Rep. Justin Amash turned on Trump. Will his Michigan district follow him?

If you want to understand how impeachment is being seen by actual Americans, there may be no better place to go than Grand Rapids, Mich.

In part that’s because the area around Grand Rapids, comprising Michigan’s Third Congressional District, is one of only about two dozen districts in the nation to vote for both Barack Obama and Donald Trump. In part it’s because the Third Congressional District, with its urban core, suburban sprawl and outlying rural farmland, neatly encapsulates the broader political geography of the state Trump won by the slimmest margin in 2016: just 10,704 votes.

But mostly it’s because the incumbent congressman, Rep. Justin Amash, has transformed himself into a living, breathing impeachment Rorschach Test.

Amash, a 39-year-old Palestinian-American, has always been independent with a lowercase “i.” Elected to Congress as a Republican in 2010 after earning the nickname “Mr. No” during his one term in the state legislature, the doctrinaire libertarian co-founded the House Freedom Caucus and continued to vote against new taxes and spending in Washington while also defying the GOP leadership on civil-liberties issues such as government surveillance and marijuana legalization. Those principled stands made him unpopular with his more establishment colleagues and kept him from ascending the Republican ranks and landing important committee assignments.

In July, however, after reading the Mueller Report, Amash became a bona fide, capital-“I” Independent. He tweeted that Trump had, in fact, “engaged in impeachable conduct” and wrote a Washington Post op-ed headlined “Our politics is in a partisan death spiral. That’s why I’m leaving the GOP.”

 

Amash, elaborating on his thinking at a recent town hall, said the hallmark of a Republican used to be caring about the Constitution and the role of government, about economic freedom and individual liberty.

 

“Now, it’s how much do you support Trump?” he said. “That’s a dangerous place to be in our politics, where a man becomes more important than the ideas behind our country.”

And so Amash’s upcoming reelection contest has become the country’s premier case study in the politics of impeachment and the larger questions it raises about partisanship, polarization and the fate of Trump’s presidency. In both 2008 and 2016, the voters of Michigan’s Third Congressional District, and Michigan in general, supported overturning a status quo that has largely left the industrial Midwest behind, backing the first African-American president, a Democrat promising “hope and change,” followed by a sui generis Republican who promised to blow the entire system up.

But how deep does Michigan’s appetite for change run? Is there room in American politics for a conservative who doesn’t pledge allegiance to Trump? Will people who don’t necessarily agree with Amash on policy cross party lines to reward him for taking a principled stand? And what does all of this reveal about the mindset of swing voters in Michigan and elsewhere heading into 2020? 

“Congressman Amash has really both reflected the independence of the region and of his district, and then to some extent has led to [that] independence,” says Doug Koopman, a political science professor at Calvin University in Grand Rapids. “His coalition has always been Republicans and some Democrats. And so when he leaves the Republican Party, that encourages even more people to think independently: ‘How am I going to vote?’ Here in Western Michigan, voters already are rethinking their loyalties.”

They will certainly have plenty of choices in the primaries next August: At least six Republicans and five Democrats are campaigning for Amash’s seat. So far, the leading Democratic fundraisers are Nick Colvin of Ionia, a former Obama aide and White House lawyer; and Hillary Scholten of Grand Rapids, an immigration lawyer who served in Obama’s Justice Department. The leading Republicans are State Rep. Jim Lower; Joel Langlois, a local businessman who owns the DeltaPlex Arena in Grand Rapids; and Peter Meijer, an Iraq veteran and scion of the wealthy family that owns a chain of supercenter stores in the Midwest.

“It’s unprecedented,” Meijer tells Yahoo News. “You’ve got an Independent incumbent who is conservative in a lot of ways but holds very divergent positions from many Republicans today. Then you’ll have Republican and Democratic nominees who agree that the incumbent needs to go — and vehemently disagree about pretty much everything else. It’s going to be interesting.”

Amash, for one, has already settled on his message: Voters in Western Michigan crave independence from their representatives in Congress, a “totally corrupt” place where “if you have independent thoughts, you are punished, criticized, and attacked even by your own party.”

