The 3rd and 6th congressional districts in West Michigan are, in some ways, a study in contrasts: They are a world of dense urban neighborhoods and cornfields that fill the horizon, of cars donning “Resist” and “Make America Great Again” bumper stickers, of Republican and Democratic (and occasional Libertarian and Green) political signs dotting yards and windows.
But, like so many places across the United States, these contrasts exist in a world defined not by red nor blue, but, often, of purple. Home to some 1.4 million people and spanning 11 counties in West and Southwest Michigan, the two competitive congressional districts wind their way through a landscape filled with farms and factories, high-rise apartments buildings and 100-year-old farmhouses, churches, mosques and synagogues. It is urban, rural and suburban; dirt roads and highways run through the places in which residents are living out their lives marked by a pandemic, by the anxieties surrounding health and job loss, by chemicals contaminating their drinking water.
And all of these issues are playing out in this year’s election, in which U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) faces state Rep. Jon Hoadley (D-Kalamazoo) in the 6th, and Republican Peter Meijer squares off Democrat Hillary Scholten in the open 3rd.
West Michigan is, the candidates will tell you, a vast, layered space filled with the nuances of people’s lives that don’t always make their way onto television and computer screens: a land of religious Democrats who grew up in conservative households, of Republicans who are quick to condemn their party’s stance on climate change, of people who have, at least in the past, split their tickets.
It has long been a Republican stronghold, but some key areas are voting blue, which could make West Michigan a 2020 bellwether. There’s a reason why President Donald Trump, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and their surrogates have devoted several visits to the Grand Rapids area.
Meanwhile, academics, political analysts and candidates themselves have been busy trying to figure out how Biden’s current lead in Michigan is impacting down-ballot races.
“Republicans in Michigan are really on the defensive, and that speaks to how bad the year could be for House Republicans,” said J. Miles Coleman, an associate editor at Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan political analysis newsletter run by the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
“The battles are being fought in the redder districts, like the three and the six,” Coleman continued. “The Republicans are defending this turf that should be friendly; that in itself is very telling. Historically, western Michigan has been very conservative. But when you look at places like Grand Rapids, it’s pretty much voting like any other large growing metro area; it’s getting more Democratic.”
Republicans in these districts still have the upper hand against their Democratic opponents, according to analyses from Sabato’s Crystal Ball; the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan political newsletter that analyzes elections and campaigns; and FiveThirtyEight, a national website that focuses on poll analysis and politics.
The three publications have categorized both the 3rd and the 6th as “leaning Republican.” Meanwhile, Inside Elections, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan political newsletter, and Real Clear Politics, a right-wing political news site and polling data aggregator, have rated the 6th as leaning Republican and the 3rd as a “toss-up.”
“I think both of these districts are longtime Republican districts and have been held by Republicans for many, many years; I think that they’re pretty predictable for the Republicans,” said Peter Wielhouwer, director of the Institute for Government and Politics at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. “Cook and Sabato’s Crystal Ball have it leaning Republican; it’s not a strong opportunity for pick-ups by Hoadley or Scholten.”
“That said, when we look at the financial numbers, the candidates are remarkably close; when we look at polling numbers, they’re remarkably close,” Wielhouwer continued. “So the presidential election matters. … If there’s a very strong blue wave, I think that helps these close races for the Democrats. And incumbency matters; I think Fred Upton is the safer of the two seats. The Amash seat is an open seat.”
The 3rd district’s current congressman, U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, the now-Libertarian from Cascade Township who left the Republican Party after issuing scathing critiques of Trump and the GOP, is not running for reelection.
In recent years, the two districts have supported Republicans for president; Trump won both in 2016, as did Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012. But in 2008, former President Barack Obama glided to victory in the 6th and, as John Clark, chair of the political science department at Western Michigan University pointed out, Obama would have won the 3rd if the district’s political boundaries were drawn in the same way they are now. (Obama would have won with the 6th’s current lines, as well.)
