Is Newly Independent US Rep. Justin Amash Considering a Presidential Run?

The Grand Rapids congressman is drawing national attention
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Justin Amash
Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., ascends the House steps in May. // Photograph by Bill Clark/Congressional Quarterly/Newscom via ZUMA Press

Rep. Justin Amash is dreamy. And, no, that’s not a reference to how he looks in his tight polos thanks to bulging biceps whose emergence Vanity Fair took as a sign the Republican Party had driven him to work out his anti-Trump aggression in the gym. It’s the iconoclastic 39-year-old Grand Rapids congressman’s swift moves in the political arena that have mouths agape.

Since July 4, when Amash announced his independence from the Republican Party with a “Dear John” letter in The Washington Post, Michigan partisans of every stripe are fantasizing about how their cause will benefit. So far, Amash says he’s running for his fifth re-election in Michigan’s Third Congressional District as an independent but is weighing whether to chase the Libertarian Party nomination for president instead.

“When you feel like you have the ability to make a positive impact, defend the Constitution on a different stage in a way that maybe would be more productive, you shouldn’t rule it out,” Amash told Fox Business in mid-July. Amash did not reply to Hour Detroit interview requests.

Regardless of the path Amash decides to take forward, there is one thing every side believes: all of this is great for them.

Democrats, for starters, say the Third District — which covers a portion of western Michigan including the county of Ionia and part of Kent, as well as Grand Rapids, Battle Creek, Hastings, and Lowell — held exclusively by Republicans for nearly 30 years, constitutes a serious pick-up opportunity if Amash stays in that race, as he would peel off conservative votes from the GOP nominee. Two Obama administration veterans, Hillary Scholten and Nick Colvin, have announced their candidacy in a district where Democrats usually put up sacrificial lambs who lose by double digits. “Normally, people aren’t clamoring to run for the Third,” says the state Democratic Party field director for western Michigan, Jeff Winston.

Winston believes the Grand Rapids-area district is turning bluer, noting Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in 2018 became the first Democrat in decades to win Kent County. She lost the whole district, which includes most of Kent plus all of Ionia, Barry, and Calhoun counties, by about 2,600 votes, “which is a drop in the bucket in a district of this size and particularly in a gubernatorial year,” Winston says. “In a presidential year with a massively unpopular president, Democrats are motivated to get out to the polls, so even before Justin’s defection, we had strong potential,” he adds. “I’m pretty sure Justin will get more than 2,600 votes. Rudimentary math says our chances of victory have exponentially increased.”

Should Amash become the Libertarian Party candidate for president, Winston says a similar split-the-vote effect could cost President Trump the state. Trump’s razor-thin victory in Michigan in 2016 was pivotal to his Electoral College win.

But where would Amash votes come from? Kent County Republican chair Joel Freeman suspects Amash would pull evenly from both parties among those willing to forgo straight-ticket voting to support an independent. There are six announced candidates running for the GOP nomination, including grocery store scion Peter Meijer and state Reps. Jim Lower and Lynn Afendoulis.

Freeman and others believe Amash quit the party, in part, because a June poll showed him 16 points behind Lower in a primary matchup after Amash became the only sitting GOP House member to call for Trump’s impeachment. Becoming an independent, then, may have been his best shot at getting on the 2020 ballot. Likewise, Lower says Amash becoming the Libertarian 2020 presidential nominee could give anti-Trump conservatives in Michigan a viable option other than to vote for the Democratic nominee.

“Do we take him seriously in the general? Sure. It’ll be a three-way race,” Lower says. “But I don’t see him as this take-it-to-the-bank spoiler, because he’s alienated so many voters on the conservative or the pro-Trump side. I don’t know how many of those voters he’ll have access to in terms of them voting for him.”

Few think Amash has much chance of winning a congressional or a presidential race, but the national attention he’s drawn has thrilled the state’s Libertarian activists. No Libertarian candidate has ever won a federal office anywhere in the U.S., making an incumbent congressman running under their banner the best electoral opportunity — however remote — in the party’s history.

“There’s been more traffic to our website and Facebook page. We’re getting more press because of Amash,” says Greg Stempfle, state Libertarian chair, who hopes Amash stays in the congressional race and affiliates with his party. “Whether that translates into new membership remains to be seen. He’s popular there; he’s got name recognition. If anyone could do it, he could.”

Other Libertarians have bigger dreams for Amash. Patty Malowney, vice chair for the Libertarian Party of West Michigan and an administrator for amash4president.com, says she’s seen a groundswell among Libertarians across the nation, as evidenced by members in 17 states who have formed Amash 2020 websites or Facebook groups. “I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think he could become the nominee,” she says. “He’s the best Libertarian in office right now, even if he’s not formally one of us. Yet.”

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