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Magazine / HOUSE

The Senate Trouble-Maker in Waiting

Rep. Justin Amash has already led a failed coup against House leadership. His next play may be the upper chamber.

(Richard A. Bloom)

photo of Tim Alberta
March 21, 2013

Justin Amash was dying to say something.

It was the night of March 6, and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., was filibustering John Brennan’s nomination as CIA director. As other senators trickled into the upper chamber to help Paul persevere in his 13-hour crusade, Amash sat silently in the back of the room. He felt helpless, unable to lend a hand to Paul, his friend and fellow libertarian. Only senators are allowed to speak on the Senate floor. And Amash, a House member representing Michigan’s 3rd District, is not a senator.

Not yet, anyway.

 

Amash emerged as a potential U.S. Senate candidate one day after Paul’s filibuster, when Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., announced he will not seek reelection in 2014. Thanks to Michigan’s mediocre Republican bench and his headline-grabbing habits in the House, Amash instantly became the subject of speculation, and not without reason: Strategists in both parties agree he’s in a strong position to secure the GOP nomination.

Not long ago, the idea of someone like Amash clearing the primary field in a Senate race would have been unthinkable. An outspoken libertarian with views that often run counter to recent GOP orthodoxy (he led a failed coup against Speaker John Boehner earlier this year), Amash has minimal support among the Republican political class. He’s also only 32 years old, serving his second term in Congress, and has little name recognition—even across Michigan. But in modern GOP politics, as shown by the examples of Sens. Paul, Marco Rubio of Florida, and Ted Cruz of Texas—all of whom were opposed by the establishment in their primary races—conservative outsiders have an inside track to the upper chamber.

Not many current members of Congress can credibly claim the “outsider” mantle. But Amash makes a convincing case. He designs his own campaign literature. His brothers are his closest advisers. And in five years, he has gone from unlikely state legislative candidate to potential front-runner for the U.S. Senate.

The son of a Palestinian immigrant with no formal education, Amash was valedictorian of his high school before graduating magna cum laude from the University of Michigan with a degree in economics. He then earned his J.D. at the UM Law School. Two years later, in 2008, Amash entered the political arena as a decided underdog for a state House seat in western Michigan.

Facing several better-known candidates, Amash campaigned tirelessly and won the seat, to the surprise and chagrin of local party elders. Midway through his first term in Lansing, Amash set his sights on Washington, gunning for the seat that would soon be vacated by Republican Rep. Vern Ehlers. Once again, Amash faced a crowded field of veteran candidates. And once again, he outworked them and scored an upset victory. Having been reelected in 2012, Amash is now staring down a once-in-a-generation opportunity: an open Senate seat in his native Michigan. He hasn’t decided whether he’ll run, but those who have witnessed his rapid rise aren’t betting against him.

“He’s something,” said Republican National Committee member Terri Lynn Land, who’s also considering a bid for Levin’s seat. Land worked for a rival campaign in 2008, and recalls witnessing how Amash—“this kid”—outhustled the competition. Two years later, Land watched again as Amash defeated her preferred candidate, this time for a prized congressional seat. “I’ve told a lot of people about him, but nobody believes me. And he just keeps winning,” Land said. “I don’t underestimate Justin Amash anymore.”

Winning a quiet, conservative seat in western Michigan is one thing; winning a statewide race for U.S. Senate is quite another. Critics on both sides of the aisle will point to Amash’s voting record as out of the mainstream: Democrats say he’ll gut government programs that protect the poor and elderly, while Republicans say that, as a libertarian, he can’t be trusted to protect traditional marriage at home or U.S. interests abroad.

But Amash is a unique politician with the potential to transcend traditional party appeal. He preaches transparency and accountability, having never missed a vote in Congress. (He also writes lengthy notes on his Facebook page explaining every vote.) His isolationist streak has earned him a following among young people. His Arab-American heritage makes him appealing to minorities. He’s the rare politician with fans at both the American Civil Liberties Union and Right to Life.

Amash also has the ability to attract serious money. Already, one libertarian super PAC has pledged to spend upward of $1 million to help him get elected, and others would likely follow (Club for Growth would surely spend big on his behalf). The ability to attract such substantial outside assistance makes Amash an intimidating contender, and could send other Republicans running from a primary challenge. “If that money comes through, that’s a big benefit,” said former Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis, another potential candidate. “Look, this is going to cost $2 million to $3 million in the primary, and another $10 million to $15 million in a general election. So if there are people who are willing to put that kind of money behind him, that makes a big difference.”

But it’s not just the money. Energy and enthusiasm are essential commodities in primary politics, and they emanate from the grassroots activists who prefer insurgent candidates like Amash. It is very difficult to imagine such organic support materializing for the likes of Anuzis, Land, or even House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, who is also considering a bid.

At the mention of these names, Amash said matter-of-factly: “We’ve got to stop reaching into the past and find some new people.”

He sounds like a candidate. He insists he hasn’t made up his mind, perhaps because he’s unsure of whether he can win a statewide election. But the guy who tried out all four years for his high school basketball team—and got cut every time—has shown he’s not afraid to aim high. “If you want to be successful as a representative or a campaigner, you can’t be afraid of failure,” Amash said. “You need to be able to go out there and put everything on the line, knowing you might come up short.”

(Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Carl Levin's party affiliation.)

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