In deep-red Ottawa County, religion, race spark civil war among Republicans
- The county is so Republican it hasn’t voted for a Democrat for president since 1864.
- But nine GOP commissioners face primary challenges because of claims they aren’t conservative enough.
- The incumbents champion low taxes and small government, but are under attack on race and culture issues .
HOLLAND — At first, the hate mail compared Randy Meppelink to Adolf Hitler and told him to go to hell.
Then it got worse, Meppelink said.
In the following months, in fall 2021, emails addressed to the second-term Ottawa County commissioner escalated into death threats for him and his wife, Meppelink said.
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One email to all county commissioners quoted Matthew 18:6, which warns that failed leaders may have millstones wrapped around their neck and dropped into the sea. Another email, protesting county vaccination efforts, threatened to inject Meppelink’s wife with a serum so people could “watch her die,” he said.
It was so extreme, Meppelink said, his family encouraged him to drop out of the race for re-election in 2022.
“It was my wife and my adult children saying: ‘Dad, why are you putting yourself through this?’” he told Bridge Michigan, adding that he reported the threats to law enforcement.
The emails — averaging 400 a day for several months, Meppelink said — “coincided completely” with an August 2021 protest against a school mask mandate issued by the county health department that the commissioners said they had no authority to reverse.
The protest was one of many organized with help from Ottawa Impact, a Jenison-based conservative group that has rocked politics in this west Michigan county along Lake Michigan that was settled by Dutch immigrants and is known for its iconic Tulip Time Festival in Holland.
The group is aggressively fundraising and has launched vigorous campaigns to replace nine of the 11 county commissioners in the Aug. 2 primary with its own candidates who share a platform that touts American exceptionalism and opposes governmental overreach.
Ottawa Impact’s ascendence offers a glimpse into a power struggle between two very different brands of conservatives in the county, according to a dozen Bridge interviews with Ottawa Impact candidates, supporters, scholars, strategists commissioners and more.
The county is deep-red, with just one Democrat on its 11-member county commission, and hasn’t voted for a Democrat for president since 1864, when voters favored Gen. George McClellan over President Abraham Lincoln.
Ottawa County Republicans traditionally have been affiliated with the Dutch Reformed Church, embracing fiscal conservatism and moderation embodied by former President Gerald Ford, who had a summer home in the county, said scholars and area Republican consultants.
But the county of 289,000 residents is the fastest-growing in Michigan and changing fast.
Ottawa Impact and its supporters are aligned closely with evangelical Christians and champion cultural issues involving race, gender and banning abortion. They have no patience or inclination for moderation, they said.
Over the past year, Ottawa Impact has led protests against mask and vaccine mandates, slammed county leaders over diversity training for public employees and criticized the health department for posting links to websites promoting abortion and birth control resources.
The group grew amid protests of the county’s mask mandate in 2021, when commission meetings grew raucous and gained national notoriety when one resident, Dan Vander Zwaag, asked commissioners if they were Nazis.
“There is hell coming,” Vander Zwaag said as he pointed his finger upward during an August 2021 meeting. “There is hell coming and I’m not doing it to threaten anybody, but there’s a lot of good guys out there ready to do bad things soon. Watch what’s coming.”
Ottawa Impact co-founder Sylvia Rhodea said the movement is necessary to preserve local heritage and fend off an attack from the “progressive agenda” that she said has “infiltrated” the county.
“When our county commissioners move to the left … and move outside of the Republican platform realm, they really are running as Democrats but they are not saying it,” Rhodea, also a Republican candidate for county commissioner, told Bridge in an interview.
Commissioners and others say the group has moved the county’s Republican Party sharply right. Last week, the county GOP board voted to censure six commissioners for “publicly embracing Democratic interference in the Republican primary,” according to an email obtained by Bridge.
“The party’s been stolen by the far right,” said commissioner Roger Bergman, who used to chair the board of commissioners.
“People that were pretty concerned about good government in the past all of a sudden questioned government,” he said. “There were times when many of us (commissioners) felt, ‘What are we doing here?’ Because this is not who we are, and even as a community, this is not who we are.”
Govern with the ‘least force’
For Ottawa Impact co-founder Joe Moss, a Hudsonville resident running to replace Meppelink in the August Republican primary, the fight against county commissioners is personal.
