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Scholten, Meijer in tightest of races to succeed Amash in Congress

The Detroit News — Melissa Nann Burke The Detroit News

Oct. 18-- Oct. 18--The contest to succeed U.S. Rep. Justin Amash in west Michigan pits two millennials and political newcomers against one another -- both with careers in public service and seeking to woo crossover voters.

The race to decide who represents the Grand Rapids area in Congress is one of the most competitive in Michigan this fall, as the parties battle for control of the seat once held by former President Gerald Ford.

Republican Peter Meijer, 32, of Grand Rapids Township is the grandson of retailer Frederik Meijer. He served in Iraq with the U.S. Army, worked as a conflict analyst in Afghanistan and has a background in disaster relief. He's selling himself as a next-generation candidate who dedicated his career to serving others, despite coming from money.

Democrat Hillary Scholten, 38, of Grand Rapids is an attorney and former Department of Justice adviser during President Barack Obama's administration who most recently worked for the nonprofit Michigan Immigrant Rights Center. She is pitching herself as a middle-class mom of two, raised in the Dutch Reformed church who wants to bring people together and solve problems.

Amash, a Republican turned Libertarian, held the seat for a decade. A Democrat hasn't been elected to represent the area in Congress since 1974 when attorney Richard Vander Veen won a special election to succeed Ford, who stepped down to become vice president.

President Donald Trump won Michigan's 3rd District by 9 percentage points in 2016, but Democrats are bullish on flipping the open seat this fall. Affluent, well-educated Kent County -- the fast-growing, most populous part of the district -- is trending more Democratic with Grand Rapids suburbs moving away from the GOP. Trump won Kent by 3 percentage points. Two years later, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, won it by 4 points.

With Trump generally underperforming in the polls, analysts say it's possible that former Vice President Joe Biden could win the district, setting up the U.S. House race for a tight finish.

"The 3rd is an example of a district that shouldn't be this close, but is this close," said Nathan Gonzales, publisher of Inside Elections, which this month declared the contest a "toss-up."

"Under normal conditions, this district is going to elect a Republican 99 times out of 100. But you have a polarizing president at the top of the ticket who is energizing Republicans for him but also energizing Democrats against him. An open seat with two credible candidates," Gonzales said. "This might not be normal conditions."

West Michigan roots

Both Scholten and Meijer grew up in the Grand Rapids area: Scholten in Hudsonville and Meijer in East Grand Rapids. His father is Hank Meijer, executive chairman of the family's privately owned superstore chain.

Meijer won the Republican primary in August with 50% of the vote over four opponents.

He wants to see more civility, new ideas and less partisanship in Washington, D.C. He said his background in the U.S. Army and humanitarian aid work would serve him in Congress because his career has been about "trying to make order out of chaos."

"We're facing with COVID sort of a threat that we haven't seen in a very long time, and it's clear we need a new generation stepping forward who understands what it's like to lead through uncertainty," Meijer said.

"I'm trying to bring new solutions so that we're finding a sustainable path. If there's one thing that government needs right now, it is new voices that are thinking in the long-term, and not just focused on the two or four years to the next election cycle."

Scholten's mother was a public school teacher in Grand Rapids, her father a sports reporter and editor. She grew up in a Republican household and was in the 12th grade before meeting someone who was both a Christian and a Democrat, she said.

"I remember just thinking, 'You can do that? That's allowed?' " she said.

Through her work as a social worker and public interest lawyer, she found the GOP no longer aligned with her faith values, she said. Scholten realized others also felt abandoned by their party and disagreed when a Democratic official suggested she downplay her faith, she said.

"Finding your own voice and being authentically yourself in politics is something that I know people are so hungry for right now," she said.

"I wasn't born and raised a Democrat, but I'm running as one because I know that this administration no longer represents the values and the people of west Michigan. They want to vote for someone that they know is going to put the issues they care about before party or politics every time."

'Bargain' pickup opportunity

The 3rd District includes Ionia, Barry and Calhoun counties along with portions of Kent and Montcalm counties. While Grand Rapids and Battle Creek are favorable to Democrats, the rural areas outside them are conservative.

Meijer's campaign has reported raising over $3 million, including $1.37 million he's loaned his campaign through Sept. 30, according to disclosure reports.

Scholten has raised $2.55 million and entered October with a slight cash edge, reporting over $761,700 in the bank to Meijer's $739,419.

The race has produced millions of dollars worth of broadcast television ads, including $1.9 million by Scholten's campaign and $1.3 million by Meijer in past and planned spending, said Simon D. Schuster at the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

Outside groups are also spending big on the airwaves, with GOP-aligned groups outspending the Democrats overall, Schuster said.

The National Republican Congressional Committee committed $1.1 million and the Congressional Leadership Fund -- endorsed by House GOP leaders -- devoted around $600,000. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has invested $780,000, according to Campaign Finance Network.

