Amash primary challengers emerge after Trump impeachment tweets

By: - May 20, 2019 9:18 am
Lower and Amash

State Rep. James Lower (left) and U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (right) | Lower campaign photo and Gage Skidmore Gage Skidmore via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

On Saturday, U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (R-Cascade Twp.) dominated the news cycle by tweeting that he believes President Donald Trump had “engaged in impeachable conduct.” The president fired back on the platform, calling Amash a “loser” and “a total lightweight.”

And by Monday morning, the congressman had at least two Republicans lining up run for his seat — and that could be just the start.

State Rep. Jim Lower (R-Greenville) announced on Monday that he would forego a third and final term in the state House in the hopes of unseating the libertarian-leaning Amash in Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District. The district consists of Ionia, Barry and Calhoun counties, as well as parts of Kent and Montcalm counties.

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

Tom Norton, a former village trustee for Sand Lake, north of Grand Rapids, also said he plans to primary Amash.

Amash was unavailable for an interview on Monday morning. But in an email on Sunday evening a spokeswoman told the Advance: “I think the tweets pretty much speak for themselves and tell you exactly what the congressman’s position is right now.”

He has been one of Trump’s fiercest GOP critics on several issues, including the president’s emergency declaration for a proposed Mexican border wall, as the Advance has previously reported.

Asked by the Advance in January whether he foresaw headwinds for his own political future in the district, Amash said he continues to receive strong support across the ideological spectrum.

“I feel good about where I’m at the district. I think it requires me to, of course, be a strong representative for everyone in the district,” Amash told the Advance.

“It’s a district that is fairly balanced and I think fairly independently minded. My job is to go to Congress and represent everyone,” he said. “I believe I do a good job of that and that’s why I get good crossover support.”

Tea party warrior

Amash won his seat during the 2010 tea party wave, and used to be a conservative favorite while railing against government overreach during the former President Barack Obama era.

Vern Ehlers

A state representative and attorney, Amash announced a primary challenge to longtime U.S. Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-Grand Rapids), a moderate who had served since 1993. Ehlers, the first research physicist to be elected to Congress, decided instead to retire. He died in 2017.

Amash’s brash move ruffled feathers so much that Ehlers’ daughters endorsed his Democratic opponent, Pat Miles, who went on to be a U.S. attorney and unsuccessfully ran for attorney general last year.

In 2012, Democrat Steve Pestka, a former judge and state House member, launched an aggressive challenge to Amash. But the Republican still won by more than 8 points.

Amash last faced a GOP primary challenger in 2014 when businessman Brian Ellis sought to unseat him, citing issues like his “present” vote on Planned Parenthood funding. But Amash ultimately won by almost 15 percentage points.

Amash has easily vanquished Democratic challengers in general elections since then. In 2014, he triumphed over businessman Bob Goodrich by almost 19 points. In 2016, he bested Douglas Smith by 22 points. In 2018, Amash defeated Cathy Albro by about 11 points.

The congressman hinted this year at the idea that he might run for president in 2020 as a Libertarian. And should he decide to do so, Michigan pollsters believe he could play the role of spoiler for Trump in the state, which is considered a must-win for the president.

An Amash presidential run also could impact the 2020 race for his House seat, which he would not be able to seek again. With Amash’s strong name ID there at the top of the ticket, it’s possible he could hurt the GOP nominee’s chances to hold onto the seat.

Lower plays Trump card

Speaking on the radio on the MI Big Show Monday morning, Lower said he had been planning to announce his primary challenge later this summer, but decided to move up his schedule due to Amash’s tweets.

More than that, however, Lower said that he believes he can better represent the district.

James Lower

“Bottom line, he hasn’t been effective,” Lower said of Amash’s time in Congress, noting that the fifth-term congressman has only had one piece of legislation signed into law, which renamed a post office.

“And you know, I’ve really enjoyed public service, whether it be as a county commissioner, city manager and now a state representative,” Lower said. “But the reason I’ve enjoyed it is I’ve always been able to get things done and really help our community out.”

Lower did not respond to a request for comment.

In a statement announcing his candidacy, Lower said he plans to run on a pro-Trump platform, saying he believes Amash has not sufficiently supported the Republican president.

“I am a Pro-Trump, Pro-Life, Pro-Jobs, Pro-2nd Amendment, Pro-Family Values Republican,” Lower said. “Congressman Justin Amash tweets yesterday calling for President Trump’s impeachment show how out of touch he is with the truth and how out of touch he is with people he represents.”

Also included in the statement was an opinion column Lower wrote endorsing Trump. The statement emphasized that the column was written after the release of “Access Hollywood” audio tapes in which Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women.

“Donald Trump is not a perfect person,” Lower wrote in October 2016. “He has said and done some things that I certainly do not approve of. However, his campaign is about America.”

Wikimedia Commons

Lower, however, acknowledged on the radio that there’s minimal overlap between the largely rural state House district that he currently represents and the 3rd Congressional District, with its main population bases in urban Grand Rapids and Battle Creek, along with several suburban and rural areas.

“But I grew up in Ionia … and then went to grad school in Grand Rapids, so I’ve always been a West Michigan guy,” Lower said. “So no, there’s not a ton of overlap between my state House seat, but the communities overlap quite a bit, so I’m sure that will be a good thing.”

Advance Editor Susan J. Demas contributed to this story.

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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.