Amash on leaving GOP: 'People are sick of these parties'

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, R-Cascade Township, holds a town hall meeting at Grand Rapids Christian High School's DeVos Center for Arts and Worship on Tuesday, May 28, 2019.

Washington — U.S. Rep. Justin Amash said he had been weighing leaving the Grand Old Party for a few years before finally deciding in recent months he didn't want to keep "going through the motions as a Republican." 

The decision was made before reading special counsel Robert Mueller's report, said Amash, who became the sole GOP lawmaker in Congress to say President Donald Trump's conduct met the threshold of impeachment. 

"I always felt like there was an opportunity to turn things around within the party, and over the last several months it's become clear to me that that's not really possible," the 39-year-old lawmaker told The Detroit News in a Wednesday interview at his Capitol Hill office — his first with a Michigan publication since becoming an independent. 

"How many years are you going to try to change the system from within before you realize you have to try a different way? So this was the time to do it. ... You just have to try something else."

Amash, a Trump critic from the Grand Rapids area, set off major fireworks on the Fourth of July when he quit the GOP and declared that the two-party system had "evolved into an existential threat to American principles and institutions."

Rather than acting as a deliberative body, today's hyper-partisan Congress "exists as little more than a formality to legitimize outcomes dictated by the president, the speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader," Amash wrote in the Washington Post

Republican opponents and political analysts have argued the libertarian conservative's move hurts his reelection prospects, but Amash said he is confident he will win a sixth term. He says he can better represent Michigan's 3rd District as an independent.

"I can remove some of the uncertainty that Democrats have (about Republicans) and also send a message that I'm not here just to represent one party. I'm here to represent every person in my community," he said.

"The best way to do that is to follow the Constitution and then spending time discussing the issues with a wide array of people and doing what is right for your community."

Residents are disgusted with Democrats and Republicans alike, Amash said.

"People are sick of these parties. The plurality and maybe the majority of people in my district are independent-minded," he said.

"I think they look forward to something different — having a congressman who will be independent. Not just in approach, but also in identification."

Incumbent 'in driver's seat'

Amash’s decision to leave the party came before Mueller’s report was released. 

"In fact, I was hoping the report would show nothing because I didn't want the issues to get mixed together," he said. 

"It was disheartening to find stuff in there, but I have a responsibility to tell my constituents what I found. And that's what I did."

While his pro-impeachment stance quickly prompted 2020 challengers, Amash insisted his decision to leave the GOP had nothing to do with the crush of opponents assembling on both sides of the aisle.  

Five Republicans and four Democrats had declared campaigns as of Wednesday with the filing deadline still 10 months away.  

"The more filings the better," Amash said with a laugh. "I was in good shape in the primary. When you look at how the vote was dividing up, you have six pro-Trump candidates and you have a one who's pro-Constitution. I think that puts me in the driver's seat.

"But as I said, I wasn't interested in being a Republican in Congress. I've tried it," Amash added.

"You have a group of people who it seems their allegiance is, first and foremost, to President Trump and not to the Constitution or not to the people they hope to represent," Amash said of the GOP primary candidates.

"We have a very diverse district, with people of all different backgrounds and all different political viewpoints. To go on the campaign trail and say, 'Hey, I'm going to be a pro-Trump candidate, and I'm going to do whatever Trump tells me to do' — that's ridiculous and insane."

Amash 'never really on team' 

Amash was elected to Congress during the 2010 tea party wave that railed against "runaway" spending. He clashed with GOP leaders by breaking with the party on major votes, such as government surveillance, often on constitutional grounds. 

"You can’t quit the team unless you were on it. He was never really on the team," said Rep. Fred Upton, the Michigan delegation's senior Republican. 

"It’s his decision and, frankly, it wasn't unexpected. It's just who he is."

Amash on Monday stepped down from the House GOP Conference and resigned from the Oversight and Reform Committee, in accordance with House rules. 

"I had always planned to. Actually, I was a little bit surprised that people thought I was going to continue to conference with them," he said. "I'm not doing this independent in name only thing like (Vermont Sen.) Bernie Sanders does. I really am independent."

"It's not that the Republicans aren't pure enough," he added. "It's that they aren't acting with principle at all, and they've decided that the end justifies the means in all cases. And I just don't buy into that." 

Amash is the first House Republican to leave the party since New York GOP Rep. Michael Forbes became a Democrat in 1999.

Congressional lawmakers who have switched parties sometimes have difficulty winning reelection. But analysts like Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report say it's unclear if the same fate awaits Amash as an independent with near universal name recognition in this polarized era.  

In the last week, Wasserman and other political forecasters have shifted the 3rd District race from a likely Republican seat to a toss-up, while cautioning it's too early to know how the situation will shake out. 

"The question is how big of a market there will be for a pro-life, pro-impeachment outcast in the western Michigan electorate next year," Wasserman wrote. 

Amash also hasn't ruled out a run for president as an independent or Libertarian — though, as he says, he generally doesn't rule things out in life. 

Wasserman said Amash was never a prolific fundraiser, with $133,000 in his campaign war chest at the end of March.

GOP State Rep. Jim Lower's campaign said it raised $200,000 in 40 days, while Republican Army veteran Peter Meijer may be able to tap his family's fortune, and DeltaPlex Arena owner Jim Langlois may be able to self-fund his GOP campaign. 

Amash has noted a party apparatus hasn't helped him for years, so that isn't new. He still won reelection to the House last fall by 11 percentage points, defeating Democrat Cathy Albro. 

He has since lost the support of the powerful DeVos family, which had donated $300,000 to Amash's campaigns since 2010. And national Republicans including Trump could get involved and spend big to defend the seat.  

Amash described his district as not "super" Republican, with Grand Rapids and Kent County trending more Democratic. He noted how well Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Sen. Debbie Stabenow performed in the district last fall.

"We'll campaign hard. I will be out in the district, meeting with as many people as I can. I feel very confident in the message I'm delivering," Amash said. 

"People are tired of this two-party system. They want independent voices in Congress, and I'll be able to set an example for other people." 

Republicans and Democrats both are only focused on short-term wins, he said. 

"They're forgetting our system depends on trust and respect, and it depends on our institutions — the Constitution, separation of powers, federalism, the rule of law," he said. 

"If you don't uphold these things, it doesn't matter what your short-term goals are. The entire system falls apart. And we can't preserve liberty in a system of contempt."