Crowded GOP primary could aid Amash's reelection prospects

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich.

Washington — Republicans are continuing to recruit primary challengers to run against U.S. Rep. Justin Amash after the independent-minded congressman in May became the sole GOP lawmaker in Congress to publicly back impeachment.

With three challengers already declared, major GOP donors in West Michigan have yet to rally behind a candidate. They may be waiting to see who else might enter the race and whether President Donald Trump will support any of them, as his allies have teased.

The latest to join Michigan's 3rd District race was state Rep. Lynn Afendoulis, R-Grand Rapids Township, on Thursday. 

Elected for the first time last fall, Afendoulis, 60, is a former 26-year employee of GOP donor Peter Secchia's lumber giant Universal Forest Products.

"This district is just really thirsty for strong representation in Congress, and I’m ready to deliver," Afendoulis said in a subtle dig at Amash. 

Republican insiders say other high-profile names considering a run are businessman Joel Langlois, president of the DeltaPlex Arena and Conference Center in Walker, and Army veteran Peter Meijer, grandson of the late retailer Fred Meijer, who told The Detroit News he'll make an announcement "shortly."

Republicans who already filed are former Sand Lake Village Trustee Tom Norton and state Rep. Jim Lower, R-Greenville, a former Amash supporter who was in Washington, D.C., last month meeting with party leaders and donors, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Grand Rapids-area businessman Brian Ellis said he would also consider the race if Republicans coalesced behind him.

"There’s a huge opening. I think the congressman has shot himself in the foot, and I kinda think it might not be recoverable for him," said Ellis, who unsuccessfully ran against Amash in the 2014 primary. 

"He’s tried to do the best job he can, but he’s coming up woefully short. I think he’s more on his agenda than the 3rd District’s agenda. That’s now for everybody to see, and people are fed up with it." 

Rep. Lynn Afendoulis, left, talks with Derek Robinson from the House Republican Policy Office during session in The House, Tuesday afternoon, June 18, 2019.

But some Republicans worry that a crowded primary will splinter the vote and return Amash to Washington for a sixth term.

"There’s the strong possibility that this becomes a feeding frenzy instead of an orderly opposition to Amash, with many candidates seeking to gain the president’s approval in the primary. That will potentially clear the path for Amash to eek out a primary victory," said John Sellek, a longtime Lansing consultant who has managed high-profile GOP campaigns in Michigan. 

"The million-dollar question between now and the filing deadline is, can the anti-Amash forces set their egos down and settle on one person to oppose him? That’s difficult to do when a congressional seat is at stake."

Amash 'confident' in reelection

A libertarian Republican who has clashed with party leadership, Amash has dismissed his challengers, saying he's "absolutely" confident in his district in 2020.

"At the end of the day, people go to vote, and I think they vote on character. I don't think there's any comparison, so I'm not worried about it," he told The Detroit News last month.

But his loss of support from the powerful DeVos family — which had contributed nearly $300,000 to Amash's campaigns since 2010 — is an undeniable blow.

A spokesman for the GOP mega-donors last month cited "concerns about a lack of representation for their district ... and (Amash's) inability to advance efforts connected to important policy matters."

The family helped Amash pull through in 2014 when groups such as Right to Life of Michigan and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce backed Ellis in the primary. Ellis raised more than $1.8 million and outspent Amash by $266,000. 

A political operative close to the DeVoses said family members are watching the 2020 race closely, including Afendoulis, but are going to wait to see who gets in before deciding if they'll back anyone.

Meanwhile, Democrats see a seat ripe for plucking. They were recruiting even before Amash broke with Trump over the president's potential obstruction of justice detailed in special counsel Robert Mueller's report. 

The district next year will have its first Democratic primary since 2012. Three candidates already have declared, including Ionia native Nick Colvin, a former Obama staffer.

Doug Booth and Amanda Le'Anne Brunzell have also filed, and immigration attorney Hillary Scholten is considering jumping in early this month. 

"We have more people filing to run for the 3rd than ever before," said Jeff Winston, chairman of the 3rd District Democrats. 

They are banking on growing support in the increasingly affluent, well-educated Kent County, where Democrats made gains in recent elections. Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer lost the 3rd District — which includes several rural counties — by one percentage point in November. 

"In a good presidential year for Democrats, there’s no reason to think a good candidate wouldn’t put this seat in play," said Eric Goldman, a Democratic consultant who ran Whitmer's campaign.

"That's specially true if you’re running against a weaker candidate — either an incumbent Republican who doesn’t have his right flank, or a pretty extreme Republican who defeated a sitting Republican in the primary."

Democrats "absolutely smell blood in the water" and could have a shot if the GOP primary produces the "wrong" candidate, said Paul Cordes, a Republican consultant who lives in Grand Rapids. 

"The Dems have for sure picked up on this. If there's going to be a bruising primary, that could be a challenge for Republicans if they're knocking each other around for a year,"  said Cordes, former executive director of the Kent County GOP. 

