Why Justin Amash Keeps Winning

GOP leaders in Washington hate him. His opponent outspent him. The Chamber moved against him. “I clearly am getting under their skin,” Amash gloats.

UNITED STATES - MAY 16: Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., speaks at a news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center on the Smith-Amash Amendment to the FY2013 National Defense Authorization Act that would 'prevent the indefinite detention of and use of military custody for individuals detained on U.S. soil - including U.S. citizens - and ensure access to due process and the federal court system, as the Constitution provides.'
National Journal
Add to Briefcase
Tim Alberta
Aug. 5, 2014, 7:16 p.m.

On the March even­ing when his op­pon­ent re­leased a bru­tal TV ad ac­cus­ing him of vot­ing “to al­low gender-se­lec­tion abor­tions to con­tin­ue,” an in­furi­ated Rep. Justin Amash sat be­hind his com­puter and or­ches­trated an email chain with his closest ad­visers. They had ex­pec­ted Bri­an El­lis, the busi­ness­man chal­len­ging Amash in this year’s Re­pub­lic­an primary, to pull no punches. But nobody was pre­pared for this 30-second spot, which showed ba­bies in pink blankets dis­ap­pear­ing from a nurs­ery. Amash, a fath­er of two young daugh­ters, was seeth­ing. One thing was on every­one’s mind: re­tri­bu­tion.

Amash’s small and in­tensely loy­al in­ner circle — in­clud­ing his two broth­ers, who run Michigan In­dus­tri­al Tools, their fath­er’s Grand Rap­ids-based com­pany; cam­paign man­ager and seni­or ad­viser Ben Vanderveen; and Will Adams, the Har­vard Law grad who serves as Amash’s chief of staff and polit­ic­al con­sigliere — had a num­ber of spe­cif­ic ideas. They would cor­rect the re­cord, of course, provid­ing the con­text of that vote and point­ing to Amash’s an­ti­abor­tion re­cord. (Fact check­ers agreed, call­ing El­lis’s ad “mis­lead­ing.”) They would rally pop­u­lar out­rage against El­lis, de­cry­ing his be­low-the-belt tac­tics in Amash’s con­geni­al west Michigan dis­trict. And they would use this at­tack to his ad­vant­age, high­light­ing Amash’s ex­plan­a­tion of that vote — and every single oth­er one he’s taken since en­ter­ing Con­gress in 2011 — as evid­ence of his trans­par­ency and ac­count­ab­il­ity.

But these were merely eph­em­er­al re­torts, ad­equate to blunt this spe­cif­ic at­tack but not those yet to come. And Amash knew there would be more to come. He had made power­ful en­emies in his first three years as a con­gress­man, and those en­emies were now em­boldened. The Re­pub­lic­an es­tab­lish­ment was fight­ing back against tea-party in­flu­ence na­tion­wide, and Amash, the liber­tari­an cham­pi­on loathed by House GOP lead­er­ship, was a prized tar­get. If es­tab­lish­ment forces could claim Amash’s scalp in his Au­gust primary, they also could claim real mo­mentum in the battle for the soul of the Re­pub­lic­an Party.

Amash was not go­ing to let that hap­pen. Sens­ing the stakes, and know­ing the at­tacks were only go­ing to in­tensi­fy, the con­gress­man and his crew of ad­visers made a de­cision that March even­ing. They were not simply go­ing to de­feat Bri­an El­lis; they were go­ing to des­troy him. They were go­ing to run up the score and dance in the end zone. They were go­ing to ab­sorb the at­tacks from some of the most power­ful in­terests in Re­pub­lic­an polit­ics and emerge stronger on the oth­er side. And in do­ing so they were go­ing to send a mes­sage — to El­lis, to the GOP es­tab­lish­ment, and to Con­gress it­self — that Justin Amash and his in­sur­gent brand of con­ser­vat­ism was here to stay.

Five months later, that ob­ject­ive has been ac­com­plished. Amash eas­ily de­feated El­lis in Tues­day’s Re­pub­lic­an primary, by a mar­gin of 57 per­cent to 43 per­cent. In­stead of the cliff-hanger hyped by many in the D.C. me­dia, the con­test was nev­er really close. Amash con­sist­ently led by double di­gits in polling of the race, and El­lis — whose fa­vor­ab­il­ity was crippled early on by pre­ci­sion at­tacks from Amash and his al­lies — could nev­er close the gap. Amash’s de­cis­ive vic­tory in Michigan’s con­ser­vat­ive-friendly 3rd Dis­trict all but guar­an­tees his re­turn to Con­gress next year — and also serves as a de­terrent to any­one who thinks Amash will be ripe for re­mov­al the next time around.

“We’d like to send a mes­sage that we aren’t go­ing to stand for this,” Amash said late last week on a met­al bench out­side his con­gres­sion­al of­fice build­ing, since he re­fuses to dis­cuss cam­paign activ­ity — with aides or re­port­ers — in­side the halls of Con­gress.

