Amash fends off business critics, is favored to win in August primary

Greg Nash

Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) looks poised to win his primary next month, despite infuriating centrist and business Republicans both nationally and back at home.

Amash, a libertarian-leaning iconoclast, has clashed with House leadership and irritated local business groups with his steadfast refusal to back legislation they deem crucial.

But despite a spirited challenge from self-funding businessman Brian Ellis (R), it looks like Amash will win his Aug. 5 primary. Polls show the congressman ahead by a comfortable margin, and although outside groups have come in big for Amash, no one has spent heavily on Ellis’s behalf.

“I don’t see how Ellis can beat him in the two remaining weeks,” says longtime Michigan political observer Bill Ballenger.

The 34-year-old Amash has worked assiduously to shore up his support at home, taking time to explain his, at times, unpredictable voting record at a flurry of town halls. He posts an explanation for each vote online, a unique move for the congressman.

The second-term member has also benefited from a shift in public opinion on government intrusion following Edward Snowden’s leaks showing that the National Security Agency has been collecting data on Americans. Amash led the charge in Congress to force changes within the NSA, and the leaks helped move voters in his direction, making it harder for conservatives to attack his libertarian views.

“The revelations confirm a lot of the suspicions people at home had about the kind of privacy violations that were going on. There was already a lot of unease about things like the Patriot Act, and this really brought home that we need reforms and we need people in Congress who will stand up for our rights and not just go along with the way things have been since the Patriot Act was put in place,” Amash told The Hill.

Even Ellis, who’s attacked Amash on his national security views, says he agrees with him that the NSA shouldn’t spy on Americans. He instead pivots to Amash’s support for closing Guantánamo Bay.

“I clearly believe that you, I and everyone else is protected under the Fourth Amendment, and I don’t want the NSA spying on American citizens. But where we differ is, I believe, if we have the capability to monitor foreign terrorists like al Qaeda, we should use that ability. A fundamental role of our government is to keep our citizens safe,” Ellis told The Hill.  “Some of Justin’s actions and votes give the advantage to al Qaeda.”

 Amash has received some outside help in the race. The conservative Club for Growth went up early and has been back often with TV ads ripping Ellis and boosting Amash, spending more than $400,000. Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group backed by billionaires Charles and David Koch, also went up with early ads last winter touting Amash’s record. He also has the backing of Tea Party heroes, Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) — which he’s touted in recent advertising.

Ellis has won some powerful endorsements as well. The Michigan Farm Bureau, Michigan Right to Life, and the local, state and national Chamber of Commerce chapters are all backing him, as are Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and former Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), who once represented the area.

But the Chamber didn’t endorse until a week ago and has made no moves to spend on the race, a sharp contrast to its strategy to spend early and heavily to define its opponents. The late endorsement is a sign that the Chamber doesn’t see Amash as very vulnerable.

Chamber Political Director Rob Engstrom told The Hill that he doesn’t “have anything to announce right now” about spending in the race.

Ellis has run a heavy rotation of attack ads, spending more than $1 million, including almost $600,000 of his own money. He’s accused Amash of not standing strong enough against abortion, and one of his ads repeats a quote from Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) calling Amash “al Qaeda’s best friend in Congress.”

But he’s failed to present himself as an alternative to the congressman, and his clearest argument, that he’d be a more effective legislator who could work across the aisle to get things done, isn’t one that’s likely to move conservative voters in a GOP primary.

“Just saying ‘no’ is not a solution to solve anything. In our democracy it’s going to take and should take a bipartisan approach to move the ball forward, and I think I have the skills and ability to forge consensus and move things forward,” Ellis says.

Attacks from Amash and the conservative groups supporting him, painting him as a liberal who wasted tax dollars on local boards, have inflated Ellis’s negative numbers. Most Michigan Republicans believe that those early attacks, and Amash’s hard work at home, will keep the congressman in the House for two more years.

“It’s been more ‘vote for someone other than Amash,’ not ‘vote for Ellis,’” said Michigan Republican strategist Saul Anuzis, who is neutral in the race, of Ellis’s strategy. “I think Amash has done his homework; he’s working very hard, and he’s not taking anything for granted … it’s his to lose at this stage in the game.”