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Amash 'confident' in winning a White House bid

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, a Trump critic from West Michigan, is weighing a third-party bid for the White House that he said he's "confident" he could win. 

"There's an urgency. There is a need right now, more than ever, for someone with common sense to stand up to these two parties and to present a strong alternative," Amash said in an interview. 

The Republican-turned-independent congressman announced late Tuesday he has formed an exploratory committee to seek the Libertarian Party's nomination for president, which pundits say could allow him to play the role of a spoiler for President Donald Trump in Michigan.

He joined the Libertarian Party 10 days ago on his 40th birthday and now is eyeing the Libertarians' nominating convention a month away in Austin. His entrance into the race would make him the first Libertarian to run for president while serving in Congress, according to historians.

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

"I think my greatest strength as an elected official has been my ability to stand up for what's right under tremendous pressure — tremendous pressure from my party, tremendous pressure from the media, tremendous pressure from talking heads on Twitter and Facebook," Amash said.

"And that's what we need right now in Washington. We need someone who can stand up for what's right, do the right thing regardless of how one party feels about it."

Amash, an attorney by training, has represented the Grand Rapids area for five terms. He has seen his national profile rise during the past year after he became the only Republican member of Congress to support Trump's impeachment. 

He helped found the conservative House Freedom Caucus, but he believes the GOP under Trump has abandoned many of its core principles. He left the GOP on July 4. 

Amash said Trump and Democrat Joe Biden are two of the weakest presidential candidates in the country's history, saying Biden's bid looks like a "vanity project" and that Trump is misguided and "isn't well in many ways." 

"I don't think you should run for office just for fun," Amash said. "I don't think you should do it just to send a message. I think you have to do it with the idea of winning, and you should only do it if you can win. And I'm looking at this race, and I'm confident I can win this race."

Amash idled his House campaign in mid-February when he began seriously considering a White House bid. Michigan law bars a federal candidate from filing to run for more than one office in the same election.

“I'm committed to running for one seat, and I've decided to run for president. And that's what I'll be dedicating my time to," he said.

Amash said it was "tough" deciding between his re-election campaign and a potential presidential run. 

"I was in a strong position to win re-election as an independent, and I had to weigh that," he said. "Because at the end of the day, I'm trying to think about what is best for the country, and I really think right now the more important thing is that the American people have an alternative."

Amash will be the first Libertarian to serve in Congress when he officially switches his party notification with the House clerk, experts said. 

Two former Republican House members formed exploratory committees to run for president on the Libertarian ticket since the party's founding in 1971: Ron Paul in 1988 and Bob Barr in 2008. At the time, neither was in Congress, where they served as Republicans, according to the Biographical Directory of the United States.

Nicholas Sarwark, chairman of the Libertarian National Committee, said Amash, as a certified dues-paying member of the party, is eligible for the nomination. 

"It's by no means a done deal. He has to fight for it like anyone else would. We welcome him to the race, but our party prides itself in being different from the other two," Sarwark said.

"There's no back-room deals, no party leadership putting thumbs on the scale. It's a clean fight for the nomination."

A sitting congressman is "automatically" a strong candidate, Sarwark said, but some in the party will be frustrated or opposed to the idea of someone seeking the top of the ticket who hasn’t been a member for many years.

Political analysts say a Libertarian bid by Amash could thwart Trump's plans to repeat his 2016 win Michigan — or could hurt Biden by drawing votes in upper Midwest battleground states. 

In a Wednesday tweet, Trump rejected the idea that Amash could hurt him at the ballot box: "No, I think Amash would make a wonderful candidate, especially since he is way behind in his district and has no chance of maintaining his Congressional seat."

Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson won 3.6% of the vote in Michigan in 2016, when Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton in the state by 10,704 votes.

But in his home state of New Mexico, Johnson won more than 9% of the vote that year. 

"Based on how Johnson did in New Mexico, if the last Michigan contest was decided by 10,000 votes, I’m pretty sure having a Michigander — Michiganian? — on the ballot just takes Michigan off the board for the president," Sarwark said.

A statewide poll of 600 likely voters last May suggested Amash could play spoiler in the presidential race in Michigan by luring independent voters from the Democratic candidate.

The survey found that Amash would draw nearly 10% of the vote in Michigan if he ran as a Libertarian, while Biden would get 45% and Trump 39%. The poll had a margin of error of plus-minus 4 percentage points. 

Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia Center for Politics said whatever effect Amash has on the 2020 race would probably be greatest in his home state, noting he likely has some hometown backing in Michigan's 3rd District.

But “I also don’t buy that a significant number of Republicans and conservative Independents who might have defected to Biden will now vote for Amash instead," Sabato added.

"These same squeamish GOP and GOP-leaning voters will end up voting for Trump, just like they did in 2016.”

Adrian Hemond, CEO of the Grassroots Midwest consulting group in Lansing, agreed that Amash could hurt Trump in Michigan and perhaps around the margins in competitive states outside Michigan. 

But Hemond doesn't expect Amash to garner a significant number of votes, given his low name identification and the odds stacked against third-party candidates in national elections. 

"A certain amount of this is ego-driven because he's clearly not going to win," Hemond said. "But the president only won Michigan by 10,000 votes, so it doesn't take all that many to have an impact on the election." 

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, it also would be difficult for Amash to build name ID, Hemond said. “It’s hard and expensive to cut through the noise right now," he said. 

Amash said his name ID is maybe 1% or 2%, if that, nationally, while the other candidates are well-known.

"Let's give this time and see what happens when I'm on TV more, on the radio more, can provide alternatives to what the major parties are presenting and let's see what happens. That's why this is exploratory,” Amash said.

“Then if I'm successful in winning the nomination of the Libertarian Party, we can come together and bring millions of Americans together to take on these two parties and change the entire system. Turn it upside down.”

He said the pandemic could make voters more receptive to Libertarian principles of smaller government, citing government bureaucracy as slowing the distribution of COVID-19 tests and Congress' "convoluted" stimulus proposals.

Amash believes a third-party candidate can win the presidency. 

"In history, you can have moments where there's a sea change, and this seems to be one of those moments where another party can rise up and displace one of the existing major parties, or perhaps both of them," he said.

"There's a chance here for a real change."

mburke@detroitnews.com