The past decade hasn’t been all roses for Republicans in these two districts, however. In 2018, now-Gov. Gretchen Whitmer became the first Democratic gubernatorial candidate to win the traditionally conservative Kent County, the largest county in the 3rd. In the 6th District’s Kalamazoo County, Whitmer claimed victory by nearly 20 points following two straight victories for Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder.
Despite these shaky voter trends, there could be one major factor when it comes to whether the districts remain red or turn blue: the president. In a state where Trump continues to face dropping approval ratings — just 37% of Michigan women have a favorable view of the president, for example, and recent polls consistently show Biden beating Trump by six to 11 points in November’s election — a large Democratic turnout could flip these once Republican strongholds, political analysts and academics said.
“Even though we think of both those districts being traditionally Republican, they aren’t as strongly Republican as we think they are,” said Clark, the WMU professor. “If it’s the case that Biden runs super strong in Michigan, that could have a trickle down effect in these two districts.”
Over the years, Republican congressmen in both districts have won with increasingly narrow margins of victory: Amash garnered 54.4% of the vote in the 2018 election. Amash’s victory numbers have fluctuated over the years, but have never reached the levels that former Republican U.S. Rep. Vernon Ehlers achieved in the 1990s, when he landed a little more than 73% of the vote in 1994 and 1998 in somewhat different districts. The lowest number Ehlers faced was in 2008, when Obama swept Michigan; he received 61.1% of the vote at that time.
“The whole urban core around Grand Rapids, and most of Kent County actually, is moving to the Democratic side,” said Donald Zinman, a political science professor at Grand Valley State University. “There’s a good sized African-American population and a good sized Latino population. There’s also a lot of white collar professionals and healthcare workers; healthcare is a big part of the economy in the Grand Rapids area, and healthcare workers, you could surmise, are not terribly pleased with this administration’s handling of the coronavirus crisis and its dismissal of science.”
In the 6th, Coleman pointed out that Upton, who has held office since 1987, “had the closest race of his career” in 2018, when he won with 50.2% of the vote — significantly lower than the 70-plus percentage points Upton was achieving in the 1990s.
“From where I sit, the Upton campaign is worried, or at least aware of Jon Hoadley and his candidacy,” Clark said. “There’s been a lot more negative ads, a lot more negative mailings. It’s recognition they think this is a serious challenge.”
“In both races, you can tell there’s outside money coming in, as well,” Clark continued, referring to both districts. “These are races people are paying attention to. These are two districts that look like they’re going to be very competitive in 2020.”
Both Democrats out-raised their Republican challengers in the 3rd quarter, which runs from July 1 to Sept. 30. While these numbers are not required to be filed with the Federal Election Commission until Oct. 15, all four campaigns reported their totals to the Advance. In the 3rd, Scholten raised $1.53 million and Meijer raised $1 million. In the 6th, Hoadley raised about $1.1 million and Upton raised about $950,000.
While both the 3rd and the 6th District races are well-financed and competitive, Scholten could have more of an edge over Meijer than Hoadley has over Upton because the 3rd district is an open seat, Clark said. “There are a lot of similarities between the two districts, but one of the big differences is the 3rd is an open seat election with no incumbent running,” Clark said. “… When seats flip, oftentimes it’s because there’s no incumbent.”
In the 3rd, newcomers play up ability to reach across the aisle
There’s plenty that Meijer, a 32-year-old U.S. Army veteran who served in Iraq and whose great-grandfather and grandfather started the Meijer grocery store chain, and Scholten, a 38-year-old attorney who worked at the U.S. Department of Justice under Obama and the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, disagree on.
But the two political newcomers, neither of whom have held elected office, expressed similar sentiments on at least one thing: the need to work with people across the political spectrum, both in the district and in Washington D.C.
In nods to a district that is more purple than solidly red or blue, the candidates have repeatedly emphasized their ability to get along with “the other side,” as well as the differences they have with their own political party.
Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District covers a large portion of Kent County, including the city of Grand Rapids, part of Montcalm County, and Ionia, Barry and Calhoun counties.
