Tea party-backed Rep. Justin Amash has made enough enemies in the Republican Party so that he shouldn't be surprised when he faces a tough primary challenge. But even by Amash's standards, businessman Brian Ellis's campaign against him in Michigan's 3rd District has been aggressive.
"I've been very factual with how Justin has voted," Ellis said. "Hard-hitting, yes, but factual."
Ellis, an investment executive who poured $400,000 of his own money into his campaign by the end of March, has run TV ads accusing Amash of being "al-Qaida's best friend in Congress" and favoring laws that allow "killing an unborn baby because it's not the sex the parent wanted."
Unlike most Republican challengers, Ellis is an establishment-backed candidate looking to take down a tea-party incumbent in the Aug. 5 primary. That unusual dynamic has led Ellis to attract support from moderate, business-oriented groups like the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the Michigan Farm Bureau while also attempting to run to Amash's right with aggressive campaign ads. The major theme of Ellis's campaign has been that Amash is a wild card who doesn't reflect local conservatives' concerns. Amash, for instance, has been an outspoken advocate for limits on surveillance by the National Security Agency.
"He's a libertarian, not a Republican," Ellis said. "That's the agenda he's pushing."
With a month left before the primary, Ellis's strategy doesn't seem to have worked. A Wenzel Strategies poll conducted for the Amash campaign shows Amash leading 56 percent to 34 percent, with only 10 percent of voters undecided. And an EPIC-MRA poll conducted in June for the Detroit Free Press showed Amash leading 55-35 percent.
"All of the public and private polling on the race shows that Ellis's increasingly venomous ads have backfired," Amash campaign spokesman Ben Vanderveen said in an email. "Justin remains popular, while Ellis has gone from being unknown to widely known and widely disliked."
Ellis's most aggressive ad, released in late June, focused on defense issues. The ad quotes Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., calling Amash "al-Qaida's best friend in Congress," criticizes Amash for supporting the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, and refers to Amash's "F" grade from AmVets. A Marine Corps veteran narrating the ad says he's "outraged" by Amash.
"We were out there fighting for the country, and he's voting against anything that would help us," the veteran says in the ad.
Ellis has also seized on abortion as a means of casting himself as the more conservative candidate. Ellis was endorsed by Right to Life Michigan largely because Amash voted against a 2012 bill that would ban abortions based on a child's gender. Ellis ran a campaign ad on the issue in which a narrator says: "Amash voted to allow gender-selection abortions to continue."
FactCheck.org called the ad misleading because Amash has generally opposed abortion. He said he voted against the bill because he said it would not stop any abortions, instead creating a "thought crime" based on parents' motivations.
Regardless, Amash's vote went against antiabortion advocates' views, and Right to Life Michigan "didn't accept Representative Amash's explanation as a good reason to vote against pro-life legislation," said David Malone, the group's political action committee director.
Amash's campaign has accused Ellis of taking a harsh tone on abortion as a means of compensating for his moderate stances on other issues, including Medicaid expansion and Common Core standards. The gender-selection abortion vote, Vanderveen said, is an attempt to please the more conservative Republican electorate in the primary race.
"They can't run on the issues they care about," Vanderveen said. "They can't run on the issues that actually motivated this primary challenge. They can't run on big-government 'conservatism' because it's wildly unpopular."
Amash has refused to debate Ellis, saying he "isn't a serious or credible candidate." Vanderveen clarified that Amash meant Ellis has skewed Amash's positions and that a debate would not be productive. With a wide lead in polls, Amash also does not have much motivation to face Ellis in person. Still, Ellis said Amash has been "dismissive" toward voters by declining to participate, and cited his high-profile endorsements as evidence of his credibility.
Michigan Chamber of Commerce CEO Rich Studley said his group knew it would be difficult to unseat an incumbent, but that he expects Ellis to keep the pressure on Amash in the last month of the race.
"If this was someone who is not qualified or didn't have a chance to win, we'd pass," Studley said. "We wouldn't get involved."
This article appears in the July 9, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.