If current polling is any indication, liberty-friendly Rep. Justin Amash will coast to victory over his establishment-supported challenger in the Michigan Republican primary next week. An Amash victory would be a win for libertarian candidates everywhere, and a clear sign that independent and conservative voters prefer the limited government message to the pro-war, pro-corporate platitudes of Republican Party leadership.
Amash was first elected to the House of Representatives in 2010, riding into office on a wave of Tea Party opposition to President Obama's policies. He quickly earned a reputation as a libertarian Constitutionalist, voting against renewal of the PATRIOT Act, NSA surveillance, foreign military entanglements, and countless spending bills. His refusal to compromise his principles and fall in line behind GOP leadership won him plaudits from libertarians, though it soon drew the ire of House Speaker John Boehner, who had him kicked off the House Budget Committee in the wake of the 2012 election.
If that was supposed to be some sort of warning, it didn't work. Amash remained as committed to his principles as before. In July 2013, he succeeded in bringing forward a vote on a House bill to defund the NSA. The vote failed by a mere 12 votes, despite opposition from the White House and leaders of both parties (regular Americans, perhaps unsurprisingly, oppose the NSA's surveillance tactics). Consequently, GOP hawks became serious about taking out Amash once and for all.
Three months after the NSA vote, West Michigan businessman Brian Ellis announced his primary challenge to Amash's re-election efforts. Ellis drew support from the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, hawkish Republican leaders like Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), and PACs and lobbying groups.
Pundits have described the race as a particularly ugly one, though that ugliness has been entirely one-sided. Ellis repeatedly distorted Amash's voting record in an attempt to portray him as out-of-step with his conservative district. Republican establishment king Karl Rove came to bat for Ellis on national TV, describing Amash as a liberal Republican and voting ally of Minority Leader Nancy Pellosi. Ellis himself signed off on the preposterous statement that Amash's attempts to defund the NSA and close Guantanamo made him "al-Qaida's best friend in Congress."
It's the sort of blatant propagandistic demagoguing of libertarian national security sentiments that might have worked in the heyday of the Bush and Rove years. But with Amash up by 20 points and less than a week left to go in the campaign, it seems voters are well aware that Amash represents a different brand of Republicanism: one they like better.
Slate's Dave Weigel spent some time in Amash's district and reported that the people there "agree with libertarians about the NSA." He wrote:
It was impossible (in a short time, anyway) to find voters in Ionia who disagreed with Amash's NSA bill, or at least the way they'd heard it described.
That's not really surprising: Voters are increasingly inclined toward libertarian views on a host of issues.
Amash told Reason that his party has to pay attention to his successes and adapt. He said that Republicans elected in recent years understand that better than their older colleagues and "are increasingly likely to fight to protect civil liberties, to oppose corporate welfare, and to allow things to be handled at the state level," all policy positions that are popular with conservatives, independents, and younger voters.
Amash has also done more than virtually any other Congressman to explain his ideology and political positions to the masses. He hs won praise for routinely and personally justifying his votes on social media.
"A lot of representatives give thier accounts to their staff and let their staff Tweet," he said. "I think it's a lot better and more authentic when it comes directly from the member of Congress."
This tactic defends Amash from unfair attacks, since people can decide for themselves what they think about him by simply browsing his Tweets and Facebook posts. It also spreads libertarianism; there is always at least one member of the House giving a libertarian distillation of a current bill.
Ellis, meanwhile, has remained steadfastly committed to un-libertarian programs like Common Core and the Export-Import Bank. His support for the latter, in particular, was a prime factor in the Michigan Chamber of Commerce's decision to back Ellis. For organizations that want to protect their subsidies, the difference between the candidates is clear.
But it's also clear for West Michigan voters. Prospective libertarian candidates should take note: Their ideas are catching on, and they don't have to sell their souls to the Republican establishment to get get in office—or to stay there.