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Fallout in Michigan and beyond from Justin Amash’s breakup with GOP

Complications force 3rd District race to move from Solid to Leans Republican

Rep. Justin Amash’s departure from the GOP complicates the party’s effort to regain control of the House, if he runs as an independent in Michigan’s 3rd District. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Justin Amash’s departure from the GOP complicates the party’s effort to regain control of the House, if he runs as an independent in Michigan’s 3rd District. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Republicans didn’t shed a tear after Rep. Justin Amash jumped the GOP ship last week. But their exuberance over being rid of the Michigan congressman might be masking the impact his departure will have on their efforts to recapture the House majority and regain control of his 3rd District.

As more of a libertarian than a Republican, Amash has never fit comfortably within the GOP conference, and he made his departure official with a July 4 op-ed in The Washington Post declaring his independence from the Republican Party.

His relationship with the GOP has been irreparable since May, when Amash called for President Donald Trump to be impeached. And now he’ll be on Capitol Hill without a party and committee assignments, unless Speaker Nancy Pelosi decides to give him some.

For now, Amash plans to run for reelection to his Grand Rapids-anchored seat as an independent, but he is also publicly considering challenging Trump as a Libertarian in 2020. Republicans would prefer the latter because it would be much less complicated for the party.

Battle for the House

At a minimum, Amash’s decision lowers the number of Republicans in the House and increases the number of seats Republicans need to gain in 2020 to recapture the majority.

The partisan balance of the House has now shifted slightly from 235 Democrats and 200 Republicans to 235 Democrats, 199 Republicans and one independent.

(We’re counting North Carolina’s 9th District as under GOP representation even though the apparent Republican winner was never seated for this Congress. We’re also assuming the vacant 3rd District in North Carolina will remain in GOP hands after September’s special election.)

In other words, before Amash’s decision, Republicans needed to gain 18 or 19 seats in November 2020, depending on the outcome of the Sept. 10 redo in North Carolina’s 9th. Now, Republicans need to gain 19 or 20 seats.

It might be easy for GOP members and strategists to dismiss the difference of a single seat. But the party was already working against history. Republicans have gained more than 18 House seats in just one presidential election in the last 50 years — 1980, when they gained 34 seats. But the GOP still came nowhere near the majority that cycle.

Every House seat could matter in 2020 depending on the political climate, and Republicans will at least have to spend some time, energy and potentially money on a seat they would not have had to worry about before Amash left the party.

Battle for the 3rd District

Amash has represented his West Michigan district since 2010, when he won an open seat after Republican Vernon J. Ehlers retired after nine terms. Amash has been reelected four times since, with an average vote percentage of 56 percent, including his most recent 54 percent to 43 percent victory last fall, a race that didn’t receive national attention.

Previous Democratic optimism over the 3rd District seat was fueled by recent presidential results: Trump won the district by 9 points over Hillary Clinton in 2016; Mitt Romney won the 3rd by 7 points in 2012 (even though he lost statewide by 10 points); and Barack Obama won it by 1 point in 2008 (even though he won statewide by 16 points), according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections. And GOP strategists point out that Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, widely regarded as one of the worst GOP Senate candidates in recent memory, carried the district 50 percent to 45 percent in 2014, even though she lost statewide to Democrat Gary Peters by 13 points.

The 3rd District will elect a Republican under nearly all conditions. The question is whether 2020, with a former Republican congressman running as an independent, is enough of an anomaly to elect a Democrat with a plurality of the vote.

Amash appeared to be hemorrhaging Republican support in the aftermath of his impeachment comments. A June 29-July 1 Strategic National poll found him with just 17 percent of the GOP primary vote. That put him in second place behind state Rep. Jim Lower (27 percent), tied with state Rep. Lynn Afendoulis (17 percent), and ahead of former Sand Lake Village President Tom Norton (5 percent) and Iraq/Afghanistan war veteran Pete Meijer (4 percent). Even though he’s a first-time candidate, Meijer could have outsize name identification because his family owns a large chain of grocery stores in the Midwest.

But Amash wouldn’t need to split Republican voters evenly with the GOP nominee to have an impact on the race. Even if he took 20 percent of the Republican vote, that would be enough to make the race uncomfortably close for GOP strategists.

Multiple Republicans have convinced themselves that Amash would steal as many Democrat-leaning independents as he would GOP-leaning voters because of his recent political positions and statements — and that Amash could actually split the anti-Trump vote with the Democratic nominee. That’s possible, but it’s hard to tell how quickly Republicans would turn against Amash en masse.

With the threat of a GOP nominee and a former GOP congressman running as an independent on the same ballot in a district where Trump received just 52 percent of the vote, a Solid Republican rating no longer fits. We’re changing our rating of Michigan’s 3rd District race to Leans Republican.

The GOP lean of the district and the instinct of grassroots Republicans to oppose anyone who dares to challenge Trump could end up keeping this seat in the party’s hands. But it feels like Republicans are being a bit too cavalier about the problems Amash could still cause, even though he’s no longer a part of the party.

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