Michigan’s Amash Quietly Tries to Build a National Brand

Tim Alberta
National Journal

The young conservative known to Republican colleagues as the most reliable “no” vote in Congress is trying to build his political brand—and collect the campaign cash that comes with it.

Maybe it’s for a Senate run. (Justin Amash still won’t say.) But what’s certain is that the Michigan Republican wants to be seen as the go-to libertarian in the House—a position he’s been trying to fill since Ron Paul left Congress.

"Regardless of what my decision is [on the Senate race], I think it's important to get out there, spend some time throughout the state and try to spread the message that I've been spreading here and in my district—the message of limited government, economic freedom, and individual liberty," Amash said.

Amash, in his second term, has already earned a reputation as one of the libertarian stalwarts in Washington. After the National Security Agency's surveillance programs were revealed, Amash was sought out by reporters and lawmakers alike. When he introduced a bill with Democratic Rep. John Conyers to limit the NSA's targeting of phone records, dozens of members, in both parties, asked to become cosponsors. And last week, as the House considered an appropriations bill for the Defense Department, Amash pushed an amendment to defund the NSA's surveillance.

But those limited accomplishments don’t easily penetrate the donor class beyond the Beltway and his own district. So now, Amash is focused on bolstering and broadening his fan base.

Last week, the lawmaker attended a series of fundraisers in the vast expanse known as Metro Detroit—on the opposite side of the state from his district. He met with well-heeled Republican donors in Birmingham, chatted with the Lebanese Chamber of Commerce in Southfield, and held private gatherings with a smattering of other business groups, according to a source close to Amash.

And last month, he quietly launched a national mail campaign, targeting wealthy libertarian-leaning donors in places such as Florida and California, the source confirmed.

Amash is seeing a return on the investment already. According to his newly filed report to the Federal Election Commission, he raised roughly $220,000 in the second quarter of 2013—significantly more than the $125,000 he raised in the first quarter and easily eclipsing his haul from the second quarter of last year.

Still, these improved second-quarter numbers are not particularly strong for any member of Congress, much less someone considering a Senate campaign. As a point of comparison, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., who also weighed a Senate bid, raised more than $420,000 during the same period. And their Michigan colleague, Rep. Gary Peters, who entered the Senate race in June as the Democratic favorite, raised more than $1 million.

Representing a semirural district far removed from the voters and donors in southeast Michigan, Amash would have to boost his name recognition statewide and expand his fundraising operation—not only to the Motor City suburbs but also to the rest of the country—to wage a competitive campaign for the Senate.

Amash told National Journal he is still undecided about the Senate race, and he would not put a time frame on his decision. He once appeared poised to jump in, unable to resist the temptation of pursuing a bigger platform in the Senate alongside fellow libertarian Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah. But Amash's thinking may have shifted after Rogers, his ideological adversary, announced he would not run for the Senate seat. Amash has long been intent on battling Rogers, and since it won't happen in a Republican primary, many Michigan Republicans expect he will settle for doing so in the House.

But whatever way he's leaning, Amash thinks he has nothing to lose and everything to gain from taking his libertarian gospel to new and untapped audiences. And no matter what, he needs a bigger donor base. (He’s certainly not scaring off congressional challengers with $115,000 cash on hand.)

Amash is planning more fundraisers in Metro Detroit and broadening his mailing list to include potential new donors across the state. He also plans to pour more resources into his national mail campaign, and he expects even bigger returns in the next reporting period. According to the source familiar with these fundraising efforts, the first responses to the national mail campaign began to "trickle in" just before the second quarter closed.

Amash also is planning several out-of-state events in the coming months, the source said, in an attempt to raise his profile among the libertarian groups and donors targeted in his mail campaign.

"It's something I would do regardless of whether I run for Senate or not," Amash said.