“I want to show people back in Washington that this can be done,” Amash recently told Rolling Stone. “I think my colleagues expect that if you leave your party, you’re in big trouble.”

Many of Amash’s Republican challengers are intent on making precisely the opposite case. As Langlois, a strong Trump supporter who hosted the soon-to-be president at his arena in 2016, recently put it, "Our current congressman abandoned President Trump and abandoned the Republican Party. We need a ... local congressman who will stand up for our conservative principles and have the president's back.”

But there’s another argument against Amash that might ultimately have more general-election appeal in a district that tends to eschew hardcore partisanship in favor of milder Midwestern civility and pragmatism. “It’s not like Grand Rapids is Berkeley and the outlying areas are the Deep South,” explains one Michigan GOP strategist, noting that former representatives from the area include former President Gerald Ford, and Amash’s immediate predecessor, Vern Ehlers, a research physicist and moderate Republican.

“I grew frustrated long ago with Justin Amash,” says Democratic candidate Nick Colvin. “As opposed to coming to Washington and finding ways to work together and find solutions and bring resources back here that people need, he’s just been a constant thorn in everyone’s side.”

Nick Colvin speaks to United Auto Workers on strike in September. (Photo: Colvin campaign via Facebook)

Meijer, a Republican, basically agrees. “Obstinance is what it comes down to,” he says. “Before Rep. Amash was feuding with the president he was feuding with [former House Speaker] Paul Ryan. And before that he was feuding with [Ryan’s predecessor] John Boehner. Do we want somebody who is ready to actually introduce legislation and get it passed by working with other members? Do we want a representative? Or do we want a constitutional theorist? We’re not a district that gravitates towards attention seekers.”

Amash’s rivals are saying, in effect, that he’s more invested in D.C. drama than delivering for the people he represents. The election in 2020 might come down, then, to whether voters in Western Michigan — and other key areas — are invested in that D.C. drama as well. What’s really motivating people to show up and vote? Their feelings about Trump, impeachment and national politics? Or their more immediate, more local needs and wants? Amash wants his reelection campaign to be a referendum on the former. At least some of his rivals are hoping it will be decided by the latter.

“The average voter in this district is not paying attention to the above-the-fold controversies of the day with respect to impeachment,” says Colvin. “They’re focused on the rising cost of copays and whether they will have a job tomorrow. It would be a mistake to be singularly focused on impeachment when people in the Third have so many other things on their mind.”

Right now, voters in Amash’s district sound torn.

“I mean, he's got his own choice,” T.J. Suchocki, a self-described libertarian and current Trump supporter, told Yahoo News when asked what he thinks of Amash. “However, I do think that he kind of abandoned his voters.”

Mark Austin, a Republican turned Independent himself, disagrees. “I haven't always agreed with [Amash] on policy, but I'm very proud of him for what he did standing up against Trump,” Austin explains. “There are not a lot of Republicans right now that are brave enough to do what they know is right, which is to stand up to the president when they know that the president has done something wrong. Yet Amash did that, so I give him full credit. I have voted for him before, and I would like to vote for him again.”

Anne Williamson. (Photo: Screengrab via Yahoo News Video)

“I do not go [along] party lines,” adds Anne Williamson of East Grand Rapids, who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 but isn’t sure where she stands on impeachment yet. “If they find [the president], like, absolutely guilty, then really that's not OK. But if it's implied or hearsay or the Democrats just trying to get him out of office, I'm not OK with that either. So we've just got to go with due process and see what happens.”

As for how she’ll vote in 2020, Williamson is just as uncertain. “Trump is maybe not the most upstanding citizen that I would want representing the United States, but at this point in our lives and in the country’s history, you might need a hardnose in there,” she says. At the same time, she’s open to a “third-party” candidate as well. (Amash, it’s worth noting, has pointedly not ruled out a presidential run.)


“This country is stuck in either Republican or Democratic [mode],” Williamson says. “There's got to be a better balance. It's not balanced right now.”

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