GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – Nearly three years after a band of renegade congressmen brought the tea party insurgency to Washington, there are early rumblings of a political backlash in some of their districts.
Here in the Dutch Reformed country of West Michigan, long a bastion of mainstream, mannerly conservatism, voters in 2010 handed the House seat once held by Gerald R. Ford to Justin Amash, 33, a revolutionary and heir to the libertarian mantle of former Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas. Amash was part of an attempted coup against House Speaker John Boehner, R- Ohio, and is a leader of the House tea party faction that helped force a government shutdown last week.
But within Grand Rapids’ powerful business establishment, patience is running low with Amash’s ideological agenda and tactics. Some business leaders are recruiting a Republican primary challenger who they hope will serve the old-fashioned way – by working the inside game and playing nice to gain influence and solve problems for the district. They are tired of tea party governance, as exemplified by the budget fight that led to the shutdown and threatens a first-ever U.S. credit default.
Similar efforts are underway in at least three other districts – one in the moneyed Detroit suburbs and the others in North Carolina and Tennessee – where business leaders are backing primary campaigns against Republican congressmen who have alienated party leaders. The races mark a notable shift in a party where most primary challenges in recent years have come from the right.
“It’s a new dynamic, and we don’t know how far it’s going to go,” said Vin Weber, a former GOP congressman who is close to the House leadership. “All the energy in the Republican Party the last few years has come from the tea party. The notion that there might be some energy from the radical center, the people whose positions in the conservative mainstream are more center-right but who are just furious about the dysfunctionality of government – that’s different.”
But any move to take out a tea party-aligned congressman in a Republican primary would be challenging, especially here in Michigan’s 3rd District, where grass-roots conservatives hold considerable sway. In the 2012 presidential primary, former Sen.Rick Santorum beat the eventual Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, in this culturally conservative district, even though Romney carried the state.
Some prominent business leaders are lining up behind investment manager Brian Ellis, according to several GOP operatives here. Ellis declined to grant an interview but wrote in an email: “I am taking a hard look at running in the Republican primary” and “will make up my mind in the near future.”
State Sen. Mark Jansen, seen as a pragmatic Republican, also is weighing a challenge to Amash, said Deb Drick, his chief of staff. “We get frequent calls from people encouraging Senator Jansen to run,” Drick said.
“There’s got to be a reason he’s being approached so much.”
Meg Goebel, president of the Paul Goebel Group, an insurance agency, said she is “really, really unhappy” with the leading role Amash has played in tying the health-care law to overall government funding.
“I don’t see him as a collaborator, and I think that’s a huge problem,” Goebel, a former chair of the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, said. “People used to say, ‘I don’t like the Congress, but I like my congressman.’ I don’t think that’s the case anymore.”