Moss is treasurer of Libertas Christian School, which his daughter attended during the pandemic. The campus was shut down in October 2020 by the Ottawa County Health Department for failing to comply with the then-active state mask mandate and not reporting positive staff cases to health officials.
The school has filed a federal suit to challenge the closure, arguing the orders were unconstitutional and violated the school’s right to religious freedom. Federal courts have twice denied the school’s request for an injunction. As the case played out, Ottawa County officials warned the school to comply with the mask mandate or face fines.
Moss felt “threatened,” he told supporters during an April candidate forum this year.
“That led to action,” said Moss, who founded Ottawa Impact in February 2021.
He did not respond to several calls and emails from Bridge. Nor did other leaders of Ottawa Impact besides Rhodea.
Since then, the group has formed two political action committees and one legal fund, according to its website. It has raised at least $100,000 by July 5, including $76,000 raised locally by the end of 2021, campaign finance reports show.
The group has launched a 2-minute professionally-shot ad on its website, featuring eight of the nine commission candidates the group says it has “vetted.” Some of those candidates bought digital billboards that cost thousands of dollars per month, several Ottawa County commissioners told Bridge.
Bergman said such spending is highly unusual. He said he never spent more than a few hundred dollars on re-election campaigns.
Matt Fenske, the county commission chair, said he spent up to $7,000 on his first run 10 years ago. This campaign is shaping up to be his most expensive because of Ottawa Impact, Fenske said.
Ottawa Impact has recruited a slate of candidates to challenge nine of the 10 incumbent Republicans — all of whom deemed too “progressive” by the group — in the local commissioners race.
“What has happened is that, over time, our Republican politicians … are not protecting the Republican platform,” Rhodea told Bridge. “They have vastly veered away from it.”
All candidates “vetted” by Ottawa Impact must sign a contract with the organization that states they recognize the nation’s “Judeo-Christian heritage,” a phrase that some experts say is now widely used by far-right Republican figures to promote American nationalism.
By signing the contract, candidates promise to follow the broad governing principles laid out in the document: Promote liberty, parental rights and due process and govern with “the least force,” among other things. They pledge to ban teaching of systemic racism, racial equity and privilege, make county information “public by default,” remove “Planned Parenthood-aligned resources” and reschedule board meetings for after-business hours to increase participation.
Rebekah Curran — a Republican running to represent parts of Georgetown Township — was the only Ottawa Impact candidate not to sign the contract, Fenske told Bridge in an interview.
“She wouldn’t sign the contract, so they took away her money,” Fenske claimed. “She will lose.”
Curran could not be reached for an interview and, like other Ottawa Impact candidates, she does not need to report how much she has raised this year until Friday. She remains a candidate on the Ottawa Impact website, but she was not featured in the group’s latest video ad.
While all other candidates’ campaign websites share the same white-and-blue design and are labeled “paid with regulated funds by the Ottawa Impact PAC” at the bottom, Curran’s website has a blue-and-red design and does not carry that label.
“If you don’t sign it, you are the black sheep,” Fenske said. “This is a cult.”
But Adrian Hemond, a Democratic consultant and CEO of bipartisan consulting firm Grassroots Midwest, said it is common for national and local advocacy groups to require candidates to sign an agreement in exchange for their endorsements.
“People don’t always call them contracts, but functionally (it’s a) campaign pledge,” he told Bridge. “This is not an uncommon tactic to try and generate some media coverage.”
Ottawa Impact may be “demonized” by incumbents, but its members are simply “average folks,” said Steve Redmond, president of conservative 501(c)(4) nonprofit Ottawa County Patriots, which is aligned with Ottawa Impact.
“These are not lifelong politicians. These are people that didn't need to run for public office,” Redmond said at a July 12 event in Holland.
Unlike the Republicans they are opposing, most Ottawa Impact candidates have never worked in the public sector and are running on drastically different campaign promises that tout “liberty” and “freedom.”
While Republican commissioners emphasize low tax rates, affordable housing and fiscally conservative budgets, their challengers are focused on “pro-America” issues like parental rights, Critical Race Theory, religious freedom and election reform, among other things.
At a July anti-abortion rally hosted by Ottawa County Patriots in Holland, Greg Smith, dean of the Lakeshore Academy for the New Evangelization, said American parents were “traumatizing” their children “with climate doom and pandemic doom and ‘Trump is hiding under the bed like the boogeyman to get you at night’ and whatever other kinds of fantasies we freaked our kids out on.”