In an interview with the Michigan Advance, Scholten noted she grew up in a conservative household — she never knew a Democrat before she was a senior in high school.
“I think what that really means is I have a good deal of respect for people on the right and the left,” Scholten said. “I think one of the things we see breaking down in the political process is a lack of civility, a lack of respect, and that’s one thing that’s not difficult for me to conjure up.”
“A lot of times, people will say, ‘Yeah, but how do you build a bridge? How can you even talk to these people?’” Scholten continued. “That’s not a hypothetical for me. This means talking to my dad, to my uncle, to people at my church. It’s something I do all the time. I have a very genuine and real respect for people who see things politically different than I do, and I have regular conversations with them about those differences.”
Scholten is hoping that ability to span political differences will result in Republicans who no longer identify with their party leadership to cross party lines and vote for her. In addition to landing endorsements from high-profile Democrats like Obama and Biden, Scholten too has recently received the backing of Karen Henry, the widow of former Republican Congressman Paul Henry, whose West Michigan district included Grand Rapids, and Jeff Timmer, a lifelong Republican who previously served as executive director of the Michigan Republican Party.
“I’m voting for Hillary Scholten because she’s a good person,” Timmer tweeted on Oct. 7. “Her opponent will be a Trump doormat and the MIGOP has lost its purpose and soul.”
Timmer’s statement included a tweet from Scholten in which she shared an ad paid for by the Michigan Republican Party that criticized Scholten for wearing a mask to protect herself from Covid-19.
Henry and Timmer aren’t the only Republicans supporting Scholten, the Democratic candidate said.
“I see people from my community — and I consider that to be what was once a pretty conservative Christian Reformed Church community, historically pretty Republican — really being tired of what has become of the Republican Party, especially under someone like Donald Trump,” she said. “We hear all the time from people who say, ‘I didn’t leave the Republican Party; the Republican Party left me.’ We see people coming to our campaign in droves, people saying, ‘I just voted for you, my first Democratic vote.’”
In an interview with the Advance, Meijer too said he’s able and willing to maneuver across party lines, and, in an interview with WZZM-TV, the Republican candidate said that he is “not going to be a rubber stamp” for Trump. When asked if he supports Trump’s bid for reelection, the candidate did not address the question.
Meijer has been endorsed by a number of high-profile Republicans, including U.S. House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), U.S. House Republican Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, and U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). Noah Sadlier, a Meijer spokesman, said the candidate has received no official endorsements from Democrats, but he noted that he has spoken “with plenty of Biden voters who are crossing over for us in the general election.”
Meijer noted he aims to be like one of his political role models, former President and Grand Rapidian Gerald R. Ford, a moderate Republican who former U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D-Dearborn) remembered as someone who could “put partisan labels and rhetoric aside to best get the job done.”
“He was willing to make tough decisions, even if they would cost him politically, like pardoning [former President] Richard Nixon,” Meijer said. “It sunk his reelection chances, but it emerged as one of the bravest political acts of the 20th century; it helped the nation move past a difficult moment.”
When it comes to advocating for policies that put him at odds with his party, Meijer freely admits he’s not on the same page as many of his conservative colleagues with regards to the environment and climate change.
“We need a new generation of leadership in Congress; we can’t be beholden to stances from 10 or 20 years ago,” Meijer said, referring to Republican environmental policy.
The Republican candidate too said his party is “going to have to face the music when it comes to record deficit spending.”
“Part of that is reconciling where the Republican party was, where it is, and, more importantly, where it needs to be,” he said.
Despite the fact that he doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with his party, Meijer expects that to help, not hurt, him in the district.
“We have seen a strong degree of consistency in the area wanting responsive government, wanting disciplined, responsible figures to be in government,” he said. “They vote for the person, not the party; you can see it’s not just a question of a bunch of folks circling R’s on one side and D’s on another side. We have a thoughtful electorate here.”
Scholten, who similarly called Ford a role model and described the former president as “someone who saw a need in our country and didn’t hesitate to step up in that time,” said “there’s a number of things I disagree with my party on.”