“The pub­lic wants someone who will rep­res­ent them, not just rep­res­ent spe­cial in­terests,” Amash con­tin­ued, dis­cuss­ing El­lis’s primary chal­lenge spe­cific­ally. “And his whole cam­paign has been about rep­res­ent­ing those who are con­nec­ted, who are elite, who are wealthy, while ig­nor­ing or­din­ary Amer­ic­ans and ig­nor­ing the Con­sti­tu­tion.”

But Amash em­phas­ized that his “mes­sage” isn’t meant solely for El­lis; it’s aimed more broadly at his GOP es­tab­lish­ment al­lies who have tar­geted him for his al­legedly out-of-the-main­stream views. These in­clude the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce, as well as its state and loc­al af­fil­i­ates, all of which en­dorsed El­lis; strategist Karl Rove, who last year called Amash the “most lib­er­al” Re­pub­lic­an in Con­gress; Rep. Dev­in Nunes of Cali­for­nia, who called Amash “al-Qaida’s best friend in the Con­gress” and raised money for El­lis; In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee Chair­man and fel­low Michig­ander Mike Ro­gers, who has be­rated Amash on the House floor and took the rare step of en­dors­ing El­lis over his in­cum­bent col­league; and Speak­er John Boehner, who kicked Amash off the power­ful Budget Com­mit­tee after his fresh­man term.

Amash es­pe­cially des­pises Boehner, Ro­gers, and the GOP lead­er­ship in Con­gress — not just be­cause they have per­se­cuted him, but be­cause he says they’ve fallen out of touch with Re­pub­lic­an voters and no longer rep­res­ent their con­stitu­ents.

“They have it back­ward, and that’s be­cause they are so dis­con­nec­ted from their own com­munit­ies,” Amash said of his party’s lead­er­ship. “Main­stream Re­pub­lic­ans hold the views that I hold, and hold the views that mem­bers of the House Liberty Caucus hold. The GOP es­tab­lish­ment here in Wash­ing­ton doesn’t really rep­res­ent reg­u­lar Re­pub­lic­ans back home. They rep­res­ent Wall Street Re­pub­lic­ans and big busi­ness and those with con­nec­tions.”

In­deed, Amash could not es­cape con­trast­ing his cir­cum­stance to that of Eric Can­tor, who stepped down last week as House ma­jor­ity lead­er. Can­tor, a cher­ished fig­ure in the GOP es­tab­lish­ment, was one pro­mo­tion — and per­haps only months — away from achiev­ing his goal of be­com­ing House speak­er. Yet Can­tor’s na­tion­al prestige mattered not in Vir­gin­ia’s 7th Dis­trict, where he’d fallen out of touch — and out of fa­vor — with his con­stitu­ents. He lost to an un­der­fun­ded primary chal­lenger who tapped in­to voters’ dis­con­tent with Con­gress, and will va­cate his seat later this month.

On the flip side there is Amash, the Re­pub­lic­an Party’s pari­ah who is loathed in Wash­ing­ton and loved back home. Des­pite be­ing badly out­spent by El­lis and tar­geted by some of the most power­ful forces in Re­pub­lic­an polit­ics — in­clud­ing Michigan’s chapter of Right to Life, which held his “gender-se­lec­tion” vote against him — Amash won reelec­tion by double di­gits and now en­joys more job se­cur­ity than ever be­fore.

“Eric Can­tor was loved in D.C., and spent so much time work­ing the D.C. cir­cuit that he seems to have neg­lected his com­munity. And it bit him on Elec­tion Day,” Amash said. “I’ve taken the op­pos­ite ap­proach. I don’t worry too much about the PACs and lob­by­ists here, wheth­er they’re go­ing to spend money against me or at­tack me. I worry about rep­res­ent­ing my own com­munity, and I go back home every chance I get and hold more town halls than just about any­one in Con­gress. And I’m trans­par­ent with all of my votes; I’m the only con­gress­man who has ever pub­licly ex­plained every vote. So by stay­ing that con­nec­ted with the com­munity, it’s helped me ward off the false at­tacks by my op­pon­ent.”

It sounds like hubris, ex­cept that it’s true. Amash is teased by col­leagues for hold­ing so many town hall meet­ings that they look bad by com­par­is­on. He also has a per­fect track re­cord when it comes to votes — not only ex­plain­ing them with lengthy Face­book posts, but not miss­ing a single one since tak­ing the oath of of­fice in Janu­ary 2011.

This ap­proach has earned Amash over­whelm­ing sup­port in his dis­trict, even among voters who dis­agree with his po­s­i­tions. Pub­lic and private polling this cycle has con­sist­ently shown Amash’s fa­vor­ab­il­ity above 50 per­cent, and ap­proach­ing 70 per­cent in some sur­veys, in­clud­ing a De­troit Free Press poll pub­lished in June. It’s dif­fi­cult to ar­gue with num­bers like that, Michigan’s polit­ic­al king­makers say, and al­most im­possible to beat them.

