GOP establishment backs challenger in the 3rd district, but voters don’t seem to care

Jul 29, 2014

The race to become the republican candidate for Michigan’s conservative 3rd congressional district is a flip of other races across the country. In this race, the tea party favorite is the incumbent, Congressman Justin Amash. So the primary has become a battle over who’s the true conservative and who can get things done in Washington.

Amash’s independent streak: love it or hate it

Congressman Justin Amash is more of a libertarian than your standard republican. He wants a smaller federal government. He’s buddies with Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul.

That’s tended to divide voters in his district that includes Grand Rapids and Battle Creek into two camps; those who just love him and those who feel like Sheri Adams.

“We can’t stand Amash. He’s not a true republican and he does not think about what’s best for the American people, especially Michigan. So, no, I cannot stand Amash,” Adams, a Grand Rapids suburbanite, said.

I met Adams at the Ionia County fair after she introduced herself to Brian Ellis, Amash’s GOP challenger. She flashed Ellis a big, reassuring smile as she shook his hand during the fair’s big parade.

"We can't stand Amash. He's not a true republican..." Sherri Adams said.

“You certainly have my vote,” she said.  

Ellis, dressed in khaki pants and navy shirt, thanked Adams. The longtime businessman has his own investment advisory firm. He’s served on the East Grand Rapids school board for more than a decade.

“People are coming my way because they feel the congressman has let them down. That’s how I feel. That’s why I’m running against him, because he hasn’t delivered,” he explains as we walk down the fair’s midway, “What Justin says and how he votes aren’t in alignment.”

Ellis claims he’s not only more conservative than Justin Amash, but he’d be more productive. 

“I’m just as independent as the next person but I think I know how to do that in a way that keeps me at the table to help advance the solutions. Justin seems to do it in a way that alienates himself, gets him kicked off committees, and then that compromises his effectiveness."

Amash rubs some the wrong way, but denies he can’t play well with others

Amash has been a big enough thorn in House Speaker John Boehner's side that Boehner kicked him off the budget committee.

Amash is pro-life in all cases except to protect the life of the mother, but Right to Life is now backing Ellis.

That’s in part because Amash voted ‘present’ twice on amendments to defund Planned Parenthood. Instead, he offered amendments that would defund all abortion providers, not just Planned Parenthood. He’s the kind of politician who won’t water down his stance just because it would be popular.

He voted against a bill that would outlaw gender-selective abortions, mainly citing evidence gender selective abortions don’t happen much in the U.S. and because health care providers could face jail time for not reporting a person’s motives for the abortion. He said the bill was just a political ploy by republicans during an election year.

Amash says he’s not bothered by heavy-weight republican endorsements like the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Michigan Farm Bureau moving away from him this year.

“The people of the district are well informed about how I vote and what I stand for,” Amash said, “I explain every vote I take on Facebook. So anyone can look at those votes and see the really despicable way in which (Ellis) is distorting the record.”

Amash says he has been able to get things accomplished. Like last summer, when President Obama was considering getting more involved in the civil war in Syria. Amash held eleven public town hall meetings in two days and was an outspoken critic – going against establishment republicans like Senator John McCain.

“I feel that was a real turning point for us in terms of keeping the executive in check,” Amash said.

Amash says he has been able to work with others. Like earlier this year, when longtime Detroit Democratic Congressman John Conyers co-sponsored Amash’s amendment to stop the feds from collecting Americans’ telephone records without a warrant.

Polls show voters don’t mind Amash’s independent streak

Bill Ballenger is with Inside Michigan Politics. He says the big GOP endorsements don’t appear to help Ellis in the polls, which show Amash with a hefty 20 point lead.

“Some of those groups never have been comfortable with Justin Amash,” Ballenger said.

Not only is Amash ahead among likely republican voters,  but his favorability is higher than Ellis’.

“That’s not a good position to be in if you’re Brian Ellis. I don’t know how he turns that around between now and August 5th,” Ballenger said.

Ballenger thinks a lot of republicans in the 3rd district secretly love Amash’s independent streak.

"There may be a little feeling out there that Brian Ellis is not necessarily his own man. That he's been put up to this by a bunch of people who aren't getting their way," Ballenger said.

“There may be a little feeling out there that Brian Ellis is not necessarily his own man. That he’s been put up to this by a bunch of people who aren’t getting their way and don’t have a congressman in their pocket who does everything that they want him to do,” Ballenger said.

At the Ionia County fair, there were certainly more people who picked up red and white Amash yards signs. People like Delton resident Jorie Graves.

“I hear commercials against (Amash) about how he voted. They’re not getting the full story on it. They’re just picking out bits and pieces and taking and twisting them,” Graves said.

Graves says she knows that because she reads Amash’s explanations on Facebook. She loves that. Graves says she’s confident Amash is headed back to Washington.