“When I raised my hand to run, I was inspired in large part by my faith; my faith has always called me to serve in spaces and times of need,” Scholten said. “People in my party told me to bury that, that Democrats wouldn’t like hearing that. I refused.”
Scholten added that she pushes back “against my party’s plan to spend-spend-spend when a problem presents itself.”
“I was not raised a Democrat; the values of fiscal responsibility are certainly deeply ingrained in me,” she said. “I’m a frugal Dutch mom from West Michigan. …We can’t just be hemorrhaging money from every possible agency in our federal government. I don’t support the Green New Deal and Medicare for All for these reasons.”
Health care, COVID-19 and contaminated drinking water
Scholten and Meijer both said some of the top issues facing their district include addressing health care, COVID-19 and PFAS. PFAS are a group of mostly unregulated synthetic compounds often referred to as “forever chemicals” found in firefighting foam, food packaging, non-stick cookware, and other products. The chemicals have ended up in drinking water in the district and across the state and are linked to an increase in cancer and other diseases.
“We’re in the middle of a global health pandemic; a major issue is health care,” Scholten said. “We’ve got 5.4 million Americans without health insurance because of job loss. That’s deeply weighing on the hearts and minds of people here in West Michigan. Increasing access to affordable health care is priority number one.”
Scholten’s plan to address health care aligns more with Biden than U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). She emphasizes she supports the Obama-era Affordable Care Act (ACA), creating a public option (a government-run health insurance group that people could opt into and which would compete with private health insurance companies), and policies banning insurance companies from raising rates on individuals when they get sick or denying people coverage for pre-existing conditions. Scholten said she does not agree with the Medicare for All proposal backed by Democrats like Sanders and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
Meijer said he’s “not satisfied with the Affordable Care Act” and said his approach to health care and “most problems is not how will the federal government fix it, but how are they making it harder for a better outcome to be found?”
The Republican candidate said that while he appreciated the ACA’s emphasis on expanding access to healthcare for individuals without employer health insurance plans and ensuring insurance companies could not discriminate based on pre-existing conditions, he thinks the ACA “very much stumbled” when it came to making health care more affordable.
But, Meijer said, he does not support a repeal of the ACA unless there is a “workable replacement that will protect pre-existing conditions.”
“It would be devastating on a humanitarian and personal level,” Meijer said, referring to repealing the ACA without a replacement.
For Meijer, “getting past COVID” is the number one priority in the district. During an Oct. 1 debate on WOOD-TV, Meijer said he supported “direct cash payments to Americans” to help deal with the economic fallout from the pandemic.
During the same debate, Scholten said there needs to be another stimulus check for Americans, and that Congress needs to “reinstate unemployment insurance.”
But, first and foremost, Scholten said, there won’t be the chance for the economy to rebuild until the pandemic itself is sufficiently addressed by a presidential administration and Congress.
“The economic crisis is driven by the health crisis of the pandemic,” Scholten said.
Both candidates agreed PFAS chemicals are a major issue facing constituents in the 3rd District. Meijer said he would advocate for direct funding from the Environmental Protection Agency to go towards cleaning up water systems with PFAS contaminants, as well as direct funding from the EPA and the Interior Department to clean up watersheds in an effort to increase access to clean water.
To tackle water contamination, Scholten said she would invest in PFAS testing. On her website, she notes “there are 3,000 variants of PFAS chemicals, but tests can only detect 30 of them.”
Scholten says on her website that she would prioritize new clean water infrastructure, work to pass legislation that “forces polluters to clean up their contamination,” and “hold corporate polluters accountable for cleaning up their messes, instead of making taxpayers foot the bill.”
In the 6th, could attack ads against Hoadley end up hurting Upton?
In the 6th District, Hoadley, 37, a state representative whose district covers the city of Kalamazoo and most of Kalamazoo Township, could become Michigan’s first openly gay Congressional member should he win against Upton this November.
Upton, 67, is vying for his 18th term representing the 6th, which covers Kalamazoo, Van Buren, Cass, St. Joseph, Berrien, and Allegan counties — much of which, Coleman of Sabato’s Crystal Ball noted is friendly territory for Republicans.
