"Tables turn on the Michigan tea party”; “Business to tea party: Get out of our way”; “Donors Plot Against GOP Rebel”: Judging by the headlines, next year’s Republican primary in Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District is shaping up as a referendum on the conservative incumbent’s dogged adherence to his limited-government principles—and a sign of gathering mainstream mobilization against the Tea Party.
But according to Brian Ellis, the business-backed financial consultant who is challenging two-term incumbent Justin Amash, the headlines have it all wrong: His campaign is not directed against the Tea Party. In fact, while he doesn’t go so far as to claim the label for himself, Ellis is trying to capture the Tea Party vote from Amash. “Let me put it this way,” he says, “I’ve talked to Tea Party folks in this district, and they’re not happy.”
Amash, the son of a wealthy Palestinian-American businessman of Christian background, is often likened to former congressman Ron Paul, another staunch House libertarian with national appeal among Tea Party voters. But, Ellis insists, the Grand Rapids area “is not a libertarian district, and I’m willing to stake my campaign on that.” Amash’s critics in the business community are also exasperated by his repeated defiance of the House GOP majority.
Born and raised in Michigan, Ellis once owned a Grand Rapids food processing company, and then founded an investment advisory firm. He was until recently a member of the East Grand Rapids Board of Education but has never run for national office. Influential Michigan business leaders donating to his candidacy include J.C. Huizenga and Mike Jandernoa—both former Amash donors. Seven such Amash defectors signed a letter supporting Ellis’s candidacy and denouncing Amash and his congressional allies for having “effectively nullified the Republican majority in the U.S. House.”
The role of these big-name Amash deserters has drawn media attention to Ellis’s campaign. At first the coverage suggested that the donors had conspired to replace Amash and had chosen Ellis for the job. But Ellis says that’s not quite right: He decided on his own to run and then went out seeking support. He seems surprised by the media’s misinterpretation of his campaign so far.
Bill Ballenger, a veteran political analyst who publishes “Inside Michigan Politics,” agrees that the coverage of Ellis is off base—but for a different reason. He’s skeptical of Ellis’s chances, because Ellis has had “no presence as a political entity” and hasn’t disclosed how much money he’s raising. He notes that Amash has crushed challengers in the past. He calls Ellis’s attempts to distance himself from the “establishment” label “ridiculous” and “clearly not true.” According to Ballenger, the media are wrong to make such a fuss about Ellis’s challenge. “Amash has always had his enemies, there’s always been this feeling that he’s out of step, that he’s a freak, but it’s just not proven to be true.”
The reports have one thing right: Amash has created powerful enemies. He has frequently voted against the House GOP leadership on key issues, has been the lone “no” vote on dozens of bills, and tried to persuade his fellow congressmen to oppose John Boehner for speaker. That rebellion resulted in his being kicked off the Budget Committee. In a recent survey from Public Policy Polling, he had slid to just 37 percent job approval.
Amash has withheld his support from many causes that most conservatives favor. He is the only House Republican who opposes the Keystone pipeline legislation, which he deems unconstitutional because it singles out one company for special treatment.
Amash is famous for painstakingly explaining every vote he casts on his Facebook page. As in the Keystone case, he frequently argues against legislation on constitutional grounds or votes “present” if he thinks a bill wasn’t given enough time for review.
Ellis is unimpressed. “He’s got his explanations for why he’s voted, but I don’t really care. I’m a businessman, I look at the bottom line.” He has no use for Amash’s constitutional scruples, remarking, “If something is unconstitutional, we have a court system that looks at that.”
Ellis agrees with Amash in one controversial area—NSA spying. Like Amash, he’s critical of the NSA, saying that “it certainly appears from what you read that the NSA may have overstepped their bounds. . . . I’m very supportive of reining that in.” He cautions this doesn’t mean he supports dismantling the whole program. And he still considers Edward Snowden “a flat-out traitor.” This puts him to the right of Amash, who lauds Snowden as a “whistleblower,” and even a bit to the right of the GOP leadership.
Ellis sounds the most establishment in his criticism of the government shutdown. Citing his financial background, he calls it “beyond reckless.” But he also stresses positions that could appeal to Tea Party voters, like Amash’s voting “present” on a bill to withhold public funding from Planned Parenthood. Amash says the bill is unconstitutional and didn’t remove any line-item appropriations. Ellis promises that he will never vote “present” on any bill.
Despite the hype about Ellis’s backers, Amash is not without powerful friends. Doug DeVos, president of Amway and one of the wealthiest businessmen in the state, backs him. Some are frustrated by Amash’s stance on issues like Paul Ryan’s House GOP budget, which he voted against, and his opposition to special tax cuts for small businesses. But key conservative groups like the Club for Growth remain loyal. David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report writes that, because of Amash’s conservative following and support from some in the business community, “in a GOP primary setting, it will be exceedingly difficult for Ellis to effectively flog Amash from the political ‘center.’ ”
And Amash has begun striking back. Last month he called in to a radio show while Ellis was being interviewed. The congressman’s voice sounded tense and angry as he accused Ellis of supporting earmarks and misrepresenting Amash’s voting record. The exchange ended with terse “we’ll see about that”s from both sides. Amash published an op-ed quoting the Washington Post on his challenger’s backers, who hope Ellis will do things “the old-fashioned way—by working the inside game and playing nice.” Throwing down the gauntlet, Amash declared, “Crony capitalists have found their guy—and it’s not me.”
Maria Santos is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.