IONIA, Mich.—The annual parade and fair, which locals claim is the largest free fest of its kind, occupies most of the main street and all of a nearby park. By 11 a.m. the best seats along the parade route are taken, and the free sidewalk space has been chalked up, courtesy of a nearby church, with suggested prayers and Bible verses. As the crowd sweats, the grand marshal reminds everyone to return in August for a Vietnam veteran motorcycle ride. “They didn’t really get the respect they deserved when they returned home,” he says. “Let’s make it up to them.”
A few blocks away, at the back of the parade route, the local congressman who has been called “al-Qaida’s best friend” is getting plenty of respect. Rep. Justin Amash, whose libertarian voting record supposedly made him a soft target for more hawkish Republicans, is finding no one who agrees with his opponents’ attacks.
“I don’t know why they just don’t deal with honest facts,” says one elderly voter.
“It’s backfiring on ’em,” says Amash.
A propane salesman named Don Rittersdorf asks why Amash’s opponent, a businessman named Brian Ellis, is being so vicious. “Right out of the gate, he was attackin’!” he says. “I was like, holy cow!”
“It’s just that time of year,” says Amash.
Josh Reisbig, who works for a trucking company, tells Amash that he did not fall for an ad accusing him of backing gender-selective abortion.
“You’ve got a bill with multiple things in there, and they focus on one part,” says Amash, smiling while he shakes his head.
Amash, joined by Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, walks away to find his campaign team. The 37-year-old Calley is wearing jeans and wingtips; the 34-year-old congressman is wearing shorts and sneakers. Ellis is nowhere to be seen, but the Amash fans can’t stop talking about him.
“I like when he attacks [Amash] for the abortion crap,” says Reisbig, “just because he didn’t want to spend some money. Now he’s pro-abortion? He just wants to keep the government off your back, dude.”
That is the reaction that $1.4 million in donations to Brian Ellis—and even more outside spending—was supposed to prevent. In October 2013 a scattered but insistent group of wealthy east Michiganders talked confidently about beating the libertarian. “The business community in Grand Rapids has been completely disenchanted with Amash,” a GOP operative (and Romney campaign veteran) told the Washington Post. Donors were “ready to go,” according to the proudly centrist former Ohio Rep. Steve LaTourette, who now heads the centrist Main Street Partnership.
And hey, the business community was having a good year. Until this week, when businessman David Perdue defeated Rep. Jack Kingston in a primary for Georgia’s open Senate seat, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was undefeated in the races it had entered. Even Perdue wasn’t an inherently doomed candidate like 2012’s Todd Akin or 2010’s Christine O’Donnell.
But Amash was supposed to be the jewel in the crown, and it doesn’t look like he will be. For months the loose Republican “establishment” has been explaining away likely victory for a young libertarian who—in the short version of his sins—supported Ron Paul for president, opposed John Boehner for speaker, voted against Paul Ryan’s budgets, and got dangerously close to defunding the NSA’s metadata collection program. In a June poll, Amash led Ellis by 20 points, just as he did in May. The election is on Aug. 5.