Amash could play 2020 spoiler in Michigan as Libertarian nominee

By: - April 4, 2019 4:31 pm

Justin Amash | Gage Skidmore via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (R-Cascade Twp.) won’t yet say whether he’ll seek the Libertarian Party’s presidential nomination in 2020, but he’s also not doing much to dampen the persistent rumors.

The Kent County Republican — who self-identifies as a libertarian — has increasingly drifted further and further away from the GOP under President Donald Trump, to the point where he has reportedly said he rarely attends meetings of the Freedom Caucus, the hardline conservative Congressional group he helped start.

Since at least early March, Amash’s name has been floated regularly as a possible Libertarian candidate.

Rep. Justin Amash
U.S. Rep. Justin Amash town hall in Grand Rapids, March 18, 2019 | Nick Manes

“Well, I never rule anything out. That’s not on my radar right now,” Amash told CNN’s Jake Tapper last month when asked about his presidential ambitions.

“But I think that it is important that we have someone in there who’s presenting a vision for America that is different from what these two parties are presenting right now,” he continued. “We have a wild amount of partisan rhetoric on both sides. And Congress is totally broken.”

Amash’s office did not respond to a request for comment on whether the congressman plans to run.

Should he decide to, veteran pollsters believe Amash’s willingness to stand in opposition to his own party, including Trump, could mean he would play spoilsport in Michigan, which both parties have said is a key battleground state.

“He has been a thorn in the side of Republicans on a variety of issues that are purely libertarian in nature. He would then become a thorn in the side of Donald Trump, and I get the impression that isn’t exactly something he would mind doing,” said Bernie Porn, head of EPIC-MRA, a Lansing-based political polling firm that often polls for the Detroit Free Press and other media outlets.

“They’ve been at odds on a few different issues and he has been a critic of President Trump,” Porn continued. “If he were to deny Michigan to Trump, I think just the fact that he would have that impact is probably more than enough gratification for him to get in the race.”

Amash and Trump
Justin Amash (left) and Donald Trump (right)

Michigan in 2016 helped hand the presidency to Trump. He bested Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton by 10,704 votes, becoming the first Republican to win the state since 1992. He also flipped two other key Upper Midwest states, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

Gary Johnson, the 2016 Libertarian nominee, collected 3.6 percent of the vote, while Green Party nominee Jill Stein grabbed a little more than 1 percent.

“He [Amash] could have a heck of a lot bigger impact on the outcome than Johnson in 2016,” Porn said.

Now in his fifth term representing the state’s third congressional district — which includes parts of Kent, Ionia, Montcalm, Barry and Calhoun counties — Amash rode to office as part of the Tea Party wave during the first term of former President Barack Obama.

Now the Tea Party is all but a distant memory, with many members fully behind Trump. That’s left Amash mostly on his own, in key ways more in line with Democrats on issues like Trump’s emergency declaration in order to bypass Congress for money for a border wall with Mexico.

For his part, Amash seems to revel somewhat in that outsider status.

“One week, the Republicans are mad at me. The next week, the Democrats are mad at me. Maybe the independents will be mad at me someday, too,” Amash said last month during a town hall in Grand Rapids. “The point is, I follow the Constitution; I follow the rule of law and that I think will lead to a better outcome for our society.”

Trump in Grand Rapids
President Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a rally at the Van Andel Arena on March 28, 2019 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Grand Rapids was the final city Trump visited during his 2016 campaign. | Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

As Trump ratchets up his re-election operation for 2020, which officially kicked off in Grand Rapids last week, his campaign has been working to effectively bring the state GOP operations under its thumb, as the Advance previously reported.

Messages seeking comment with the both Michigan Republican Party and the Republican National Committee were not returned on Thursday afternoon.

But the ongoing presence of Amash creates complications, said Richard Czuba, head of The Glengariff Group, a Chicago-based polling group that regularly does surveys for the Detroit News and other news outlets.

“We’re watching nationally that the Trump campaign is kind of battening down the hatches on all the state parties,” Czuba said. “They’re trying to nail down all the loyalists state by state. The one person in the Republican party they really have no control over is Justin Amash.”

Porn and Czuba, respectively, called the prospect of an Amash third-party bid “an interesting prospect” and “certainly a fascinating wild card.” Should Amash join the race, he would have to give up his U.S. House seat. Both pollsters agreed that his 3rd District, as currently drawn, makes for safe Republican territory.

But that district, with a significant amount of suburban voters around Grand Rapids, as well as urban and rural voters, could be critical for whoever wins in 2020, according to Czuba.

“The city of Grand Rapids will go for the Democratic nominee. It’s in the suburbs of Kent County and that’s where Justin Amash does particularly well,” he said. “Suddenly you have what is a swing county at this stage of the presidential race … [and] having this wild card of a third candidate who can draw strong support in the suburbs of the county.”

While Trump won Kent County in 2016, now-Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, defeated Republican Bill Schuette there in 2018.

As the rumors of an Amash presidential candidacy persist, a key question remains: What would he get out of a presidential run? Third-party candidates rarely break out of the single digits in the overall percentage of votes.

Porn notes the possibility of Amash wanting to take Michigan away from Trump’s win column. Czuba didn’t entirely disagree with that premise, but said he doesn’t have an exact answer.

“Frankly, I can’t find a justification for it. Unless he’s simply bored of Congress, which is entirely possible,” Czuba said.

“Who knows? He doesn’t gain a lot here other than notoriety, a place perhaps in the conversation at the presidential level,” he continued. “But the odds are beyond formidable that he could win. The key question is: What’s the end game in a move like this? And I don’t know what the end game is.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Nick Manes
Nick Manes

Nick Manes is a former Michigan Advance reporter, covering West Michigan, business and labor, health care and the safety net. He previously spent six years as a reporter at MiBiz covering commercial real estate, economic development and all manner of public policy at the local and state levels.