A libertarian, tea-party congressman just rolled to reelection in a congressional district that is home to some of the wealthiest people in the business wing of the Republican party.
Representative Justin Amash (R., Mich.) was outspent by his opponent, Brian Ellis, who had the support of the Chamber of Commerce and other House Republicans, but it was never even a tight race. “It’s been a pretty significant lead for the congressman throughout,” a Republican consultant and pollster in Michigan unaffiliated with either campaign told National Review Online Monday.
Ellis’s campaign was supposed to demonstrate the political costs of the government shutdown — the primary was supposed to be another “establishment strikes back” moment in the 2014 election cycle. “I’m hearing it from everybody,” Ellis told The Hill in November of last year. “[The shutdown was] no way to run a country. It’s no way to govern.”
In the end, it was Ellis who was left with no way to govern. Amash spokesman Will Adams attributed his candidate’s success to the fact that there is “overwhelming grassroots support for Justin and almost no grassroots support for Ellis.”
Amash’s victory exemplifies, in part, the electoral shift that has taken place in Republican party politics since the rise of the Tea Party. Ellis is “a very pro-business, you know, Gerald Ford/Paul Henry, ‘We want an effective, engaged congressman who can get things done’” type of candidate, the unaffiliated pollster said. “But we live right now in an era where government is out of control, and even the average primary voter has concerns about the size of the debt. And folks going to Washington — [they can say they are going] to get things done, sure, but to get things down that are good or to get things done that are bad is always an open question.”
National-security hawks have attacked Amash’s foreign policy — Representative Devin Nunes (R., Calif.) described him as “al-Qaeda’s best friend in the Congress” before raising money, along with House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers (R., Mich.), for Amash’s opponent — but voters trust him well enough in that area. But that is not to say that a pure libertarian foreign policy is now regnant in the GOP. “They think of him as a conservative Republican with a libertarian streak, not as a libertarian who happened to find a home in the Republican primary, and that’s two very different things,” the pollster said.
Adams explained that Amash’s trademark habit of explaining his votes on Facebook was “hugely important” to how voters perceive him, as Adams was reminded over the last week in the district. “There’s a kid on a skateboard with tattoos and earring and one of those chains with the wallet, and he’s skateboarding by me and he doesn’t even stop and he turns his head and he [says], ‘He’s never missed a vote!’” Adams laughed. “How does this kid who is skateboarding by me know that?”
Adams said that explaining votes on the social network serves three purposes. “First, it disciplines us. It makes sure that every time we have a vote, we think about it very carefully, because we know that we’re going to have to explain his position publicly,” Adams explained. Secondly, it’s a “great resource” for anyone who has a question about Amash’s record after hearing an attack. And most important, the reputation helps Amash maintain the trust of the voters, even when traditional Republican-party power brokers — the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Right to Life, and the state Farm Bureau — endorse his opponent.
“Regardless of whether voters actually read his Facebook explanations,” Adams said, “they develop some trust with a guy who explains himself publicly. So, they might not read every single explanation, but when they hear that Justin voted a little differently, they often give him the benefit of the doubt.”
The pollster, who agreed that Amash’s Facebook explanations “inoculated him” against negative attacks, said that Ellis exacerbated the problem by attempting to portray Amash as a liberal before voters had reason to trust his critiques. “They started off, before anyone knew who Brian was, trying to characterize Amash,” the pollster says. “[Ellis] had a few issues that were legitimate campaign issues, but he just could never really get any traction with them, because [his campaign’s] very first accusation was that Amash was voting with Obama and Pelosi most of the time, and there is just nobody in Grand Rapids that that message resonated with. . . . When nobody really knows who you are, you can’t lead with a claim that nobody’s going to believe.”
Adams offered a similar critique of Ellis’s campaign. “It’s always a bad move when you’re running for office and you refuse to talk about yourself,” he says. “He spent all of his money running a campaign based on a parallel universe where Justin isn’t a conservative, principled member of Congress, and nobody buys that, not even [Ellis’s] supporters.”
As a result, Amash earned “a double-digit victory against a very well-funded primary opponent who spent the last eight months trying to tear his face off,” as the pollster put it.
— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review Online.