"That says this is one of the few particularly competitive races in the state of Michigan," Schuster said. "The 3rd is potentially a bargain pickup for the powers that be -- the big spenders -- compared to the money they've spent playing defense in other places."

But whose pickup will it be? Amash won reelection in 2018 with 54% of the vote. GOP strategist John Sellek expects Amash would win again were he running.

Instead, two political neophytes are trying to introduce themselves at a time of upheaval and disruption -- amid a pandemic, a raucous presidential election and a lot of frustration with Trump, said Sellek, who has managed high-profile Republican campaigns in Michigan.

By traditional measures, he gives Meijer the edge, noting his military service, low-key style and ability to talk about compassion and caring "very comfortably." Sellek said Meijer has figured out a way to talk to the suburbs that many Republicans haven't.

Meijer has also sought to define himself as separate from the Trump personality. But Scholten is making the gamble that the district is weary of the GOP label, emphasizing her fiscal conservatism and her evangelical faith -- both west Michigan virtues, Sellek said.

"The messaging has been surprisingly not about Trump from what I've seen. Meijer did a good enough job that you can't pin Trump on him, and they're not trying. The real issue in this race is: Will people vote for a Democrat?" he said.

Brandon Dillon, former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, said the answer is yes because many voters are disgusted by what they've seen out of the White House and are willing to look at "someone who seems to be like them."

"She's a moderate mom, grounded in her faith who is in line with where I think a lot of the voters are," said Dillon, who lives in the district. "It's hard to paint her as a radical, Antifa-loving, 'defund the police' person when that's almost absurd."

The attacks are falling flat in part because Scholten went on the airwaves weeks ahead of Meijer and defined herself before the "caricature" version was peddled by the GOP, Dillon said.

To a degree, the Meijer-Scholten race has provided a reprieve from the antics of the president, with the two candidates facing off on policy issues like health care and taxes, Dillon said.

"It's still surrounded by the craziness of the Trump administration," he said.

"Unfortunately for Mr. Meijer and all other Republicans running on the ticket, unless you are willing to step out and make a clean break with the president, you are going to carry that baggage with you until the election is complete."

Issues at play

Both Scholten and Meijer promised to work across the aisle and press party leadership when they disagree with them. Both say they oppose defunding law enforcement, want to prioritize PFAS cleanup and condemned attacks on the faith of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett.

But they differ on policy points from health care to mask mandates to abortion (he's anti-abortion, she's pro-choice).

Scholten has hit Meijer for pledging to support a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, claiming he's endangering the popular provisions protecting coverage for people with preexisting medical conditions.

Meijer stressed he would not support repealing the federal law without a "workable" replacement that protects preexisting conditions and expands access. He said the system has failed to be "affordable" as promised in its name. He wants to see increased competition, rather than creating incentives for companies to profit off taxpayer dollars, he said.

Scholten does not support the single-payer Medicare for All proposal but favors giving Americans the option to purchase health coverage through Medicare -- often called a "public option." Meijer said that's the "first step towards a more socialized health care system."

Both candidates said at a debate on WOOD-TV this month that Congress should adopt another COVID-19 stimulus package that includes direct cash payments to families.

"But we can't just be handing out a blank check and running up the federal deficit," Scholten said. "If you want a frugal, targeted spending, send a Dutch mom from west Michigan to get it done."

Meijer took a swipe at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for holding up relief talks over "wish list" items. "I'm supportive of the direct cash payments to Americans to give that cushion to help folks get through these hard times," he said.

Meijer's campaign has criticized Scholten for taking donations from "Hollywood liberals," such as actress Alyssa Milano, and other contributions from outside Michigan. He touted his backing by law enforcement groups, while his ads claim Scholten worked with activists "who aided violent rioters."

Scholten dismissed the idea as lies, noting she denounced the looting and violence that occurred during protests in Grand Rapids in early summer. "I was down with my church group cleaning up after the violence," she said at the debate.

Scholten has called on Meijer to more fully disclose his financial holdings, saying she won't hold individual stocks if elected to guard against conflicts of interest. He said members of Congress should not actively trade securities and that their investments should be placed in blind trusts that they have no hand in managing.

"I have a complex financial situation, every component of which has been fully disclosed in line with ethics and transparency standards," Meijer said in an interview. "Realistically, I think I own just a handful of stocks in my portfolio. I sold just about everything except a couple of shares of John Deere."

Democratic ads often mention Meijer's $50 million trust fund, suggesting he can't understand middle-class struggles.

"The October surprise is that someone with a last name Meijer comes from money? I'm not sure how much that's going to be a massive revelation to the voters in the 3rd District," Meijer said.

"I haven't been running my campaign on the basis of my last name. I've been talking more about my service that I've been committed to, whether it's military veterans issues and disaster response or humanitarian aid. But, you know, that's the easy narrative to try to sell."

mburke@detroitnews.com

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