In an Independence Day op-ed in the Washington Post, Michigan Rep. Justin Amash declared he was leaving the GOP to become an Independent, writing that "the two-party system has evolved into an existential threat to American principles and institutions." Amash later indicated he plans to run for reelection in 2020 as an independent, but also wouldn't rule out pursuing a Libertarian bid for president.
Amash's party switch may be the culmination of a long-term evolution, but in truth, he's been on his own island for several years. He was first elected in 2010 as a movement, pro-life movement conservative backed by the Club for Growth and Ron Paul against primary opponents favored by the Grand Rapids business community. He quickly began rankling GOP leaders by breaking from them on major votes on constitutional grounds.
In 2016, Amash refused to back Donald Trump for president and earlier this year left the House Freedom Caucus and called for Trump's impeachment, drawing praise on MSNBC and further isolating himself from his party. In June, GOP state Rep. Jim Lower touted a MIRS poll showing him leading Amash 49 percent to 33 percent, making clear the incumbent didn't have much of a path forward in the GOP.
Sometimes party switches take, and sometimes they don't. But Amash is the first House Republican to change party affiliations in almost 20 years, so it could be difficult to apply past lessons to our current polarized political era.
In 2000, Virginia Rep. Virgil Goode left the Democrats to become an Independent, but he had long been very conservative, and Republicans didn't field a candidate that year; he easily won reelection and joined the GOP the next cycle. In 2009, Alabama Rep. Parker Griffith stunned Democrats by switching to the GOP. But Republicans had just waged a vigorous campaign against him in 2008, and he lost the 2010 GOP primary.
Amash's situation is unique because he's virtually guaranteed to have both a Democratic and Republican opponent in 2020. 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.
Michigan's 3rd CD — once represented by Gerald Ford — has long been Republican seat, but in recent years it's grown more professional and competitive. In 2016, Trump took just 52 percent there, a hair under Mitt Romney's 53 percent. In 2018, Amash defeated under-funded Democratic educator Cathy Albro 54 percent to 43 percent, cobbling together a coalition of GOP base voters and a few anti-Trump independents.
Even without Amash in the mix, the GOP field is very crowded more than a year away from next August's primary. Lower, who is attempting a leap from the state House to Congress at the age of 30 (ironically, like Amash in 2010), served as an Ionia County Commissioner and was the first in against the incumbent. But he was quickly joined by state Rep. Lynn Afendoulis and Afghan/Iraq war veteran Peter Meijer.
Meijer possesses the best-known last name in the GOP race. He's the 31-year-old grandson of grocery chain magnate Frederik Meijer and an heir to a family fortune worth billions. In 2018, he helped found With Honor Fund, a Super PAC that spent $14 million seeking to elect "principled next-generation veterans" of all parties. But the PAC's contributions to Democrats could come under attack from his primary opponents.
Democrats had trouble recruiting here in 2018 against an anti-Trump Republican. But now they're excited about the possibility Amash and a GOP nominee will divide their opposition, creating a path for victory in a seat trending their way. It's early, but Democrats have two credible contenders: Grand Rapids immigration attorney Hillary Scholten and former Obama White House personal aide Nick Colvin.
How does it all play out? It's too soon to tell, and there are several unknowns: first, will Amash abandon his party-less future in the House in favor of a quixotic presidential bid? Second, will Amash's independent presence in the race - assuming he's on the ballot next fall - help Republicans or Democrats? It's just as possible to envision Amash dividing the anti-Trump portion of the electorate as dividing religious Republicans.
In Amash's favor, he is leaving a party where he was likely doomed, has universal name recognition and has a long time to figure out his plans: Michigan's filing deadline for independent and third party candidates isn't until July 16, 2020. However, he's never been a prolific political fundraiser, had just $133,000 in his campaign account at the end of March and won't have any help from a party apparatus.
It will take months, if not an entire year, for the race in this district to come into focus. For now, the only appropriate place for Michigan's 3rd CD is the Toss Up column.
Image Credit: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File