Could Justin Amash Cost Trump Reelection?

Rep. Justin Amash speaks at CPAC 2013 (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

It’s not at all clear. He could hurt Democrats in some states.

Now that Representative Justin Amash has left the Republican party, he’ll be getting some calls asking whether he plans to run for president in 2020. Never Trumpers and consultants and left-wing billionaires will be jostling with Libertarian-party leaders for meetings with him — all convinced that his candidacy could drain enough votes to sink Trump’s reelection.

The five-term Michigan congressman left the Republican party last week to become an independent. He claims he plans to run for reelection to his Grand Rapids seat under that banner. But he told CNN on Sunday that he hasn’t closed the door on a White House bid.

“I still wouldn’t rule anything like that out,” he said. “I have to use my skills, my public influence, where it serves the country best.”

If he ran, Amash could run as an independent, but that would involve a grueling ballot-access campaign. If he ran as a Libertarian, he would probably be able to immediately secure a place on the ballot of some 40 states where Libertarians are already a qualified party.

While he didn’t mention President Trump in his GOP-departure announcement, it’s clear that the 39-year-old Amash doesn’t see himself as a good fit in a Trump-led party. In May, he announced he had seen enough evidence in the Mueller report to support impeaching Trump for obstruction of justice.

Naturally, President Trump dismissed Amash’s move by calling him “a total loser” in a tweet. But Trump aides say that an Amash 2020 candidacy could pose real challenges to both Trump and any Democratic nominee.

“People forget that Gary Johnson, a former governor of New Mexico, won more votes as a Libertarian than the difference between Trump and Clinton in 11 states in 2016,” a Trump adviser told me. Johnson ended up with 3.3 percent of the national vote. Later, Johnson told me he thought that a lot of his votes came from Democrats disillusioned with Hillary Clinton and from people who normally wouldn’t have voted for president.

The Trump adviser told me that while in many states a Libertarian would probably draw more votes from Trump than from a Democrat, that might not always be the case. He points to a new poll in Amash’s home state of Michigan that shows Joe Biden’s lead among independent voters dropping from 13 percentage points to a tie when Amash is offered as an option. Biden’s lead in Michigan overall fell from 12 points in a head-to-head against Trump to only 6 points with Amash on the ballot.

Pollster Richard Czuba, who took the poll for the Detroit News and WDIV-TV, analyzed Amash’s impact for the News: “What he will do is give independent voters who don’t want to support President Trump an outlet to not vote for the Democrat. And if you look at who or what would be moving toward Amash, it is particularly independent men.”

Czuba says the 2020 race is increasingly dividing along pro-Trump and anti-Trump lines. His poll is “frankly somewhat of a lesson for the Democrats in their effort to defeat the president,” he told the News, noting that he was surprised by the poll’s results. “The more the effort gets diluted, the more Democrats start walking away from the process, the greater the avenue is for Trump to do what he did in 2016.”

Indeed, the latest Washington Post poll shows that a strong economy has lifted Trump to his highest approval rating since he took office. At 47 percent, his current rating is a point higher than the 46 percent of the vote that he won in in 2016.

But you can bet that the most enthusiastic Trump supporters wouldn’t see Amash favorably, as a factor that could tilt some key swing states toward Trump rather than a Democrat. I have little doubt that some left-wing donors — and even a few anti-Trump GOP-establishment donors — are already thinking of contributing to independent expenditure efforts in behalf of Amash, should he choose to run for president.

But if politics in recent years has taught us anything, it is that the conventional wisdom is often dated and useless.

If Justin Amash runs for president as a principled libertarian who lacks Trump’s excesses, he might indeed hurt the president in key states. But if he runs as more of a reformer who wants to attack corporate welfare and question the drug war, he could attract younger voters who would normally vote Democratic.

As Trump opponents jostle for a chance to convince Justin Amash to run in 2020, they should remember the old Chinese adage that you should be careful what you wish for. You might get it.

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