GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – In the end, it wasn’t even close.
Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), a tea party darling and libertarian firebrand, was angry when he took the stage just after 11 p.m. on Tuesday night to declare victory in what may have been the nastiest primary campaign of the 2014 cycle.
Known for his staunch libertarian views and his reputation for rabble-rousing in the often-divided House GOP caucus, Amash was a top target of the party’s business wing, which recruited Grand Rapids businessman Brian Ellis to challenge him in a primary.
In a year in which establishment Republicans hoped to – and in some races did -- score victories against the tea party candidates (and several tea party incumbents like Amash), the incumbent Amash said his commanding 14-point victory over an establishment-picked challenger should send a message to Republicans who believe he should quiet down and fall in line or get out of Congress: Not so fast.
“My race should give confidence to people in Congress. There are a lot of people who are bullied into voting the wrong way. They are bullied by the leadership. They're bullied by lobbyists,” an emotional Amash said in an interview toward the end of his victory party. “I'm giving confidence to them that they can do the right thing. That they can stand up for regular people. That they can follow the Constitution."
Just moments earlier, Amash had delivered an aggressive victory speech in which he spared no criticism of his opponents, particularly Ellis and former Rep. Pete Hoekstra, who had endorsed the challenger.
"To Brian Ellis, you owe my family and this community an apology for your disgusting, despicable smear campaign,” Amash declared over the cheers of more than 100 supporters who crowded a Grand Rapids sports bar. “You had the audacity to try and call me today after running a campaign that was called the nastiest in the country. I ran for office to stop people like you."
When Ellis called to concede, Amash boasted, he sent the call to voicemail. Addressing Hoeksta, he called the former congressman a “disgrace.”
Amash’s anger stems, in large part, from an ad released by the Ellis campaign that quoted Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who labeled Amash "al-Qaeda's best friend in Congress."
“When you have candidates who are just smear artists we’re going to reject that and say: you’re not welcome to be a part of this,” Amash said during the post-speech interview.
That frustration was evident among Amash supporters and volunteers who crowded the party, often directing the frustration built up over the course of a long campaign at the small troupe of local media covering the event – who were largely prevented from roaming the party and instead were corralled near the back of the bar.
“You just can’t escape these people, can you,” declared one Amash supporter as the half-dozen cameramen moved into position to broadcast Amash’s speech live on the local television affiliates.
Amash’s victory was a needed-win for conservative groups who had seen several well-funded tea party candidates defeated by incumbents this cycle.
“Justin Amash won because he gave Republican voters a clear choice between a constitutional conservative promising more freedom and a liberal Republican In Name Only with a record of supporting more government,” said Chris Chocola, president of the conservative Club for Growth PAC, in a statement blasted out soon after Amash’s victory speech.
Club for Growth was one of several conservative and tea party groups that rallied around Amash even as the Republican establishment through money and backing to Ellis.
"We put our heart and soul into it," Ellis said to the two dozen or so supporters who remained at his primary night party around 10:30 p.m. on Tuesday.
Ellis campaign staffers had insisted they remained optimistic late into the evening, even as results showed Amash with a comfortable lead.
At one point, the campaign took down its tally of results from the television screen, leaving party attendees to watch "America's Got Talent" as the results ticked at the bottom of the screen.
"I don't feel that the current representative has been as effective as he could have or should have been," Ellis told the Post in a brief interview Tuesday night.
But while Ellis seemed eager to put the campaign behind him, Amash made clear he has no intention of mending relations with his challenger.
Even as some Republican activists and pundits criticized him for his pointed remarks, Amash remained firm – even laughing at the suggestion that maybe he should have at least answered the phone for Ellis’s concession call.
“No, we’re not playing your game anymore, we’re not going to accept it when you smear someone for 20 months, when you hurt their family, when you hurt the community, and then have the audacity afterwards to say: Oh, it’s no big deal lets go on and act like nothing happened,” Amash said in the interview. “We’re not going to stand up for that anymore. We’re going to do what’s right.”
Amash now will face movie theater owner Bob Goodrich, who was unopposed in the Democratic primary, in the November general election, but the incumbent is heavily favored in the heavily-Republican-leaning district.