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.
If the business community’s top Republican target wins easily next month, here’s how.
Voters like it when you explain yourself. In the state legislature, then in Congress, Amash kept up a habit of explaining his votes on Facebook. No reporter had to ask him for a statement, no voter had to call his office. In 2012, for example, he explained his vote against a bill to ban gender-selective abortions with four paragraphs about the stuff Trojan-horsed into it. “The bill also shockingly makes it a crime for a medical or mental health professional NOT to turn in someone who they SUSPECT of having committed this thought crime,” Amash explained.
The Facebook post came in handy when Ellis, endorsed by Michigan Right to Life, started whaling on Amash as an ally of the worst kind of abortionists. After Ellis put it in an ad (complete with photos of babies swaddled in blue and pink), fact-checkers cited the congressman and declared the ad false. In an interview, Amash pointed out that Michigan RTL ignored his whole record—“I’m proudly pro-life”—and endorsed Ellis on the basis of that one vote.
Voters agree with libertarians about the NSA. Ellis’ harshest attack ad isn’t even the one that accuses Amash of fetal xenocide. It’s the one that quotes California Rep. Devin Nunes, a fellow Republican who called Amash “al-Qaida’s best friend in Congress,” and then puts a combat veteran in front of the camera to say the congressman “even voted to shut down American intelligence from monitoring terrorists.”
The ad is half-clueless, half-offensive. It was impossible (in a short time, anyway) to find voters in Ionia who disagreed with Amash’s NSA bill, or at least the way they’d heard it described. And Amash has repeatedly called on Nunes to apologize for an insult “unbecoming” of a member of Congress. “He’s running a dishonest campaign,” Amash says after the parade. It’s why he’s refused to debate Ellis, and why the two men have only interacted when Amash called in to a radio show to prove that Ellis was lying about his votes.
“As he’s fallen further behind in the polls, his team has gotten more desperate,” says Amash. “So the attacks have gotten even wilder. It’s 10 months and he hasn’t done one positive ad.”
Rich libertarians leave no man behind. In January the Club for Growth—which had supported Amash in 2010—started a $200,000 ad buy against Ellis. In February, David Koch’s Americans for Prosperity went up with its own $230,000 ad buy, asking voters to “thank Justin Amash” for “fighting Obamacare,” copping footage from an Amash town hall.
You can disagree with the “libertarian” tag, and whether it applies to Amash’s endorsers, but the fact is that the groups that wanted Michigan’s 3rd to be represented by a leadership/NSA foe called the bluff of the “centrists.” It took until June for Amash’s critical colleagues, like House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, to raise funds for Ellis. It took until July for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to endorse him, and for Rep. Pete Hoekstra—who represented a neighboring district, and who previously ran the intel committee—to endorse him. Amash dismisses Rogers and Hoekstra as “retired or retiring members trying to take a shot on the way out,” at odds with Republicans like Calley.
The media can be your friend—especially if you vote libertarian. Amash has opened up his campaign to anyone who’ll ask. In Ionia, when he sat for an interview, his press aide stayed out of sight. Being that open allows Amash to mock his opponent for putting up barriers to seeing him.
“He’ll send a letter out that he’ll be at someone’s coffeehouse,” says Amash. “But he doesn’t post his events on Twitter or Facebook because he doesn’t want people walking in and asking questions.”
Before heading to the district, I email Ellis’ campaign to find out where the challenger would be, and whether he could talk. First, the campaign asks for a “clearer picture” of what the story might turn into. Then it suggests a phone interview, albeit after I expand on what I might write.
The candidate never calls. Amash returns to D.C. for a last week of work before the recess, when he can campaign back home, and win an election that the Republican establishment promised he would lose.