“The culture war is what matters,” Smith told the audience of 100 or so. “To those who say the culture war is third-rail, I say, ‘Well, tell me what is more important?’”
Smith urged attendees to build “a culture of life.”
“If your school won’t let you build it, find a new school or start a new one,” he said. “If your workplace won’t let you, change careers.”
Rhodea, co-founder of Ottawa Impact who attended the event, said cultural issues are important to all residents.
“Ottawa Impact is a very pro-America, pro-freedom and pro-parental rights group, and those are issues that are very vast but that resonates with so many people,” she told Bridge.
Longtime west Michigan Republican strategist Field Reichardt said the group’s heavy focus on “punchy” cultural issues serves only to “stir people up.” The county did not have widespread election fraud in 2020 and Critical Race Theory is not taught in any county schools, Reichardt noted.
“They have managed to make people think these are issues, and they are not,” said Reichardt, a former adviser to former President George H.W. Bush. “They are emphasizing things that people don’t understand, and they are creating fear.”
The strategy is working, Reichardt said.
“How can you run against freedom, family and liberty?” he said. “You can’t. You don’t. (Incumbents) all believe in it.”
Over the past months, Ottawa Impact has slammed the county for advancing a “progressive” agenda. The criticism cost all nine Republican incumbents an endorsement from Right to Life Michigan PAC, which has traditionally backed them.
In a 59-page report titled “Pro-life protection assessment,” Moss and Rhodea claimed the county “has been strategically targeted by the progressive left on racial and cultural issues for the last decade, with little defense from its Republican County Commissioners.”
The document, published May 13, led the PAC to “investigate” the situation and pause its endorsement in Ottawa County, according to an Ottawa Impact blog post. Weeks later, on June 7, the PAC endorsed the Ottawa Impact challengers over incumbent Republicans it had previously supported.
Right to Life of Michigan PAC board chair Paul Miller told Bridge details about the endorsement decisions are confidential, but the board has the authority to disqualify candidates from receiving endorsements based on their actions in office.
The Ottawa Impact report criticized the county for establishing a diversity, equity and inclusion office to offer training for county employees.
In a separate blog post, Rhodea deemed the training part of a “Marxist movement to divide America.”
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” Rhodea wrote, quoting Martin Luther King Jr.
“We won’t let his dream die on our watch.”
The report also argued the county’s sexual health department is “promoting” abortion services by listing resources such as Bedsider and Power to Decide — national campaigns that feature explainers on sexual health and help locate abortion clinics and birth control providers.
In a June 10 blog post, Ottawa County Administrator John Shay disputed the notions as “misconceptions.” Shay pointed out the county does not provide abortion services, fund abortion providers or oversee school curriculums.
The diversity training is “what’s necessary” to foster a welcoming environment in Ottawa County as it grows and becomes more diverse, Fenske said.
And the health department promoted science-based information “across a broad spectrum,” said Bergman, another county commissioner.
“You are going to pick and choose and say that is what we are promoting? Give me a break.”
Fenske said Ottawa Impact’s criticism reflects “a national attempt … attacking institutions and our government,” because much of the opposition is directed toward existing laws or rules under other agencies — such as school boards — that county commissioners have no authority over.
But Redmond, president of the Ottawa County Patriots, said the movement is “part of this wave of angry parents saying, ‘Enough.’”
‘Battle between good and evil’
The clash over cultural issues has been building slowly, shaped by the Tea Party movement in 2009 and highlighted by the election of Donald Trump in 2016, said former longtime education lobbyist Don Olendorf, who lives in the neighboring Allegan County.
Ottawa County has always favored “traditional” Republicans who prioritize “mainstreet economic issues,” Olendorf said.
But that’s changed as the county has changed and become more diverse. A shoo-in for Republicans for more than a century, Ottawa County voters favored Trump by 59 percent in 2020 — the only time since 1992 that a Republican presidential candidate failed to get 60 percent in the county. (That was when independent Ross Perot split the conservative vote.)
The county’s Hispanic population grew the fastest from 2010 to 2020, and now accounts for 10.3 percent of county residents, according to the Census. Some areas of the county, such as the city of Holland, are becoming more Democratic.
The Republican Party, meanwhile, has shifted toward “Make America Great Again” issues that “ring a persuasive political point” particularly following the pandemic, Olendorf said.
