The Ugliest House Primary of the Cycle

Tea-party favorite Rep. Justin Amash is under assault by a GOP establishment candidate in Michigan, but still leads in the polls.

U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., participates in a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing about. the War Powers Act on May, 25, 2011 in Washington, DC. The committee was hearing testimony on the War Powers Act and the U.S. involvement with operations in Libya.
National Journal
Jack Fitzpatrick
July 8, 2014, 7:03 p.m.

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.”

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