Justin Amash has been spoiling for a showdown with his fellow Michigander Mike Rogers since the day he arrived in Washington.
A young outsider with libertarian views and an isolationist streak, Amash has eagerly challenged the well-respected and traditionally hawkish veteran of the GOP establishment, a man who displays little tolerance for the 2010 class of Republican rabble-rousers.
They’ve sparred over some policy differences, fighting small, scattered battles on national security issues. But it never seemed enough for Amash. He wanted a war.
Finally in March, when Democratic Sen. Carl Levin announced his retirement, it looked like Amash could get exactly that. He and Rogers were immediately identified as the leading candidates for the Republican nomination in 2014. Both announced they would consider a bid for the upper chamber, and Amash soon began telling reporters he would do everything possible to prevent a “pro-corporate welfare, anti-civil liberties” Republican nominee – a clear reference to Rogers, who voted for the auto bailout and the Patriot Act.
For a moment, the two were on a collision course, headed toward a clash of ideology that would serve as the ultimate microcosm of the broader battle within the Republican Party between young libertarians and the party’s more traditional, intervention-minded leaders. And to political junkies, it seemed too good to be true.
Indeed, it was.
Rogers is expected to announce Friday that he won’t run for Senate next year. And, as a result, Amash—who has seemingly been engaged in a one-man game of chicken, waiting for Rogers to make his mov—appears increasingly likely to stay in the House.
That’s a shame, according to Republicans on both sides of the GOP's growing ideological divide. In light of the NSA surveillance scandal, they say, if voters really want a debate over how to reconcile the oft-warring necessities of national security and civil liberties, there would be no better disputants than the two lawmakers from Michigan.
“These are two leaders in the House on opposite sides of this issue,” said former Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis, who is also mulling a Senate bid but is seen as unlikely to run. “Having these two leaders from the same state, running against each other for the United States Senate – it would have been a very interesting debate. A very spirited debate.”
At one point, it appeared this fantasy could very well become reality – if only because each potential candidate could not stomach the idea of his counterpart earning the nomination. In the three months since Levin announced his retirement, Rogers and Amash have fought a cold war of sorts – taking subtle shots at opposing policy views, but never referencing the potential opponent by name. (In recent interviews, Amash and Rogers each refused to answer direct questions about the other.)
Amash, in that stretch, has antagonized Rogers from all angles – railing against the House Intelligence Committee chairman’s signature cybersecurity legislation, mocking him on social media, and repeatedly answering questions about Rogers with the same “pro-corporate welfare, anti-civil liberties” label.
The social-media offensive began in earnest April 3, when Amash posted the Club for Growth’s 2012 scorecard for the Michigan delegation—complete with the scores of each member. Amash, a favorite of the conservative group, had received a perfect score of 100 percent—one of only three House members to do so. Rogers ranked dead last among Michigan Republicans, at 57 percent.
The intent, to some, was obvious: Amash was inciting a rivalry with Rogers. But, spectators wondered: Was he doing so simply to expose their ideological animosity, or was he actually trying to goad his colleague into a Senate campaign?
And on it went. On Sunday, May 5, Rogers went on CBS’s Face the Nation to discuss the ongoing Benghazi investigation. Amash, watching from home, tweeted midway through the segment: "Sunday shows keep inviting same pro-corporate welfare, pro-war, anti-civil liberties Republicans who don't represent mainstream Republicans."
Amash doubled down a week later, writing on Facebook: “There will be huge long-term harm to the Michigan Republican Party if we put up an anti-civil liberties, pro-corporate welfare Senate candidate. I won’t let that happen without a fight.”
This past Sunday, Rogers appeared on ABC’s This Week to defend the National Security Agency’s surveillance policies. He argued that Edward Snowden, the contractor whose leaks prompted some lawmakers to call him a traitor, should “absolutely” face criminal prosecution for his actions. Shortly thereafter, Amash tweeted: “The real criminals & traitors are those in government who knowingly assault the civil liberties secured by our Constitution.”
None of this surprised members of the Michigan delegation, or their staffers. In fact, one of the worst-kept secrets in Wolverine State politics is this: Amash and Rogers don’t like each other, personally or professionally.
It’s why Rogers seems to relish opportunities to tell national TV audiences, as he did Sunday, that NSA critics have “no clue” what they’re talking about. It’s also why Amash rarely misses a chance to skewer Rogers on social media.
"Anyone with a Twitter feed can tell there's real animosity between them,” said one Democratic staffer in the Michigan delegation. “It's more than just policy differences; there seems to be ideological resentment between them. And it’s pretty much out in the open.”
Amidst this back and forth, both men have stayed silent on the Senate front, and their respective decision-making processes dragged on.
"Everybody is scratching their heads, wondering, ‘Why are they both taking so long?' ” Inside Michigan Politics editor Bill Ballenger asked early this week, before news broke of Rogers’s Friday announcement.
Some observers speculated that Rogers, long thought to be content in the House, was suddenly giving a serious look at running for the Senate. Others opined that Amash, once considered quite likely to run, was having second thoughts. But there was a third explanation, offered in recent days by sources in the Michigan delegation: They were playing a game of political chicken, waiting for the other guy to blink.
Not everyone is buying that third theory, however. “Not one bit,” said John Truscott, who was communications director for former Michigan Gov. John Engler and is now president of Truscott Rossman & Associates in Lansing. “Mike would not for a second wait for Amash to make a decision.… Amash isn’t nearly as relevant.”
Still, Truscott said, such rumors are fueled by the fact that there is “no relationship” between the two.
That friction may have played a role in delaying their respective decisions, but probably isn’t affecting the final calculus.
Rogers, as has been well documented, has little reason to run: He’s the chairman of a powerful committee and is considered one of the major players in the House; running for the Senate is a high-risk, low-reward proposition. Amash, too, has cause for caution: He has created a niche as the House’s go-to libertarian and is slowly building a national brand for himself; that progress would be lost, perhaps permanently, with a losing Senate bid. (Michigan rules don’t allow members of Congress to run for two offices simultaneously.)
If neither Rogers nor Amash runs, their three-month cold war will likely fizzle into an unspoken armistice, because the only declared GOP candidate, former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, is probably acceptable to both. (Land is a longtime Rogers ally who lives in Amash’s district and often attends his events there.)
So while the two legislators will continue to spar—occasionally and indirectly—over policy positions, Republicans will have to look elsewhere for the head-to-head confrontation the party seems to be craving.