The Byron Days Festival parade was still marching in the street behind him when Representative Justin Amash paused from shaking voters’ hands to shrug off a question about being a target of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
“The polls have me up by a wide margin, but I think they felt they had to go after the person who’s leading the charge against their biggest priority,” said Amash, in a reference to his opposition to reauthorizing the U.S. Export-Import Bank.
In Michigan’s Aug. 5 Republican primary, Amash, 34, is facing a challenge from Brian Ellis, 54, a wealthy businessman and investor who also took a spot in the July 26 parade in Byron Center, a suburb of Grand Rapids, the biggest city in the state’s 3rd Congressional District.
The showdown marks the close of an intraparty power struggle between the chamber, the nation’s largest business lobby based in Washington, and the Tea Party movement, which backs Amash and seeks to shrink the federal government’s role.
The contest amounts to a role reversal for the warring factions inside the Republican Party. After spending most of the 2014 primary season defending such allies as Senators Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky from Tea Party-backed primary challenges, the business community is seeking to oust two of the movement’s strongest allies: Amash and Representative Kerry Bentivolio, who’s drawn a chamber-backed opponent in his suburban Detroit election.
The Amash-Ellis race is “a flip of what’s been going on in recent election campaigns” between the Tea Party and establishment wings of the Republican Party, said Erika King, a political scientist at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan.
The chamber’s goal is to send a message to House Republicans that those who oppose its agenda will face political consequences, and that its allies will be protected.
Amash has clashed with the business community over the Ex-Im Bank, which helps foreign customers of U.S. companies buy their goods and whose authorization is set to expire Sept. 30. The chamber says the lender increases exports and creates jobs. Amash, who authored a bill to terminate the bank, sees it as a form of corporate welfare.
He voted against re-electing House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, and also opposed California Representative Kevin McCarthy for majority leader. Amash’s votes against Republican budget bills irked some Michigan businessmen, and pro-Israel groups are upset with the incumbent for opposing an Iran sanctions bill.
As the Byron Center High School band, karate students, a Cub Scout pack and other parade participants dispersed, Amash said in an interview that his constituents appreciate his independent streak.
“If they expected our representative to go along with John Boehner 100 percent of the time, then we don’t need this system of government; we could just elect John Boehner to represent all Republicans and everyone else could just stay home,” said Amash, who’d just finished zigzagging on the parade route to shake hands and wave to onlookers.
Opposing the Ex-Im Bank “reflects my conviction that we have to represent ordinary Americans, not just big corporate interests in Congress,” Amash said.
Some of the two-term congressman’s votes irritated the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, which is backing Ellis. Amash was the only member of the Michigan congressional delegation who voted against a $10.8 billion highway funding bill earlier this month.
Congress continues to “play games of economic brinkmanship, pushing it to the edge,” on such issues as the solvency of the highway trust fund, Andy Johnston, the Grand Rapids area chamber’s vice president of government and corporate affairs, said in an interview.
Amash was the only House Republican who didn’t vote last year to approve construction of TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL oil pipeline, another top chamber priority. In a Facebook post that quoted the Constitution and Austrian free-market economist Friedrich Hayek, Amash said he supported the pipeline though voted “present” on the bill because it improperly singled out TransCanada for special treatment.
Ellis’s supporters say Amash “always votes no and he lets the perfect be the enemy of the good in advancing policy that’s really going to make a difference,” Johnston said.
After a July 24 meet-the-candidate event at the Grand Rapids Press, a local newspaper, Ellis criticized the incumbent, saying Amash “talks like a conservative Republican, but he doesn’t vote like a conservative Republican.”
Ellis cited his opponent’s vote last year against a House-passed fiscal blueprint drafted by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who was the party’s 2012 vice presidential candidate. Amash backed a budget alternative by the Republican Study Committee, a group of lawmakers supporting a small-government agenda, that called for deeper spending cuts.
“You don’t say: I’ll take zero because it doesn’t go far enough. And that’s the big difference -- the pragmatic versus the ideologue,” Ellis said.
Amash’s opposition to some Republican bills helped prompt Mark Murray, a co-chief executive officer of Grand Rapids-based mega-retailer Meijer Inc., and other local business leaders to back Ellis after supporting Amash in previous campaigns.
“I think Brian wants to be there to advance public policy and to solve problems with conservative principles” while Amash “is there purely to articulate a libertarian ideology,” said Ken Sikkema, a former Michigan Senate majority leader who donated to Ellis’s campaign.
Last year, Republican leaders helped narrowly defeat an Amash proposal that would have limited the National Security Agency’s use of funds to collect data on telephone calls made by U.S. citizens.
Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who leads the House intelligence committee and has clashed with Amash over NSA policy, donated to Ellis’s campaign -- a rare show of open hostility within the caucus.
Amash’s antagonism prompted Republican leaders to kick him off the Budget Committee in 2012. The punishment didn’t take. Amash was among 12 Republicans who refused to back Boehner’s re-election as speaker in 2013. At least two of Boehner's former deputy chiefs of staff have donated to Ellis’s campaign, Federal Election Commission records show.
“How can you be part of the solution when you’re getting yourself kicked off of committees?” Ellis said.
Amash is not without backers in the business community. They include Doug DeVos, the president of Ada-based Amway Corp., and Steve Van Andel, the chairman of the household-products giant.
He has also won praise for explaining on Facebook his reasoning behind every one of the 2,700 votes he’s cast since entering the House in 2011, an unusual policy for a member of Congress. Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg lauded Amash in a 2012 speech.
“I like how he’s very transparent,” Darrin Wolf, a software engineer, said on the parade route with an Amash campaign yard sign propped against his chair.
Amash’s supporters say he can help the Republican Party attract young voters. In the 2012 election, voters under 30 backed President Barack Obama’s re-election by a margin of 23 percentage points, according to a national exit poll.
Amash, who was 30 when first elected in 2010, has “huge support” from young voters who like his anti-establishment views and focus on privacy protections, said John Kennedy, 56, president and chief executive officer of Autocam Medical Device Holdings LLC in Kentwood, Michigan.
Outside groups backing Amash include the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and the Tea Party Patriots, all organizations promoting limited government. Americans for Prosperity, a nonprofit group founded by billionaires David and Charles Koch, ran an ad heralding Amash’s opposition to Obamacare.
The U.S. chamber endorsed Ellis on July 17 -- fewer than three weeks before the primary. Given that only two House incumbents have been unseated in primaries this year, the late help may not sway the outcome. The Michigan Chamber of Commerce began airing pro-Ellis ads on July 25.
“It’s very challenging to unseat an incumbent Republican in a Republican primary -- and a Republican like Justin Amash, who is libertarian-conservative in west Michigan, which is a very conservative part of the country,” Sikkema said.