“The problem for Democrats in District 6 is, once you get out of Kalamazoo County, there’s really not a whole lot of friendly area,” Coleman said. “In 2018, Upton lost Kalamazoo County by about 15 [points], but he carried the rest of the district by about 15, as well.”
Still, as previously mentioned, that 2018 election was Upton’s closest race of his career — and Hoadley, like Scholten, has heard from Republicans who tell him they’re planning to vote Democratic this election, mainly out of disagreements with Trump.
“They’re telling us, ‘This is not the Republican Party I grew up in,’” Hoadley said in an interview with Advance. “‘This is not the Republican Party of my parents, or even just a few years ago.’ When they see folks like Fred Upton fail to stand up to Donald Trump, that’s moving them quickly into our camp.”
Upton supports the president’s reelection bid, but, like Meijer, he emphasized that he does not always back Trump’s agenda and noted he votes in line with positions supported by the president about 80% of the time.
“I’ve had my disagreements with the prescient on a number of different issues, whether they involved the Constitution or issues like Charlottesville,” Upton said, referring to his vote to block Trump’s emergency declaration to build a border wall and his criticism of the president when Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides” of a deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va.
“I’m supporting the ticket despite my disagreements,” Upton said, referring to Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. “People know I’m not a rubber stamp. I’m not afraid to voice my disapproval.”
The Republican incumbent stressed the support he has landed from Democrats, including Obama signing his “biggest bill” into law, the 21st Century Cures Act, which expanded medical research, invested in mental health resources, and combatted the opioid epidemic.
“President Obama was a huge supporter, as was Joe Biden,” Upton said, referring to the Cures Act. “Biden said I was one of the finest guys he’s ever worked with.”
Hoadley does not share this sentiment and said he has been stunned to see numerous Republican attack ads centered around 15-year-old blog posts he wrote while he was in college. Upton has emphasized he had nothing to do with the ads, which The Victory Fund — an organization that works to elect LGBTQ+ candidates — said contribute to Upton running “the most homophobic campaign” in the United States right now because they employ pedophilia tropes against Upton, suggest drug use, and use phrases like “don’t be Jon Hoadley’s next victim.”
The ads follow an August article from the New York Post, which cited blog posts that Hoadley said included off-color jokes written by himself as a college student. He offered an apology around the language he used in a Facebook video.
“In a clearly satirical discussion about whether all ‘gay men desire to be flower girls,’ an aforementioned friend jokes that he has no desire to see a ‘four-year-old wearing a thong’ as a condemnation of the hypersexualization of children,” the Victory Fund wrote in a press release addressing Hoadley’s blog posts. “The phrase has been removed from context to somehow imply that Jon is a pedophile, an accusation that has been repeated multiple times in many ways by the [National Republican Congressional Committee] and its staff.”
The National Republican Congressional Committee and NRCC spokesman Michael McAdams released a statement after the New York Post article, according to MLive.
“There is no place in Congress for the deranged musings of down on his luck pedo sex poet Jon Hoadley,” McAdams said.
Other attack ads suggest Hoadley has used drugs, which he emphasized is false, including one mailer emblazoned with “Jon Hoadley’s search for drugs.” That mailer was paid for by the Governing Majority Fund.
“The original passage details that Hoadley went to a leather bar to ‘learn about crystal meth’ and attended an informational meeting about the drug’s impact on the LGBTQ+ community,” the Victory Fund wrote. “He ended the post by writing, ‘Don’t do meth.’”
“These types of homophobic attack in my race, they’re doing them on LGBT candidates across the country,” Hoadley said. “I think it’s important that people of goodwill call these attacks out because otherwise these types of attacks that are built on stereotypes and old tropes could start becoming the norm again. I think it’s shameful that Congressman Upton has allowed these to continue without denouncing them or calling for them to stop. There are LGBT kids in his district who are seeing these types of things, and they’re left wondering if their elected member of Congress is going to stand up and fight for them in Congress?
