The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Trailer: Justin Amash, a primary challenge and the GOP's rapid realignment

In this edition: The GOP's impeachment fight in Michigan, the risks of squashing party rebels, and the Democrats who love old Republicans.

I wonder why no previous president realized he could just make up a trophy and give it to sumo wrestlers, and this is The Trailer.

BELDING, Mich. — When they recognized Jim Lower, which was often, voters in Michigan's 3rd Congressional District usually thanked the 30-year-old Republican for challenging incumbent Republican Rep. Justin Amash. Sometimes they pulled him over to offer advice, or help, or to emphasize just how much they wanted Amash gone.

“That guy is a punk. I think he's a Democrat in disguise,” said Larry Campbell, 44, still gripping an American flag from this small city's Memorial Day commemorations. “I think he's cutting checks from Democrats.” 

Campbell offered to help connect the candidate to military veterans; Lower, a two-term state legislator, took down his number. In the week since Amash had accused President Trump of engaging in “impeachable conduct,” Lower had declared his own candidacy, raised $60,000 online and retweeted the president's mockery of the congressman. Amash, a conservative Republican who once seemed to represent the growing libertarian wing of his party, had become a sort of hero for Democrats. His position inside the GOP was less secure.

“I think he's getting less and less effective, and less and less influential, because he continually marginalizes and isolates himself from his colleagues,” Lower said in an interview. “He's one of the only Republicans to vote against cutting funding for Planned Parenthood. He's one of the only Republicans to vote against military aid to Israel. He was never with Trump to begin with; he's opposed the president since before the president even took office. Calling for impeachment was just the latest version of that.”

Amash's condemnation of Trump, which took even some longtime friends in Congress by surprise, made him the first Republican to say that the president deserved impeachment. No other congressional Republicans agreed with him. In the Grand Rapids area, which Amash has represented in Congress since 2011, both parties see him as isolated and politically endangered. Republicans are looking at how to oust him; Democrats are recruiting candidates to face either him or whatever pro-Trump Republican replaces him on the ballot. 

“It's impossible to see how he's even the nominee next year,” said Brandon Dillon, the former chair of the state Democratic Party, who lives in Amash's district.

The 39-year-old congressman has not had much to say about this. His thoughts about impeachment were announced and contained in a series of tweets, the first of which has been shared more than 86,000 times. He turned down countless print and TV interviews, even as the leader of his party in the House accused him of wanting “attention” and questioned whether he was a Republican at all. Amash's office did not respond to media requests this weekend; he will face voters tonight, for the first time since his tweetstorm, at a town hall meeting. (The Trailer will be on site, with tweets and a story.) 

The result of Amash's decisions has been less of a debate about Trump and the Republican Party than a sped-up version of that party's political realignment. Amash, elected in the 2010 tea party wave, aligned himself with libertarian-minded Republicans such as Ron and Rand Paul. In 2014, he defeated a primary challenger backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and even some fellow House Republicans. Then came 2016, when Donald Trump won Michigan with a populist, nationalist message that Amash never endorsed.

According to Lower, Republicans had talked about challenging the congressman as early as 2018 but couldn't move fast enough. Lower himself was planning to challenge Amash even before the impeachment tweets. Last week, the DeVos family, the wealthiest and most influential figures in Michigan Republican politics, announced that they were done with Amash. According to Lower, the family had been making their disappointment known even before the impeachment tweets. Both the DeVos family (which includes Trump's education secretary) and the conservative Club for Growth had supported Amash during his 2014 challenge. But even it has called Amash “absolutely wrong” on impeachment.

Back in Washington, the president himself had called Amash a “loser” and the National Republican Congressional Committee has stayed neutral. (Amash has never donated to the committee.) Inside the district, local Republican clubs have welcomed Lower to speak to them and taken no position on who their congressman should be.

“President Trump has proven his ability to grow America’s economy, protect our borders, and protect our Republican principles and policies,” Miranda L. Sharp Boisseau, the chair of the Ionia County Republicans, said in an email. "Congressman Amash serves as an elected official and has the right to his opinion. He does deserve the respect of that position. However, anyone can run, and all are encouraged to run in the primary."

As the 2014 primary showed, Amash's idiosyncratic stances earned him enemies. They were just outnumbered. From 2011 through 2018, Amash was a member of a GOP majority that rarely needed his vote on must-pass bills; his “no” on almost any spending bill or legislation he did not see a constitutional justification for clicked with activists, even as it angered some donors. In 2017, he eventually supported the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and the 2017 tax cuts.

But Amash clashed with his party on what he saw as the expansion of government power under Trump. He opposed resolutions of support for Immigration and Customs Enforcement and supported an effort to stop the president's emergency immigration declaration. His impeachment tweets fit the same “abuse of power” theme; Amash laid out why he thought the evidence laid out by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III was compelling enough to start the process, with “multiple examples of conduct satisfying all the elements of obstruction of justice.” And he asked why other Republicans wouldn't admit it.

