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.”