Despite Small Donor Advantage, Trevor Thomas Falls Short in Michigan House Bid

As the August 7 Democratic primary approached, Trevor Thomas worked the phones in his Grand Rapids campaign office. | TREVORFORCONGRESS.COM

Roughly three hours after the polls closed in Michigan on August 7, Trevor Thomas, an out gay man with four years experience in LGBT advocacy in Washington, conceded the Democratic primary race in the third congressional district centered on Grand Rapids and Battle Creek.

Thomas, who is 28, had hoped to face off in November against Justin Amash, a 32-year-old freshman Republican congressman who won election in 2010 as a Tea Party darling, but was defeated by a margin of 56-44 by Steve Pestka, a 60-year-old attorney who served four years in the State House of Representatives and six years on the Kent County Circuit Court bench.

In the primary campaign, Thomas –– who worked in the communications department at the Human Campaign before leading the communications effort at the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network –– took on Pestka over his longstanding opposition to a woman’s right to choose, his votes as a legislator to defund Planned Parenthood, and his personal investment in a company acquiring land for fracking.

Though Thomas generally ran to the left of his Democratic opponent, Pestka hammered him over his support for raising the Social Security eligibility age for Americans currently under 40.

Thomas faced formidable odds in term of both financial resources and Democratic establishment support. Federal Election Commission filings as of July 18 showed Pestka with about $450,000 dollars on hand compared to just $86,000 for Thomas. Significantly though, of Pestka’s $798,000 in campaign receipts, $590,000 came in loans and contributions from the candidate himself. Fully $281,000 of the $293,000 Thomas raised came from individual contributors.

Pestka also won endorsements from many leading Democratic elected officials in Michigan –– including the women who serve as the State Senate Democratic leader and the House Democratic floor leader –– as well as the influential United Auto Workers, the union both of Thomas’ parents belonged to for 34 years.

Thomas, however, had very active support from former Governor Jennifer Granholm, for whom he worked before moving to Washington. Granholm had appointed Pestka to his judicial perch.

In his 2010 campaign, in addition to his support from Tea Party leaders, Amash enjoyed endorsements from the FreedomWorks PAC, founded by industrialist David Koch and chaired by former GOP House Majority Leader Dick Armey, the Club for Growth, an anti-tax lobby that puts enormous rightward pressure on the Republican Party, and Texas Congressman Ron Paul.

Though redistricting has added Battle Creek to the Michigan Third, tilting it slightly more Democratic, the Cook Political Report scores the district as +6 Republican, meaning that in recent elections the GOP has outperformed its national showing by six percentage points there. Cook rates the November contest as a “likely Republican” win.