As of today, now-independent Congressman Justin Amash says he’s running for reelection in his Grand Rapids-based 3rd District.
Chased out of the Republican Party by President Donald Trump’s antics, the strict constitutionalist from Cascade Township is professing his reelection plans to the national media. If successful, he’d be the first Michigander in at least modern history to win a congressional seat as an independent.
We’ve had candidates win as third-party candidates before. Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose party and the Union party during the Civil War before that. No independents.
Whether Amash is serious about defying history is questionable. For starters, the odds Amash will collect a government check in 2021 are long.
In Kent County alone, 51% used the straight-ticket voting option in 2016. Among Democrats, 39% voted straight Democratic and 15% straight Republican. Presuming the numbers are similar in 2020, Amash starts with less than half of the voting pool to play with in the district’s largest county.
If he collects the 3,000 signatures needed to get on the ballot. Amash needs to campaign with comparatively few resources in a hyper-partisan election.
With no DeVos money to fuel his campaign, Amash is sitting on $200,000. That’s less than a third of what Elissa Slotkin raised in one quarter. That’s less than what Republican challenger James Lower collected in 40 days.
Amash’s West Michigan funding streams have dried up. If, miraculously, polling shows Amash gaining traction or the Republican nominee doesn’t have a clear lead, the national GOP or the Trump campaign, itself, will swoop in with huge ad buys to put out the fire.
At best, Amash can only hope to pull enough votes from the Republican nominee to give the seat to the Democrats. In the last four elections with these congressional lines, the Democratic nominee has averaged 41% of the vote. Let’s say the Dem gets 38% in 2020. A few Democrats like Amash’s call for Trump’s impeachment enough to vote for him.
Let’s say Amash gets a quarter of the vote. He is the incumbent, after all. Presuming there’s no Libertarian or other third-party options, that leaves the Republican with 37%. That’s a loss, the GOP’s first in the 3rd District in the post-Watergate era.
If Amash is going to play spoiler, the better play may be to go big before going home. Run for president and muck up the reelection chances of someone he really can’t stand. The person who called him a “total loser.” Trump, himself.
Seeking and winning the Libertarian Party’s presidential nomination in 2020 may be his best, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility.
For one, the Libertarians don’t have a big name right now. The 2012 and 2016 nominee, Gary Johnson isn’t running. Johnson, in fact, gave an Amash candidacy “two thumbs up” when I asked him about it.
Second, Amash already has a national stage. The Washington Post carried, exclusively, his Independence Day column in which he announced his departure from the Republican Party. CNN had the exclusive interview with Amash after the fact. His national profile is high. A presidential run will push it higher. That helps his job-searching prospects in 2021 considerably.
Third, while Amash’s philosophy doesn’t fit with the party exactly, he’s close enough on personal liberty, international affairs and fiscal issues to make it work.
Fourth, the Libertarian Party is the country’s only third party to have ballot access in all 50 states, which saves a potential presidential hopeful at least $3 million.
Fifth, running as a Libertarian expands his network of contributions to a national audience. Johnson ran in 2016 with $12 million. Amash is much more embroiled in the news of the day. His relevance is much higher than Johnson’s. Raising money and earned media time from a national audience shouldn’t be a problem.
Sixth, Amash could really kill Trump’s reelection chances. Johnson received 3.5% of the Michigan vote in 2016. There’s no reason to think Amash couldn’t get at least 5% or 300,000 votes from his home state. Trump only won Michigan by 10,704 votes, remember.
In a tight election — where the Midwest could decide the results — having a Michigander running a Midwest-centered campaign that draws more votes from Republicans than Democrats is bad news for Trump.
The choice is clearly his, but the question he must answer is this: Does he want to watch Trump spoil his political career with late ad buys in a long-shot reelection? Or would he rather spoil Trump’s?
(Kyle Melinn of the Capitol newsletter MIRS is at firstname.lastname@example.org.)