“We’ve witnessed members of Congress from both parties shift their views 180 degrees — on the importance of character, on the principles of obstruction of justice — depending on whether they’re discussing Bill Clinton or Donald Trump,” Amash tweeted.

In 2016, when Amash declined to endorse Trump, the future president had not been particularly popular in west Michigan; he had won the state's primary but lost Amash's district to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). This was the part of the state that repeatedly sent Gerald Ford to Congress and then, when Ford became vice president, sent a Democrat to Washington with a mandate to impeach President Richard Nixon.

But this was 2019, not 1974, or even 2016. For most Republicans, the Trump question had been settled. 

“At the beginning there was some concern about his tone and tenor, and the tweets,” said Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.), who arrived in Washington alongside Amash, representing the more conservative 2nd District. “But the proof is the pudding. You just have to look at what's happening here in west Michigan economically. Business is just booming.” 

Huizenga said he had read most of the Mueller report and simply reached a different conclusion from his colleague. “What I get from voters constantly is: Hey, when are the Democrats going to focus on something of substance?” 

Democrats were riven over what to actually do with Mueller's findings, which was one reason Amash's tweets traveled so far; some on the left asked why a Republican had a clearer view of the situation than did House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who has repeatedly pushed back on the idea of impeachment hearings. After watching the president work to defeat other critics inside his party, local Democrats expected Amash to either lose his primary, leave office for a libertarian presidential bid, or remain as a weakened incumbent in a district with an increasingly blue core around Grand Rapids.

“I'm sick of being represented by somebody so out of touch with everyday Americans,” said Doug Booth, a Democratic activist seeking the party's nomination in the district. (Other Democrats with longer political résumés are being encouraged to run.) “When the party needs him, he still falls into line.”

Lower also intended to portray Amash as out of touch, though in a different way. The congressman, he said, had become less visible since his 2014 win; Lower said he had personally heard from constituents with problems that Amash's office wasn't solving. The 3rd District, which Trump had carried with 51.6 percent of the vote, had grown bluer since 2016; Democrats picked up a local state Senate seat in 2018. At the same time, Republican activists who had been mixed about Trump had become fervent supporters of the president. Polling seen by local Republicans had less than 50 percent of the party's voters committed to supporting Amash for reelection.

“We've lined up a number of endorsements from state legislators in the district, people who know me and know Amash,” Lower said. “Usually, the more time you spend in Congress, you build up seniority and influence. I think he's been going in the opposite direction. He's less effective now than he was when he got there.”

But around the Grand Rapids area, people were talking about their congressman. On Monday, as Huizenga joined local Republicans in a Memorial Day parade, people asked about Amash had strong, set opinions. Jesse Raleigh, a 36-year-old veteran and information technologist in Grand Rapids, said it was “refreshing” to see a Republican challenge Trump, though it was too early to say how he'd vote.

“I think you have to go back to Watergate to get any precedent for what's happening now,” he said. “And the rest of the government's done a really poor job in exercising its responsibilities.”


"Trump basked in spotlight in Japan, even as his focus seemed elsewhere,” by Ashley Parker

Is it unusual for a president, during a foreign trip, to take shots at one of his potential general election opponents? It used to be.

“Beto O'Rourke stays on the road,” by William Finnegan

A Pulitzer Prize-winning writer catches the Texan during his slow, steady decline in the polls.

"2020 candidates aren't sure what to do about misinformation,” by Tonya Riley

The deepfakes and old-fashioned fake news are on their way, and nobody has a plan to fix that.

“Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s presidential campaign problem: A crowded niche,” by Chelsea Janes

The senator from New York senator isn't breaking through in a field that's crowded, including with three other female senators.

“Joe Biden is the front-runner by every measure — except enthusiasm,” by Marc Caputo and Natasha Korecki

The leader in primary polls isn't drawing huge crowds. Does that still matter?

“Joe Biden’s campaign of limited exposure: How long can he keep it up?” by Annie Linskey and Chelsea Janes

The former vice president has a front-runner-esque light public schedule, but that's a strategy not without risks.


Everybody loves John. Over the weekend, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) shared a previously untold anecdote with Iowans, recalling how the late senator John McCain “kept reciting to me the names of dictators” during the president's State of the Union address. The anecdote got widely circulated over the holiday weekend, until, on Memorial Day, “The View” co-host Meghan McCain asked Klobuchar to stop using it.

“On behalf of the entire McCain family,” McCain, the senator's daughter, tweeted at Klobuchar, “please be respectful to all of us and leave my father[']s legacy and memory out of presidential politics.”