The movement “is the Donald Trump wave of the Republican Party trying to break through in a very traditionally conservative, but not radical, county,” said James Bratt, history professor at Calvin University in Grand Rapids and author of “Dutch Calvinism in Modern America: A History of a Conservative Subculture.”
The divide among Ottawa County’s Republicans has deep religious roots, Bratt said.
Traditional Republicans in the community are mostly Dutch Reformed Church faithfuls who are mostly concerned with “general welfare,” Bratt said.
He said the new wave of evangelical Republicans are “fundamentalists” who believe “the United States, run by white men and privileged white people, is God’s chosen nation.”
“That chosen nation has to be preserved from outside enemies but also from what they perceive to be inside enemies, like sensitivity to race, changing gender norms,” Bratt said.
For traditional evangelical faithfuls, their belief is intertwined with a political agenda, so much so “the two are wedded together as tight as man and wife,” Bratt said.
They believe a direct call from God is the major — or the only — qualification for them to run for office, he said. They are generally in favor of “maximum individual liberty” and oppose government regulations, but believers “pick and choose scriptural verses to back up their agenda,” he said.
In Ottawa County, anti-mask mandate protesters cited Biblical Scripture and God’s will. Kacie Prins, a protester at the August 2021 board meeting in West Olive, burst into singing “God Bless America” and told commissioners she is “called to obey God as the ultimate authority.”
““This is not a battle against flesh and blood,” she said. “This is a battle between good and evil.”
At the July anti-abortion rally in Holland, William Wegner, president of the anti-abortion Great Lakes Justice Center, urged Christian believers to be “fully engaged” and exercise “peaceful citizen statesmanship like never before.”
“We’ve got to wear out our shoe leather. We’ve got to write checks. We’ve got to add zeros to checks to make it hurt,” he said. “Where we are going to win the culture battle … is going to be in pews of churches like this and it’s going to be in the chairs of the classrooms of the universities.”
‘Up my game’
With the August primary only weeks away, losing is a real possibility for Fenske, who has won past re-elections with more than 98 percent of the vote in general elections.
Fenske said he intends to spend $15,000 to $16,000 — more than twice than the amount he spent when he was first elected 10 years ago. Having never considered digital campaigns, Fenske said he will now consider engaging in social media, sending out more mailers and appearing in the local newspaper more frequently.
“This is the first time I’ve ever asked for money,” he said. “I’ve got to up my game … just to try to keep up.”
In a non-presidential year, “the primary is everything,” Olendorf said.
But most of the incumbent Republicans won’t have their party’s support.
Accusing six commissioners of soliciting Democratic support in the August primary, the Ottawa County GOP voted last Thursday to censure them, claiming they were endorsed by liberal groups with “apparent ties to George Soros,” according to a Friday email from the party.
“I had to ask who George Soros was,” Meppelink told Bridge, recalling his call to Ottawa County GOP interim chair Keith den Hollander after receiving the news.
The party did not explain which Soros-linked groups the email was referring to and did not return an inquiry from Bridge for comment.
Meppelink told Bridge he suspects the email may have referred to Vote Common Good West Michigan and Ottawa Integrity PAC — both of which have endorsed several non-Ottawa Impact candidates for the commissioners’ race and neither of which appear to be linked to Soros.
Neither group has filed a campaign finance report with the county clerk’s office as of last week, Ottawa County Clerk Justin Roebuck told Bridge.
Adam Tountas, who made the motion to censure them, represented parents who sued the board of commissioners over the school mask mandate. He said in a Friday email the endorsements represent the incumbents “no longer have support from actual Republicans in our community.”
“So, they’re playing games with our primary process and trying to get Democrats to decide who the Republican nominees should be,” Tountas said.
Any Michigan voter can participate in a primary election regardless of which political party they are registered with, according to the state law.
But even so, Meppelink said he never actively sought for Democratic support.
“When I go door to door, when I see people on the street, I don’t ask what party they are in,” he said. “I just say to them: ‘Please vote for me.’”
If all nine Ottawa Impact’s candidates upset the incumbents in August, only four of them would face a Democratic challenge in the general election.
Even then, Olendorf said they could win since voters have historically voted Republican.
“Even though these people may be on the edge of some political extremism, they are able to manipulate,” Olendorf said. “They are able to change the tenets of a primary because of the voting bloc, and they are popular among that crowd.”
Bridge reporter Jonathan Oosting contributed.
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