“At the end of the day, it’s about people, and are we going to try to unify our country?” Hoadley said. “Are we going to fight for the dignity and value of every person?”
Upton said that “by law, I have nothing to do with the funding, the content, the placement” of the ads.
“Those are his words [in the ads],” Upton continued. “I’m on record saying I don’t think he is a pedophile. That’s not suggested in any of the mailings. That word is not used, nor should it be.”
Both The Victory Fund and Hoadley disagree that the ads do not suggest pedophilia; in one mailer, it states, “Keep Jon Hoadley away from flower girls” and goes on to cite the thong conversation.
“The amount of lies that are being told about my character is not just upsetting, it’s that sort of swamp style politics that leaves you feeling gross,” said Hoadley, who too noted that Upton voted against the Equality Act in 2019, which the House passed and which calls for the 1964 law that outlawed race discrimination to be updated to include LGBTQ individuals.
Josh Paciorek, an Upton campaign spokesman, said the Republican incumbent has received the endorsement of the Log Cabin Republicans, which advocates for LGBT rights within the GOP.
“Congressman Upton has been a fierce ally and friend to the LGBT community,” the Log Cabin Republicans Managing Director Charles Moran said in a statement. “From co-sponsoring the Fairness for All Act to fighting for protections from employment discrimination, Congressman Upton has been a friend to LGBT people, even when it was not politically expedient to do so.”
Political observers said the ads could end up hurting Upton more than helping him.
“It’s not a great look for Upton,” said Coleman of Sabato’s Crystal Ball. “… His message is being undercut by the NRCC. It seems like they’re grasping at straws.”
COVID-19, health care and more in the 6th
For Upton, “the big issue” this campaign is COVID-19.
“I’ve talked to a number of our school superintendent this week, and they’re real concerned about kids testing positive, where this is going to lead us,” Upton said in an interview this month. We’re looking forward to manufacturing the vaccine from Pfizer in Kalamazoo. They’ll produce tens of millions of doses before the end of the year.”
Upton also said that he’s “been back and forth with the White House all this week” to advocate for another COVID-19 relief package. Trump had alarmed Republicans and Democrats alike when earlier this month he said there would be no Covid-19 relief package negotiations until after the election, though he later walked back those statements.
In addition to the pandemic, Upton said he’s focusing on bipartisan efforts to “fight for the Great Lakes, jobs and our economy.”
Hoadley cited health care as the No. 1 priority in the 6th.
“It was health care before we were in a global pandemic, and now it’s even more so,” Hoadley said. “It’s the thing people talk to me the most about. Some people are concerned about the rising cost of prescription drugs; some people are concerned about being able to go to a doctor and have health insurance because they lost their job and insurance in the pandemic. In my district, we get a lot of questions if our rural hospitals are still going to be there.”
Should he win the election, Hoadley said he aims to address the prohibitive costs surrounding long-term health care.
“Nursing homes can cost over $8,000 a month,” Hoadley said. “… I think long-term care is going to be an increasingly important question in our country, both in terms of how do we provide that care and how do we provide direct care providers a living wage. These providers are overwhelmingly women, women of color and immigrants. How do we ensure they’re paid a living wage so they can provide for their families?”
Too, the Democratic challenger said he hopes to be able to focus on Southwest Michigan’s environment in Congress. As in the 3rd District, Hoadley said PFAS are a daunting issue facing the 6th.
“I talk to so many people who are worried about our drinking water,” he said. “They buy bottled water for their kids and babies because they’re worried about lead and PFAS in their well and tap water. They’re worried about the climate crisis. There’s a ton of folks who are watching the shoreline of Lake Michigan fall into the lake, and they’re worried about erosion and the rising water levels.”
To address climate change, Hoadley is throwing his support behind Biden’s green infrastructure plan.
“One thing I love about the conversation around renewable energy is this could be a boon for Southwest Michigan if we have a strategy that promotes green technology, green jobs. Those are jobs we could get here in Southwest Michigan.”