- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The next big Republican incumbent vs. insurgent primary battle is flipping the usual script.

The Aug. 5 vote in Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District pits a hard-line Libertarian and tea party darling against a mainline party foot soldier, but with the roles reversed.

Second-term incumbent Rep. Justin Amash hurtled into office in 2010 with propelled by a wave of grass-roots populism. Since then, he has stood out among his deeply conservative cohort, breaking with party leaders and founding the House Liberty Caucus because he felt the existing Republican Study Committee was not conservative enough. His failed “Amash amendment” would have defunded much of the NSA’s surveillance program, he’s a fierce fiscal hawk, he would close the Guantanamo Bay detainee facility and is a staunch advocate for gun rights.

Unlike in recent celebrated battles such as the Repbulcian primary fight that toppled House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, Mr. Amash’s primary challenger, businessman Brian Ellis, isn’t attacking the incumbent from the right. In the district once represented by Gerald Ford, Mr. Ellis argues Mr. Amash is too far outside the mainstream for the district.

The race has even reshuffled the deck of interest groups compared to past GOP primary fights: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has endorsed the challenger, while activist groups such as the Club for Growth are mobilizing for the incumbent.

“We don’t usually endorse incumbents, but this cycle we got involved when we saw that a self-funding millionaire was going to lie about his voting record,” Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller said.

Mr. Amash, for his part, speaks much more like a challenger than a man defending his seat.

“The public is fed up with the style of leadership we’ve had in Washington,” he said. Mr. Ellis “would follow the leadership line almost 100 percent.”

Mr. Amash is a frequent thorn in the side of his own party. He voted against Rep. John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, as House speaker at the beginning of the current Congress, casting a protest vote for fellow conservative Rep. Raul Labrador, Idaho Republican. He has antagonized business interests with stands such as his opposition to reauthorizing the U.S. Export-Import Bank. His stand on agriculture support programs led the Michigan Farm Bureau to endorse Mr. Ellis.

Mr. Amash’s district covers Grand Rapids, one of the liveliest economic centers in the state. Prominent businesses include Meijer’s, the behemoth Midwest grocery chain, and vacuum manufacturer Bissell. Donors from both companies have supported Mr. Ellis over Mr. Amash.

The congressman, 34, was unconcerned with these powerful adversaries, but said business interests were not ignored by his office.

“I represent everyone in the district,” he said. “There are countless small businesses in the district. I represent all of them, too, and constituents know that.”

But Michigan Chamber of Commerce President Rich Studley said local businesses have turned away from Mr. Amash gradually over his last two terms. The Chamber previously supported the congressman in his 2010 run.

“The contrast between these two candidates is stark. We began, some time ago, receiving reports from our members in this district that Justin Amash and his staff were unhelpful and unfriendly,” Mr. Studley said.

Rob Engstrom, national political director for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington said in a statement that “both candidates in the primary sought our endorsement, and the choice in support of Ellis on pro-growth issues was clear.”

Mr. Ellis relentlessly touts his ability to understand and work with his district’s economic and business leaders. He describes himself as a “small business owner,” and runs an investment firm in Michigan called Brooktree Capital.

“I’m a business person at heart,” he said. “I’m tired of business being vilified.”

He argued he would be a more effective legislator than his opponent and his occasional go-it-alone ways in the House

“When you’re building consensus, you want to go within your own party. That’s probably the best place to start,” Mr. Ellis said.

Mr. Amash argued he has slowly been building what he calls a “coalition of liberty-minded Republicans.” The Liberty Caucus, though small, has grown to “between 30 and 40 members,” he said.

The Club for Growth’s Mr. Keller said the group has stepped up its aid for Mr. Amash as Mr. Ellis has dipped into his own fortune to help fund his primary challenge. Federal Election Commission filings show that Mr. Ellis has donated over $800,000 to his own campaign so far.

The money and the establishment endorsements, however, may not be enough.

A new survey from Michigan-based Strategic National Wednesday showed Mr. Amash backed by 51 percent of likely primary voters compared to 31 percent for Mr. Ellis. Although he had consistently trailed in the polls, the challenger said he was still confident about his chances in the primary. The winner is expected to prevail easily in November in a Republican-leaning district.

“Our data shows I’m in good shape,” Mr. Ellis said. “The only poll I care about is Aug. 5.”

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