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Michigan Republicans line up to keep Justin Amash’s seat in the party

Except he’s still in it, and running for reelection as an independent

Michigan Rep. Justin Amash says he’s running for Congress as an independent. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Michigan Rep. Justin Amash says he’s running for Congress as an independent. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Graphic corrected, Jan. 24 | Michigan Rep. Justin Amash may be making new friends in Washington, with some Democrats suggesting the Republican-turned-independent help prosecute President Donald Trump at his Senate impeachment trial.

But back in Michigan’s 3rd District, Republicans — including those who supported him or donated to him in the past — are competing to replace Amash to help the party regain a seat that has long been safely in its column.

Amash isn’t backing down. Despite previously leaving the door open to a presidential bid, the five-term congressman confirmed to CQ Roll Call last week that he’s still planning to run for reelection as an independent. 

The potential for a three-way race that includes a longtime incumbent has excited some Democrats who see an opportunity if Republicans in the district divide their votes between Amash and the GOP nominee. After Amash left the Republican Party last summer, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee added the 3rd District to its list of targeted seats

Former President Barack Obama narrowly won the district in 2008. But it’s since swung to Republicans, with Trump carrying it by more than 9 points in 2016. House Democrats flipped similarly conservative areas in 2018, but that could be harder with Trump on the ballot this year.

So long, Amash

One thing Democrats and Republicans agree on about this race: Amash isn’t likely to survive. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Leans Republican, reflecting a small chance that a Democrat prevails.

Elected to Congress in the 2010 tea party wave and as a co-founder of the hard-line conservative Freedom Caucus, Amash has long been a thorn in the side of GOP leadership, opposing spending and defense policy bills. Leadership hasn’t hesitated to punish him — after the 2012 elections, for example, the GOP Steering Committee voted to remove him from the Budget Committee — and national Republicans are ready to take him out.

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Even before Amash left the GOP, he faced opposition. In 2014, businessman Brian Ellis challenged him in a primary with the backing of the state Chamber of Commerce. Ellis ran ads referencing California Rep. Devin Nunes’ accusation that Amash was “al-Qaida’s best friend in the Congress.” Amash is the son of a Palestinian refugee father and Syrian immigrant mother. 

Amash defeated Ellis by 15 points. But the help he used to have from the anti-tax Club for Growth isn’t there anymore. The low-tax, small-government advocacy group, which spent against Trump in the 2016 presidential primary, has now come around to the president’s side. The club told CQ Roll Call it’s unlikely to get involved in any capacity in the 3rd District race this year.

“Amash’s appeal is the libertarian Republican, and now that he’s politicized his position with regard to impeachment, it cheapens his value,” longtime Michigan-based GOP consultant Saul Anuzis said. 

Amash won’t be getting any more money from the DeVos family either. A group of disaffected GOP strategists has formed their own super PAC called Country Over Party to defend Amash. But it’s unclear how much they’ll have to spend on the race or how resonant their message will be in a district where Republicans still support the president. 

Amash voting corex-01

Besides not having any official party support, Amash will be at a disadvantage on the general election ballot, where supporters of a straight Republican ticket can check one box to vote for the party’s entire slate of candidates. History is not on Amash’s side either: Just four lawmakers have been elected to the House as independents since World War II.

The GOP field 

A handful of Republicans are running in the Aug. 4 primary, but it’s mostly become a three-way race that will test the party’s appetite for electing either a young military veteran from a wealthy local family, a female state legislator or a self-proclaimed Trump loyalist.

Army veteran Peter Meijer is regarded as the front-runner in the race because of his last name — his family owns the ubiquitous Meijer grocery store chain — and the fortune that comes with that. He loaned his campaign about a quarter of the $410,000 he raised in the third quarter.

“He’s got a great story, and he’s got money to tell the story,” said former Michigan Attorney General Michael Cox, adding, “Peter doesn’t come across as some rich punk.”

Cox and other Republicans in the state also highlight state Rep. Lynn Afendoulis, who won a state House seat in 2018 to replace her cousin, who has the same last name. Her family owns restaurants and dry cleaners in the district. The only woman in the race, she hasn’t yet secured an endorsement from any of the major groups dedicated to electing GOP women but is on their radar.

“Anytime there’s one woman running in a crowded field it gives her a couple points advantage,” Anuzis said. “It’s probably helpful but not determinative.” 

Afendoulis and Meijer are on the National Republican Congressional Committee’s list of “On the Radar” candidates.

Businessman Joel Langlois, who’s touting his ownership of an arena that has held events for Trump, has the endorsement of Trump’s 2016 Michigan director and has poured significant personal resources into his campaign.

Trump factor

Trump support has been a litmus test in primaries in safe GOP House seats across the country since 2017, and it’s already animating attacks in this district.

Langlois, whose slogan is “Make Congress Great Again,” has attacked Meijer for making a $250 contribution ahead of the 2016 election to a group he says opposed Trump. (Meijer says he sent a check at the behest of a fellow veteran without fully vetting the group, but to those who are pushing that line of attack, he asks, “What else you got?”)

Meijer’s opponents are also expected to go after him for his support from With Honor, a pro-veterans PAC on whose board he formerly served. With Honor supports Republican and Democratic candidates, including several of the Democrats who helped flipped the House in 2018 and voted to impeach the president.

But Langlois is facing questions about whether he actually voted in the general election in 2016, when Trump won the state by less than 11,000 votes or three-tenths of 1 percent. His consultant did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“All three candidates, certainly Meijer and Afendoulis, have to persuade voters that they may not have been as strong supporters in the past but they are now and will be in the future,” said Steve Mitchell, a Michigan-based consultant who worked for a GOP candidate who dropped out. 

Trump loyalty alone may not be enough, however.

“Not in that district, I don’t think as much,” said retiring Michigan Rep. Paul Mitchell, who’s been critical of Trump despite representing the Michigan seat that Trump carried by the biggest margin. 

“There is no anti-Trumper, so you can’t say, ‘I’m more Trump than anyone else,’” Anuzis added.

Afendoulis said at a debate last year that she could disagree with the president “and do it respectfully.”

Meijer, an Iraq vet who has written that he’s running to “help Trump end our forever wars,” has struck a similar tone. 

“I’m not running my campaign on who will work ‘for’ the president the best, I’m running on who will work with the president the best,” he said.

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