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Conservative upstarts crush incumbent Republicans in Ottawa County

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Ottawa Impact is a conservative group that launched campaigns against fellow Republican county commissioners over their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Bridge Michigan photo by Yue Stella Yu)
  • Eight of the nine Republican incumbents lost to candidates backed by grassroots group Ottawa Impact
  • The group champions culture-war issues and blames incumbents for COVID-19 policies
  • The upsets are a sign of a growing rift in the Republican Party

LANSING — Boosted by aggressive fundraising, eight of the nine candidates backed by a grassroots conservative group ousted Republican incumbents in Ottawa County commissioner races on Tuesday.

The victories by candidates supported by the culturally conservative group Ottawa Impact show how west Michigan is transitioning from “Gerald Ford Republican Party to an extreme-right Republican Party,” said Field Reichardt, a long-time Ottawa County political pundit. 

Roger Bergman, a county commissioner representing Grand Haven, Ferrysburg and parts of Spring Lake township, is the only Republican incumbent to survive. He said the race was contentious and some commissioners received death threats.

Related: In deep-red Ottawa County, religion, race spark civil war among Republicans

Bergman said he received a “nasty email” on Tuesday night calling him a “lucky bastard” and warning him that people are “out to getcha.” 

Ottawa County is among the most conservative counties in Michigan, voting for Republicans for president in every election for more than a century. Tuesday’s primary is the culmination of a shift even further right that began during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Commissioners were targeted because of opposition to county health policies that they said they had little input in approving. 

Ottawa Impact formed to protest mask and vaccine mandates and gained followers through several rambunctious public hearings, eventually growing to oppose critical race theory, abortion and transgender issues in schools.

On Tuesday night, the “shit hit the fan,” Reichardt said, as the “highly organized, highly motivated, intelligently led group of opponents with a singular mission” swept the polls.

Steve Redmond, president of the conservative advocate group Ottawa County Patriots, said the Ottawa Impact wins are “amazing,” showing that “average citizens who never intended to run for office” can make a difference.

“You're going to see this happening in counties all around the country, all around the state, because of the success yesterday,” Redmond said. 

Redmond said there is “a powerful trend of strong parental rights movement” and that Ottawa County’s election results show that “people are not willing to put up with elected officials that refuse to listen to their constituents.”

Redmond said the Republican Party is transitioning, so“mainstream Republicans” and “grassroots Republicans” must work together. 

“I think these divisions will be largely healed by November, I plan to work toward it,” Redmond said. “There is a rift, but it can be healed.”

The nine Ottawa Impact-backed candidates raised a total $82,600 in direct contribution this year and spent more than $53,000, campaign records show. 

But much of Ottawa Impact candidates’ campaign expenses was covered by the group’s two political action committees, Ottawa Impact PAC and Ottawa Impact Education PAC.

The candidates received almost $48,500 in “in-kind” donations — services such as website and graphic designs, billboard and digital ads, among other things. Most of the services came from the two PACs, which raised a total $119,000 during the election cycle.

In comparison, incumbent Republicans facing Ottawa Impact challengers raised just over $69,000 and spent almost $50,000. 

Randy Meppelink, who lost to Ottawa Impact founder Joe Moss by more than 50 percentage points Tuesday, had not filed electronic campaign finance reports as of Wednesday.

Other incumbents who lost were Frank Garcia, Joe Baumann, Allen Dannenberg, Gregory Steigenga, Greg DeJong, Phillip Kuyers and Matthew Fenske.

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