Michigan is Ford and Romney territory, not some hotbed of libertarianism. But no fewer than three liberty Republicans appear on the state’s congressional primary ballots Tuesday. All three are running in districts where the GOP nomination would make them the heavy favorites in November.
The most consequential—and, according to the polls, the most likely to win—is Justin Amash. The two-term congressman has led a bipartisan civil libertarian revolt against the national security state. He has followed in Ron Paul’s footsteps as a stickler for constitutional detail. And he has been reluctant to go to war.
All of this has earned the usual epithets. Critics of his views on foreign policy and civil liberties accuse him of being weak on defense. A fellow Republican congressman called Amash “al Qaeda’s best friend in Congress,” a scurrilous charge repeated in his primary opponent’s ad. A coalition of business groups and hawks have lined up against him.
Most polls nevertheless show Amash ahead. Little by little, his bills reining in the National Security Agency and warrantless surveillance have come closer to reaching the president’s desk. On defunding Obamacare, he votes with Ted Cruz. On defunding controversial NSA data-collection practices, he votes with John Conyers.
The other Ron Paul-aligned incumbent seeking reelection is Kerry Bentivolio. His voting record has been less consistent than Amash’s and the former reindeer farmer is also more eccentric. But he has voted with Amash on NSA bulk data collection. He has opposed CISPA, which would have facilitated warrantless searches of personal data.
Bentivolio has voted to repeal indefinite detention, though he also supported the 2014 version of the National Defense Authorization Act containing the provision. He cosponsored a bill prohibiting the use of drones against U.S. citizens on American soil and has spoken out against extrajudicial killings.
The freshman Republican also opposed military action in Syria. “Being the only congressman to serve in both the Vietnam War and the latest conflict in Iraq, I can tell you that I know a little bit about war,” Bentivolio wrote.
Thus like Amash, Bentivolio faces an establishment primary challenger. He is widely viewed as an accidental congressman. When Congressman Thaddeus McCotter unexpectedly failed to make the ballot in 2012 after a signature-gathering meltdown, Bentivolio was the only Republican to qualify.
Party bosses scrambled to come up with an alternative, but Bentivolio managed to beat back a GOP-supported write-in effort by a state senator who spent some $200,000 of her own money. This time his opponent actually appears on the ballot.
The third liberty candidate is Tom McMillin, a GOP state lawmaker running to replace retiring Congressman Mike Rogers, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee. Rogers is seen as one of the NSA’s biggest defenders. McMillin was one of Amash’s closest allies in the state legislature.
In fact, McMillin has called for national intelligence director James Clapper to be prosecuted for lying to Congress. He told me that supporting the full Bill of Rights, even when it means cooperating with progressive groups, enhances the credibility of the right’s limited-government message.
To that end, McMillin has gone from running the Christian Coalition in the state to working with the American Civil Liberties Union to protect the due process rights of indigent criminal defendants. He believes he can be a bridge between conservative Christians and some of the more libertarian-leaning activists joining the party. “Christians are learning government isn’t necessarily their friend,” he says.
McMillin nevertheless gives most of the credit for the rise of their brand of Republicanism in Michigan to Amash. “We have a good Campaign for Liberty group,” he says, noting also that the Tea Party is strong. But Amash, he acknowledges, got the ball rolling.
Yet McMillin also faces a strong establishment opponent, who has led in the public polls. Former Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop is running with Rogers’ endorsement and the backing of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. McMillin is relying on a reserve army of Christian conservatives and home-schoolers to turn out the vote.
For any of these three candidates to even be competitive represents some degree of progress. Ron Paul nearly doubled his share of the Michigan Republican primary vote from a shade more than 6 percent in 2008 to nearly 12 percent in 2012, but Mitt Romney won both times.
George Romney stepped down as governor of Michigan in 1969. It will take longer for Republicans like Justin Amash to leave a different imprint on the state party.
How long? Perhaps the outcome of Tuesday’s battle of Michigan will tell us.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?