July 7, 2014 at 12:09 pm

Tea party fights to hang on to gains in Michigan

Washington — After making seismic gains in 2010, tea party-backed congressional Republicans now are playing defense in Michigan.

The state’s congressional GOP tea party favorites, Reps. Justin Amash of Cascade Township and Kerry Bentivolio of Milford, face well-financed primary challenges from businessmen — Brian Ellis from the Grand Rapids area and Farmington Hills attorney and mortgage specialist David Trott.

“The establishment strikes back,” said Paul Welday, a GOP consultant who was congressional chief of staff for former Republican Rep. Joe Knollenberg.

But the races have their differences. All of Amash’s Michigan congressional colleagues have taken the unusual step of deciding not to give him money to support his campaign for a third term; Bentivolio’s underfunded campaign is getting a boost from the establishment, via House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

They also differ from other tea party congressional challenges across the state, where tea party candidates are taking on incumbents such as Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Crystal Falls, but haven’t raised much money.

Amash has built a national following for his libertarian positions to prevent U.S. surveillance of Americans and military conflict overseas. But he also has thumbed his nose at leadership when voting. Bentivolio, a freshman who unexpectedly landed in Congress when incumbent Rep. Thad McCotter failed to make the 2012 ballot, hasn’t offended leadership and largely stayed out of the spotlight.

The two incumbents still haven’t ingratiated themselves to traditional GOP power brokers. In a telling move, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and Right to Life of Michigan endorsed Ellis over Amash. The Detroit Regional Chamber chose Trott over Bentivolio, but the incumbent got the nod from Right to Life, a powerful ally in galvanizing supporters for the Aug. 5 primary.

Bentivolio position 'weak'

Greg McNeilly, a Republican strategist who worked for former west Michigan GOP Rep. Vern Ehlers, said Amash is in much better shape than Bentivolio, who doesn’t have the fundraising, campaign machine infrastructure or petition signature issue that forced McCotter out to move beyond his “accidental congressman” first term.

“I think Amash is in a very strong position, and I think Bentivolio is in a very weak position,” McNeilly said.

Tea party enthusiasts got a huge boost earlier this year when a little-known Virginia college professor with Michigan roots, Dave Brat, took down the second most powerful House Republican, Eric Cantor. But traditional GOP incumbents have largely withstood tea party challengers in this cycle, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and longtime U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi.

In Michigan, the tables have been turned with the tea party-influenced candidates in fierce campaigns to retain their seats in Congress from political newcomers who wave their business credentials instead of “Don’t Tread on Me” flags.

“You’ve got these two very conservative congressmen, and they are being challenged by two wealthy opponents who are mainstream Republicans,” said Steve Mitchell, an East Lansing Republican strategist. “... It’s really different.”

Amash, a former state lawmaker, rode into Congress in 2010 on the tea party wave, gaining the open seat once held by Gerald Ford. But unlike his more moderate GOP predecessor, longtime Rep. Ehlers, Amash quickly made waves as a Ron Paul protege who bucked leadership on key votes because he said they violated his interpretation of the Constitution.

“Some people in the establishment don’t like my independence, they don’t like the fact that I represent ordinary Americans, they don’t like the fact that I’m not partisan,” Amash told The Detroit News.

Ellis, owner of an investment advisory firm and former East Grand Rapids school board member, said Amash’s votes don’t reflect the views of the 3rd Congressional District. His campaign has kept a tally of what it considers Amash’s bizarre votes, including opposition to criminalizing gender selection abortions and renewing the breast cancer postage stamp.

Amash 'a libertarian'

“He’s not a Republican, he’s a libertarian,” Ellis said of Amash. “He wants to be the next Ron Paul. That’s fine, that’s his right. But that does not reflect the residents of the 3rd District.”

Amash has developed a devoted following on social media by posting an explanation of each of his votes online. He has never missed a vote.

As for the gender-based abortion bill in May 2012, Amash said all abortions should be illegal. The legislation, he said, wouldn’t stop one abortion but create a new “thought” crime.

“Every person seeking an abortion simply will sign a form stating her motive is not the sex of the baby,” Amash explained on Facebook. As for being the sole no vote on extending the breast cancer stamp, Amash said he’s not convinced the surcharges from the stamp go to increasing breast cancer research.

Amash continues to raise money at a steady clip.

Last year, Paul led a fundraising drive that helped Amash raise $518,000, more than all but seven people in the nation running for the U.S. House at the close of 2013. Amash now has double the cash on hand as Ellis ($841,000 to $413,000) and no debt.

Bentivolio also is trying to tap into the grassroots network, but he’s at a significant fundraising disadvantage to Trott. He has about $131,000 in the bank with debt of $90,600, according to his last campaign finance report. Trott, a well-known GOP fundraiser who launched ads touting his business background, had more than $1 million.

Trott has picked up the endorsement of just about every prominent politician from the area — from Michigan-native Mitt Romney to Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson. They argue Trott can better represent the district that contains parts of Oakland and western Wayne counties.

Support from veterans

Bentivolio, a veteran of both the Vietnam and Iraq wars, has drawn support from veterans groups and tea party and libertarian sympathizers. He has had legal and contract troubles with his 2012 campaign manager, who sued for money owed to him.

The matter recently was resolved in mediation. He had a falling out with a second campaign manager recently and hired a third, Barb Bulic.

Bentivolio said he’ll never match Trott in fundraising but he is fighting hard for his constituents.

“It’s not fancy speeches,” he said. “It’s actually doing the work, getting in the fight, getting sweaty and dirty and rolling up your sleeves, and charging full speed ahead.”

As for the establishment striking back, Bentivolio responded: “You mean the empire strikes back?”

Staff Writer Chad Livengood contributed.