"They absolutely want to make a run at this district, especially if it's one where Trump is going to be actively involved in a primary because you have to go from a Trump primary to a general election message," Cordes added.

"There's a lot of areas of Kent County where Trump has challenges and that have been trending more Democratic." 

'Mr. No' stirs frustration

Amash, 39, won re-election last fall by 11 percentage points, defeating Democrat Cathy Albro. 

The former state lawmaker from Cascade Township never endorsed Trump and has not attended any of the six campaign rallies that Trump has held in the Grand Rapids area since 2015.

Amash has not ruled out a third-party or independent bid for the White House, though, as he says, he generally doesn't rule things out in life. 

"I do have a position of influence. I do have more of a national profile, and I want to use that to help set the things back on course for our country — to help restore our faith in the Constitution and our system of government, and protect people's rights from an abusive government," Amash said on a Libertarian podcast posted last week. 

"So I want to do those things and will think about the best way to do that." 

Originally elected in the 2010 tea party wave, Amash consistently ranks as one of the most conservative members of Congress, opposing what he calls runaway government spending. He has eschewed partisan loyalty and casts votes based on his principles and conscience. 

That approach has frustrated some GOP donors and activists who cite his dearth of legislative wins. 

“Ten years ago when Amash got elected, his saying 'no' to everything seemed like a unique, principled stand," Sellek said.

"But he’s done it for so long that the act has worn thin with leaders in Grand Rapids and, frankly, it undercut his attempt to take what he thinks is a principled stance against the president now, because he’s always been 'Mr. No.'" 

Grand Rapids-centric district

Michigan's 3rd District includes Kent, Barry, Ionia, Montcalm and Calhoun counties and much of Grand Rapids, the state's second-largest city. GOP consultants say donors are expected to favor a candidate from the Grand Rapids area, where the bulk of the district's population resides.

Ellis, 59, suggested Republicans want to see a pro-business candidate with more life experience than 30-year-old Lower. 

"Lower doesn’t have any roots or ties to Grand Rapids, so I think he’ll struggle to fundraise and struggle on a lot of fronts because people don’t know who he is," Ellis said.

"That was part of my issue — people didn't know who I was, and I’ve lived here my whole life."

Lower said early polling showing him leading Amash has not borne out the Grand Rapids-centric theory.  

"It's not an issue at all that voters look for when they're deciding who to vote for," Lower said.

"As far as fundraising, we're doing excellent. I've had no trouble at all, and most people don't bring that up that Grand Rapids issue," Lower added.

"He's correct that the wealthy elite business community, they would probably prefer a Grand Rapids person, but that's the minority of voters for sure."  

Ellis and Lower, both Trump supporters, see Amash as vulnerable in part because of his criticism of the president in a district Trump won in 2016. After Lower's House colleague Afendoulis declared her candidacy last week, he immediately tried to label her as "anti-Trump." 

"He's wrong, and I support the president," Afendoulis said. 

Her disagreement with Amash's impeachment stance based on the Mueller report is one of the reasons the state lawmaker considered running, she said. 

"I can’t address why he would do something like that, certainly," Afendoulis said. 

"I just look at the role differently and would behave in a different manner, but he has his reasons for representing the way he represents."

Less is known about the politics of Meijer and Langlois.

Langlois, who could not be reached for this story, for over 20 years has led the DeltaPlex, which has hosted Trump campaign rallies.

His LinkedIn page also says he's president of the real estate investment firm Delta Properties, and serves as CEO of PerCor Manufacturing in Wyoming and of the live music venue The Intersection in Grand Rapids.

Peter Meijer

Meijer of Grand Rapids Township said that "friends and neighbors have been strongly encouraging me to look this race, and we'll make an announcement shortly." 

The 31-year-old veteran was born and raised in Grand Rapids, attended East Grand Rapids public schools and went on to West Point before transferring to Columbia University. 

He deployed to Iraq as a non-commissioned U.S. Army officer between his junior and senior years during the 2010-11 draw down of forces. Upon his return, Meijer got involved in veteran advocacy groups, including disaster response with the veterans service group Team Rubicon after Superstorm Sandy and Oklahoma tornadoes.

He also spent time working with refugees on the South Sudanese border and helping non-governmental organizations navigate conflict zones in Afghanistan. 

Last election cycle, Meijer joined the advisory board of a "cross-partisan" political action committee called With Honor whose mission is to elect principled, next-generation veterans on both sides of the aisle to the U.S. House. 

"I certainly think that we need new ideas, perspectives. The majority of Americans would strongly agree that the status quo approach could be strongly improved upon," Meijer said.

"I’m passionate about west Michigan. That’s where I was born and raised and I’ll do whatever I can in my power to preserve it and continue to serve it."

Staff Writer Jonathan Oosting contributed.