candidates to subtly promote those candidates. The idea is to field opponents that Democrats believe can be beaten more easily in the general election.

But Tuesday’s vote was the first in which the closeness of the outcome — Trump-endorsed challenger John Gibbs won with 52% of the vote, according to unofficial feedback — suggested interference by Democrats may have done tilt the results.

Now the Democrats will see if their high-stakes bet to eliminate Representative Peter Meijer will win them the seat in November. Regardless of what happens, critics say the trying to boost Gibbs is reckless and undermines the Democrats’ argument that they are the party that defends democracy.

“It’s cynical and dangerous,” said Richard Hasen, a UCLA law professor and director of the Safeguarding Democracy Project. “We know that the Trumpian wing of the Republican Party is doing a lot to undermine people’s faith in the fairness and integrity of elections. The idea that Democrats would bet on electing more of these people because they think they will be easier to beat in the general election is really playing with fire.

Some criticism comes from within celebration.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat who has made democracy protection a hallmark of her work, denounced the decision of some members of her party to support Gibbs.

“If we want to say as a party – or as leaders – that we believe in a healthy democracy, which requires citizens to be informed and engaged, we must live those values ​​in everything we do,” Benson said. in an interview. with the Washington Post. “Interference in another party’s primary does not reflect those values.”

She called it “a dangerous game for anyone to play, as part of a strategy, to support election deniers.”

“This type of backside play is, I think, a very risky proposition,” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) told The Post on Wednesday. “It’s a dangerous proposition for a campaign committee instead of propelling Democrats, trying to propel a Republican into a primary. Because they can actually win in the end and you’ll have someone who’s even more extreme.

The doubts of the Democrats had been building before the day of the primary.

“I am disgusted that hard-earned money intended to support Democrats is being used to boost Trump-endorsed candidates, especially the far-right opponent of one of the most honorable Republicans in Congress,” the official said. Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) posted on Twitter last week when the ad debuted.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent $435,000 on its ad, which showed a series of images of Gibbs with Trump and called him “too conservative for West Michigan.” These apparent criticisms may have struck many Republican primary voters as a compliment.

See the ads Democrats are funding to boost far-right Republicans

Meijer, who is in his first term, had angered Trump and many of his supporters by becoming one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach him after the Capitol uprising.

“The Democrats got the game they wanted and in the process threw overboard one of the few members of the House Republican Conference who was willing to stand up for principle and uphold the Constitution. This is reprehensible,” said Kevin Seifert, campaign adviser to Meijer.

Hours before conceding the race on Tuesday night, Meijer told reporters it was too early to tell what effect the announcement had had. He called the effort a troubling move by a party that has repeatedly warned that Trump and his allies are trying to undermine democracy.

“I know a lot of people — my fellow Democrats in Washington — were outraged by the cynicism and hypocrisy that this represented,” he said at a downtown Grand Rapids bar where his supporters swarmed. were gathered.

In an essay he posted online Monday, Meijer accused Democrats of not just helping Gibbs, but of “subsidizing his entire campaign” because their advertising cost more than Gibbs’ campaign spent on it. the race, a figure that campaign finance documents show was $334,000. Meijer noted that he had been censured by Republican Party chapters in his district and branded a traitor by some of his former allies.

“Watching this outcome from inside my party has been utterly disconcerting,” Meijer wrote. “The only thing that has been more nauseating has been the ability of my fellow Democrats to sell any pretense of principle for political expediency – both denouncing the fall of democracy while rationalizing the use of their hard-raised dollars to support the supposed object of their fears.

Hasen, the UCLA law professor, echoed that sentiment.

“Democracy cannot be sustained simply by one party believing in it and helping to purge the other party of members who support democracy,” he said.

As voters headed to the polls on Tuesday, Gibbs downplayed the role of the announcement, arguing that the work of his supporters had given him momentum. He rejected the Democrats’ premise that they could more easily beat him than Meijer in a lightly Democratic district.

“Meijer, first of all, lost so much Republican support that he could never win the general election in November,” Gibbs told reporters outside a community center in the Grand Rapids suburb of Byron Center after voting. “Many Republicans will stay home or skip his selection on the ballot because of the way he betrayed Republican voters. He is therefore completely ineligible in a general.

Gibbs in November will face Democrat Hillary Scholten, who was unopposed in Tuesday’s Democratic primary. Scholten lost to Meijer by six points in 2020, but since then the district has been redrawn in favor of the Democrats.

Scholten released a statement on Wednesday saying that “the DCCC announcement is exactly the kind of thing that makes me tired of Washington and ready to fight for the people of West Michigan.”

Terri Itter, a sterilization technician at a dentist’s office, voted for Gibbs on Tuesday at a fire station in Alpine Township, north of Grand Rapids. She said she was embarrassed by Meijer’s impeachment vote because she didn’t think anyone did anything wrong on Jan. 6.

As for Gibbs, she said she had received mail criticizing him for his support of Trump, but she saw that trait as an asset. “I know they think he’s too conservative,” Itter, 59, said of Gibbs.

Other voters said Trump’s endorsement had the opposite of the intended effect.

“I’m not a Trump fan,” said Jessica Morgan, a 38-year-old stay-at-home mom who considers herself a libertarian.

Gibbs “was very strongly supported and believes very strongly that everything is corrupt and that we should hate our government the way it is,” Morgan said. “And I like to have more faith than that, so Peter Meijer was the safest bet.”

Kris Trevino, who voted in the Democratic primary, said he disagreed with Meijer on many issues but respected his vote to impeach Trump. He had hoped to see Meijer beat Gibbs and said he thinks Democrats should have focused on their own contests instead of helping a candidate they see as ready to usurp democracy.

“I personally don’t want anyone endorsed by Trump just because I don’t believe all the election lies,” said Trevino, 29, who works in cybersecurity. “And so whoever has anything to do with denying the election, I just want them out.”

Tom Hamburger in Washington contributed to this report.

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