“He’s just a very hard­work­ing mem­ber,” said former Michigan Re­pub­lic­an Party Chair­man Saul Anuzis. “He doesn’t al­ways vote the way his dis­trict wants him to, but he has very good con­stitu­ent re­la­tions. He goes to meet­ings and re­sponds to his con­stitu­ents. And that’s a tough thing to beat.”

Not every­one is im­pressed. Ro­gers, the In­tel­li­gence chair­man who is re­tir­ing this year, has made no secret of his dis­dain for Amash. When asked last week what Amash’s im­pend­ing vic­tory says about his polit­ic­al skill, Ro­gers would not of­fer his col­league any iota of praise. He even re­fused to ac­know­ledge Amash by name. In­stead, Ro­gers in­sisted that El­lis’s cam­paign has offered a learn­ing ex­per­i­ence for the people of Michigan’s 3rd Dis­trict.

“There’s this rising un­der­stand­ing of what he does and doesn’t do here — mostly what he doesn’t do here. And I think that’s catch­ing up with him,” Ro­gers said. “I think the people in that dis­trict need to un­der­stand that their mem­ber has voted over 51 per­cent of the time with the pres­id­ent of the United States. I don’t think they un­der­stand that. So this has been a really valu­able edu­ca­tion­al tool for those con­stitu­ents.”

Else­where, however, polit­ic­al prac­ti­tion­ers are tak­ing no­tice — if not scratch­ing their heads — at Amash’s suc­cess.

“It’s fas­cin­at­ing what’s hap­pen­ing over there. I can’t even ex­plain it,” said a top Michigan Demo­crat­ic op­er­at­ive, who spoke on con­di­tion of an­onym­ity due to in­volve­ment in a statewide race this year. “It’s al­most like the Re­pub­lic­an es­tab­lish­ment ganging up on Amash makes him even more pop­u­lar.”

Alas, that may be the point. Amash is liber­tari­an in his philo­sophy, but his polit­ic­al strategy is more nu­anced. He re­cog­nizes how un­pop­u­lar the Re­pub­lic­an Party’s lead­er­ship is, and at 34 years old also un­der­stands the dis­il­lu­sion­ment young voters feel with the GOP on is­sues like do­mest­ic sur­veil­lance (which he’s fought to end) and same-sex mar­riage (which he says should be gov­erned by the states). This has af­forded him an op­por­tun­ity to stand out, not simply by ad­her­ing to strict ideo­lo­gic­al prin­ciple but by chal­len­ging what he calls the “cor­rupt” and out-of-touch lead­er­ship in his party. He knows do­ing so will pro­voke a re­sponse; and he knows that re­sponse only en­hances his stand­ing among frus­trated voters.

“Do you know any oth­er con­gress­men who are be­ing at­tacked in the same way by the D.C. es­tab­lish­ment? I’m not aware of any,” Amash said. “I clearly am get­ting un­der their skin. I’m clearly ef­fect­ive at what I do. Be­cause they wouldn’t spend so much time at­tack­ing me and work­ing to de­feat me if I wer­en’t up­set­ting the cor­rupt sys­tem they have here.”

Amash is a happy in­tra-party war­ri­or; he says he can handle the at­tacks. Be­sides, it’s not like he’s an out­cast. As chair­man of the House Liberty Caucus, Amash has more friends in Con­gress than many real­ize. Dozens of Re­pub­lic­ans, in­clud­ing some of the House’s most in­flu­en­tial con­ser­vat­ives, at­tend his meet­ings. Many have writ­ten him cam­paign checks, and oth­ers have asked him to head­line events in their dis­tricts. And Amash isn’t ex­actly without friends in Wash­ing­ton; some of D.C.’s wealth­i­est out­side groups have ad­vert­ised heav­ily on his be­half this year. The Club for Growth alone has spent more than half a mil­lion dol­lars in Michigan’s 3rd Dis­trict, much of it at­tack­ing El­lis.

Tues­day’s vic­tory so­lid­i­fies a simple fact: The fu­ture is bright for Amash. He is rais­ing more money than ever be­fore, boost­ing his pro­file in­side Con­gress, ex­pand­ing the ap­peal of his polit­ic­al party, and emer­ging as a bona fide star in na­tion­al liber­tari­an and tea-party circles.

Terri Lynn Land, Michigan’s GOP nom­in­ee for U.S. Sen­ate this year, re­called in an in­ter­view last year work­ing for Amash’s rival in a 2008 state­house cam­paign. She wit­nessed how Amash — “this kid” — out­hustled the com­pet­i­tion and con­nec­ted with voters. 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.”


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.