Republican Congressman John Moolenaar is seeking his fifth term in the U.S. House of Representatives in the newly drawn second congressional district. It includes most of central Michigan and parts of the Lake Michigan shoreline. This is the first time Moolenaar is facing a primary challenger in the past three election cycles.
Tom Norton is a veteran from Kent County who is trying to unseat Moolenaar. At a recent campaign stop in Mount Pleasant, Norton, a Republican, made his pitch to GOP voters clear. He said he's a candidate who will put up a fight in Congress because most Republicans don't have a backbone.
"They have failed miserably for 30 years and I'm sick of it. And I am tired of it. And I don't want to be friendly about it. And I'm not going to be a nice guy about it," said Norton.
In many ways, Norton is the opposite of Moolenaar. He's brash, outspoken and has been compared to former President Donald Trump on the campaign trail and by other media outlets. Norton said the only difference between him and Trump is their bank accounts.
Norton also embraces the "anti-establishment Republican" label.
"Because I don't want to be part of the establishment. The establishment sells out voters," said Norton.
We need major changes to our current system, Norton said. He added that we've got to fight and annoy people to get forensic audits of all federal elections and overhaul the U.S. healthcare system and social security.
But despite Norton’s comparisons to Trump, Congressman Moolenaar is the one endorsed by the former president in this race.
"I'm endorsed by the NRA because I'm a strong second amendment supporter, and also endorsed by Right to Life of Michigan because I am strongly pro-life and have been advocating for pro-life policies in Congress," said Moolenaar. "I've been the leader in Congress and pushing back on the Biden administration's overreach with a federal one size fits all vaccine mandate. I'm proud of my record, and I stand on that record and have a good record to run on."
The newly drawn second district no longer includes Moolenaar’s hometown: the city of Midland. It will be the first time in his political career Moolenaar will not have his hometown behind him. The new district includes counties on the Lake Michigan shoreline. Places Moolenaar has never held office.
"As I've looked and kind of viewed and traveled throughout the district further to the west," said Gene Haymaker, a former pastor in Mount Pleasant, who is running for Statehouse on the GOP ticket. "I think it's going to be a really highly contested race." Haymaker is undecided on the primary.
Tom Norton argues the western part of the district gives him the advantage because he's held public office there before as village president of Sand Lake and said his family goes back five generations in the area.
Moolenaar is not concerned about the new district. He said his campaign is receiving support from new groups in the west every single day. And there's a lot of cross over between the old fourth and the new second, which is true. 55% of counties in the old fourth are included in the new second district.
On the campaign trail, it became clear what issues are priorities for GOP voters.
"I want to make sure that our elections are secure for the future. Because if we don't have secure elections, we don't have a free society," said Alex Phelps, a registered Republican in Mount Pleasant. "For me, that is the top issue."
Her point of view is shared by many of the GOP voters on the campaign trail. The name Donald Trump never came up when voters or candidates talked about election policy.
Norton and Moolenaar both embrace Trump's policies but see the party moving forward without him as its centerpiece and do not use his name when they discuss election reform.
"But when you sit there and you blatantly say Trump," said Norton, "it creates that division where I can't have the conversation anymore with somebody. I've seen people become completely unreasonable, Trump supporters and non-Trump supporters."
When it comes to election policy, Moolenaar voted to certify the 2020 presidential election results but also supported a Supreme Court case by the state of Texas challenging those results.
“At the end of the day, I think it's important that we fix the problems of the past, and make sure that people have confidence in our elections," said Moolenaar. "I think voter ID is a key part of that. And then we need to move forward and make sure that people are poll watchers and, again, ensure the integrity of our elections."
It's been determined that the 2020 election did not experience widespread voter fraud. The election was not stolen from former President Trump and Joe Biden won.
Jericho Gonzalez is the third candidate running for office in the new second district but will not appear on the ballot. He's running as a write in candidate. Gonzalez did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Michigan’s central region has not sent a Democratic Representative to Washington D.C. in decades. That means whoever wins the Republican primary will likely have an advantage to win the midterm election come November against Democratic challenger Jerry Hilliard. He’s lost to Moolenaar in two previous elections with less than 40% of the vote.