Amash's independence opens door for Dems in GOP stronghold

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
U.S. Rep. Justin Amash speaks to constituents at the Rising Grind Cafe in Grand Rapids on Aug. 21, 2019.

Grand Rapids — Liberals are optimistic that newly independent U.S. Rep. Justin Amash will do in 2020 what no other candidate has done in more than four decades: Help Democrats win a Grand Rapids-based seat in Congress.

The former Republican’s decision to buck the GOP has raised Amash’s profile and given him a national pedestal from which to preach against the two-party system without slogging through what would have been a bruising primary.

But it’s also bolstered Democrats' hopes to win the 3rd District seat if he siphons off GOP votes in a crowded general election, a once-unthinkable feat in a longtime Republican stronghold that has been recently trending blue in Grand Rapids and some suburbs.

“Even if Justin were remaining a Republican, I think we were really on the cusp of being viable to take it this cycle,” said 3rd Congressional District Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Winston. “Now with Justin splitting conservative voters off of the Republican vote, that’s just even more help for Democrats to take the seat.”

Amash has called for President Donald Trump’s impeachment and flirted with the idea of a third-party challenge in 2020. But he has said he’s running for re-election and still could end up playing Trump spoiler by denying his seat to presidential loyalists lining up for the GOP primary.

That scenario remains a long shot, said veteran Michigan political analyst Bill Ballenger, who still remembers the last time a Democrat won election to represent the region in Congress: 1974.

Attorney Richard Vander Veen took the special election that year in what was then the state's 5th District by turning it into a referendum on President Richard Nixon, who would resign less than six months later amid the Watergate scandal.

Vander Veen replaced Gerald R. Ford, who had stepped down from the seat to serve as vice president during Nixon’s second term. He won a full two-year term in the fall of 1974 but lost re-election in 1976 to Republican Harold Sawyer.

Amash’s independent bid gives Democrats “no better than a sliver of hope" next year, said Ballenger, a former Republican state lawmaker. “But hey, that’s better than they’ve had the last four decades.”

Trump carried the 3rd District by 10 percentage points in 2016, the largest margin for a Republican since President George W. Bush’s 19-point advantage in his 2004 re-election campaign.

But Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer only lost the district by 1,200 votes in 2018, according to Winston, who said the party is making strides in populated suburban areas such as Rockford and Kentwood, not just the increasingly liberal epicenter of Grand Rapids.

He contends the party was already poised to close the gap because of new laws guaranteeing no-reason absentee voting, straight-ticket ballots and same-day voter registration.

“I don’t want to talk too much about how (Amash) could potentially help us because I don’t want him to back out of that deal,” Winston said with a laugh. “But even if he does, it’s ready for Democrats to take over.”

A new path

Amash used a recent swing through his district to walk constituents through his new independent perspective and bash the two-party system he argued is responsible for much of the dysfunction seen in Washington, D.C.

“People don’t care or listen to each other anymore,” the congressman said during an Aug. 21 stop at Rising Grinds Café in Grand Rapids.

“They take sides, and they want to hold to that position regardless of what common sense or logic tells them. Nobody cares about facts anymore in the political discussion in Washington, D.C., and we really need to change that. So that’s what I’m trying to do, and I’m trying to set an example for people.”

Trump supporters rally in opposition to U.S. Rep. Justin Amash

GOP protesters bashed the Cascade Township congressman at a "squash Amash" rally in June. But he drew large and curious crowds in Grand Rapids this month as he described his newfound mission to challenge the status quo as a political independent and show that another path is possible.

“I hope he’s right,” said Rob Sligh of Grand Rapids, a 65-year-old business consultant who typically votes Republican. “I hope he can get others in Congress to join him and that it breaks the logjam in some way."

Sligh backed Amash in previous elections and plans to do so again in 2020, predicting “he can win this district” again by running on his principles and benefiting from strong name identification in a three-candidate race.

Several Democrats turned up for his coffee shop stops as well, and at least one said he’ll likely vote for Amash because he has stood up to Trump. But other liberals left frustrated by Amash’s stances on specific issues, including his opposition to gun control legislation.

The district, as last redrawn in 2011, includes Ionia, Barry and Calhoun counties along with portions of Kent and Montcalm counties. Outside of Grand Rapids and some suburbs, much of the district remains solidly conservative.

Contested primaries

More than a year out from the congressional election, it is too soon to say what political dynamics may influence the 3rd Congressional District race in 2020, said Nathan Gonzales of Inside Elections, a nonpartisan newsletter covering politics.

“Amash clearly has a record of getting elected as a Republican, but I think he’s going to find himself getting squeezed between the two parties as an independent,” Gonzales said. “If there’s a real and credible Republican and a real and credible Democrat, I don’t know how much space in the middle there is for him to win.”

Five Republicans have already announced bids for the seat, including state Reps. Jim Lower of Greenville, Lynn Afendoulis of Grand Rapids Township, Army veteran Peter Meijer of Grand Rapids Township, Grand Rapids businessman Joel Langlois and former Sand Lake Village Trustee Tom Norton.

The Democratic field includes two candidates with experience in former President Barack Obama’s administration: Nick Colvin, an attorney who formerly worked in the White House Counsel's office, and immigration attorney Hillary Scholten, who worked as an adviser at the U.S. Department of Justice.

Partisan candidates have less than another eight months to file to run in Michigan's congressional campaigns. 

The Republican Party is fighting to regain a majority in the U.S. House and will likely commit to helping the eventual GOP nominee put the seat back in their column, Gonzales said. And they have extra motivation because of Amash’s defection.

“Democrats I think would have a tough time getting over 50%, but if Amash and the Republican nominee divide the majority of the vote, then it gives Democrats an opportunity to win with a plurality,” Gonzales said.

The race still leans Republican, according to Gonzales’ ratings. But national analysts at Sabato’s Crystal Ball moved the race to “toss-up” status after Amash announced his independence on July 4.

His defection “was certainly a thunderbolt in that district,” said former state Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema, a Republican who represented parts of the Grand Rapids region in the Legislature.

But once the dust settles, he predicted Amash will have little impact on the 2020 election because many of his fans will end up voting for the GOP nominee.

“As you get closer and closer to November, clearly the message is going to get out there that a vote for Amash is basically a vote for the Democrat,” Sikkema said. “And I think everybody will know that.”

Trump drew more than 10,000 fans to Grand Rapids in March for a raucous re-election campaign, and many of the Republicans now challenging Amash are touting their support for the president.

The event drew supporters from across the state and region and did not necessarily reflect the mood of voters in Grand Rapids, Winston said.

 “Kent County is not Trump country,” he said.

“Being the international home of the Christian Reformed Church that brings in more refugees from war-torn countries across the world, we’re the pinnacle of ‘West Michigan nice.' His vitriolic message of hate and division doesn't really play as much with even the Republicans over here."