It was an unusual ask, and it won't be the last one that the McCain family makes. One of the starkest differences between Democrats and Republicans in 2019 is how much rank-and-file Democrats still praise some members of the other party. Invoking McCain's name at most Democratic events remains a surefire applause line; the 2008 campaign against Barack Obama has been forgiven and forgotten.

Polling backs up the anecdotes. After McCain's death, pollsters asking all Americans what they thought of the former senator from Arizona found that Democrats viewed him far more favorably than Republicans. In the 2018 midterm elections, Democrats frequently invoked McCain as an example of what the Republican Party had lost. In one ad, now-Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) used a clip of McCain praising his diplomatic work. The McCain family did not complain but did let it be known that it disapproved of Republican ads using the late senator's image to attack Democrats.

The success of Joe Biden in some early polling has surprised analysts who saw the Democrats moving left after 2016. That movement was real, but the modern Democratic attitude is heavily influenced by Trump. His frequent insults of political opponents have endeared Democrats to his targets, such as McCain; they've also heightened support for the concept of “civility.”

That has led to all sorts of Democratic candidates with wildly different policies harking back to a kinder Republican Party. At a stop in Indiana last month, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) lambasted the “racist” and “homophobic” president, while giving President George W. Bush credit for how he preempted anti-Muslim attacks after Sept. 11, 2001.

“What did he do a few days after 9/11?” Sanders asked rhetorically. “He went to a mosque.”

But no one has invoked the old GOP as much as Biden. On Tuesday afternoon, he responded to a few insults hurled his way by the president during the long weekend trip to Japan.

“To be on foreign soil, on Memorial Day, and to side repeatedly with a murderous dictator against a fellow American and former vice president speaks for itself,” said Biden's deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield. “It’s part of a pattern of embracing autocrats at the expense of our institutions — whether taking Putin’s word at face value in Helsinki or exchanging 'love letters' with Kim Jong Un.”

Why was the on-the-record statement released so long after Trump's statements? Because the campaign wanted to respect the Memorial Day holiday and stay quiet until the president was back on foreign soil. It was a pushback drenched in nostalgia.


Are free trade agreements good for the United States? (Monmouth, 802 adults)

Good — 51%
Unsure — 29%
Bad — 14%

By November 2016, voters who supported free trade deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership were out of luck. Donald Trump had barnstormed against it; Hillary Clinton had, too, after Sen. Bernie Sanders's primary campaign pushed her to abandon a deal she had helped organize. And the perception that free trade policies sunk Clinton in the Midwest helped shape post-2016 Democratic organizing.

But Monmouth has found support for the concept of free trade growing since that election. It was at 51 percent last summer, at the start of the “trade war.” It hasn't sunk since. By a 22-point margin, more voters expect the president's tariffs to hurt the economy than to help it, an assessment in sync with most economists.


Joe Biden. He's holding a Memorial Day event in Delaware on May 30, which is also the fourth anniversary of his son Beau's death. While he won't be in California for the state Democrats' convention, there are plans underway for a fundraising swing through the area.

Bernie Sanders. Ahead of a planned trip to the Walmart shareholders meeting, the senator introduced a plan that would give workers some control over corporate decisions to ensure that they did not become “a cog in the machine.”

Jay Inslee. He endorsed Marie Newman, the liberal challenger to Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.), emphasizing that she would “protect a woman's right to choose.”

Elizabeth Warren. She's heading to Michigan and Indiana next week, making her the latest Democrat to stop in Midwest states with later primaries; Sanders held events in both states, while Beto O'Rourke, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar and Kirsten Gillibrand have stumped in Michigan. 

Kamala Harris. She touted new endorsements on her way into South Carolina; no other primary state has seen so many elected Democrats take sides in the primary, with Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden getting the most early support. And she introduced the concept of a “Reproductive Rights Act,” which if passed would enshrine much of Roe v. Wade in federal code. 

Tim Ryan. He's back in Iowa this coming weekend, in Democratic strongholds such as Des Moines and Ames, talking infrastructure.

Amy Klobuchar. She's spending some extra time in the West ahead of this weekend's California Democratic convention; she'll now stop in Carson City, Nev., for a veterans' event Thursday.

John Delaney. He's heading back to South Carolina on Wednesday for a meet-and-greet, then heading west for California Democrats.

Michael Bennet. He's spending two days in New Hampshire ahead of a Thursday night town hall at CNN's Atlanta headquarters. From there, he'll make his initial visit to South Carolina.


. . . three days until the Unity and Freedom forum in California
. . . 12 days until the Iowa Hall of Fame dinner in Cedar Rapids
. . . 18 days until the Black Economic Alliance forum in South Carolina
. . . 29 days until the first Democratic presidential debates