Monday, 24 June 2019 11:44

All in on Trump: For many West Michigan Republicans, taking a stand for law and order is political treason

Written by  Andy Balaskovitz
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Jim Lower — who has worked his way up from Home Depot employee, legislative staffer, village manager, county commissioner and now state representative — was campaign-ready when he greeted Revue recently at a downtown Lansing coffee shop.

“Did you see me on Ingraham last night?” Lower asked.

The two-term Republican from Montcalm County the night before had done a brief interview with Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, the host of the consistently xenophobic “Ingraham Angle.” It was his third appearance on the network in less than a month, and his second with Ingraham.

Lower, 30, has gained national attention for mounting a primary election challenge against U.S. Congressman Justin Amash, the Grand Rapids Libertarian/Republican who on May 18 upended state and national politics after concluding President Donald J. Trump has “engaged in impeachable conduct.”

In both Ingraham appearances, the host heaped praise on Lower’s effort while mocking Amash, saying his “stunts may be costing him back home” as he “tries to snuggle up to the left.” 

Not only did Amash conclude there was impeachable conduct, but he had also just sided with Democrats in holding Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt of Congress related to a subpoena seeking information about a citizenship question on the 2020 Census. Republicans were aghast. A “Squash Amash” hashtag has emerged.

Amash’s first impeachment tweets came on a Saturday afternoon. By Sunday night, news broke that Lower was in the race to unseat Amash in the 2020 primary, an announcement he said was initially scheduled for July. Since then, Lower has been attempting to raise his national profile and court political support from the Trump and DeVos families. The DeVoses have bailed on Amash; Donald Trump Jr. has suggested his family is eager to back an Amash opponent.

Lower says his campaign raised about $50,000 in the two days after his first Ingraham appearance.

The trajectory over the past month also is somewhat expected. Amash — who received his J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School in 2005 — has a reputation for his Libertarian approach to legislating, pissing off hardline Republicans each time he crosses the aisle.

Amash’s supporters say he acts with courage and conviction. His detractors call him self-serving and phony. The question remains: What’s wrong with standing up for your beliefs, even if it breaks from your political party?

Lower answers this way: “I would describe (Amash’s) style as: He comes to whatever his conclusion is and wraps it in some argument related to the Constitution. He figures out how he wants to vote and comes up with the justification second.”

Amash was unavailable to be interviewed for this story. His chief of staff, Poppy Nelson, didn’t respond to Lower’s remarks.

But Amash, 39, has remained confident in media appearances over the past month. He says Republican support for Trump in the 3rd Congressional District of West Michigan isn’t as strong as Lower portrays, and that Lower’s challenge isn’t serious.

GOP strategists aren’t so sure. Amash’s path to re-election — which he says he’s committed to despite speculation he could run as a third-party candidate for president — is complicated. The less crowded the 2020 Republican primary field, the better for Lower. (A third candidate, former Sand Lake Village trust Tom Norton, also is running in the primary.) But it’s so early in the process, several more Republicans could enter the fray. Indeed, a pro-Trump strategy in the primary could be beneficial for Lower unless his votes are split up among like-minded candidates. Hence, Lower’s strong push to raise his national profile now.

“The Republican Party on polling is still very strongly supportive of the president,” said GOP strategist Dennis Darnoi. “Maybe with a general election, something like (Amash’s position) would play well, but when you have over 90 percent of Republicans in favor of the president, for someone to call for impeachment is tantamount to a declaration of war.”

Tried and true for Trump

Lower was raised near Ionia. His mother was a secretary for Ionia County, while his father worked at the former Electrolux refrigerator factory in Greenville. The plant closed in 2006 when the company moved operations to Mexico. Lower developed an interest in politics as a kid, but the Electrolux plant closing helped shape some of his political views. He says Trump’s economic message resonates with him.

Lower earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from Michigan State University and his master’s in business administration at Grand Valley State University. (Former Lt. Gov. Brian Calley’s dad helped finance his college education, which Lower failed to disclose on his campaign website early on, stating he paid his own way through college. Calley’s brother and longtime friend of Lower, John Calley, criticized the oversight on Facebook.) 

By the age of 21, Lower was elected to the Ionia County Commission. He would go on to staff jobs in the state House and Senate and serve as the village manager in Edmore, about 30 miles southwest of Mt. Pleasant. Lower also was director of operations at Mitchell Research and Communications, the public relations firm representing his congressional campaign.

Lower was elected to the state House’s 70th District in 2016 and re-elected last year. He won with more than 60 percent of the vote in both races.

He’s now running a “three-tiered” campaign for Congress: support Trump, portray Amash as ineffective in Congress, and promote his own legislative record in Lansing.

Lower believes his pro-Trump stance will be the difference in a Republican primary. Indeed, he first announced his support for Trump shortly after the infamous Access Hollywood (“grab them by the pussy”) tape surfaced during the 2016 campaign.

“We decided to do that because a lot of people in the party essentially abandoned (Trump) even though he was the nominee,” Lower said. “His message on what he wanted to do for the economy and the country was still a good message. Obviously, he had a personal issue I’m sure he agrees was less than ideal that it happened. I didn’t see that as a reason not to be elected president.”

GOP county chairs in the 3rd Congressional District also are sticking with Trump. While they will remain neutral on endorsing a candidate until after the primary, most have expressed disappointment in Amash’s impeachment position.

“It’s certainly disappointing to have that dispute going on. Most Republicans disagree with Justin Amash’s position,” said Joel Freeman, Kent County GOP chair.

Montcalm County GOP chair Jackie Champlin said the area is “not too happy with Amash. No matter which Republican would say he wants to impeach our president, we’re not for that. It’s absolutely ridiculous.”

Champlin believes Amash took his stance for “personal reasons” and has “abandoned us.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of the county GOP chairs nor Lower agree that Trump has engaged in impeachable conduct. They offer standard talking points about alleged motives of the Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team, and the fact House Speaker Nancy Pelosi isn’t interested in starting impeachment proceedings (although this appears to be entirely a political calculation.)

However, the Mueller report investigated 10 instances in which Trump may have obstructed justice without coming to a conclusion, noting that Trump’s “efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests.”

In a press conference, Mueller explained that the Justice Department can’t prosecute a sitting president of a federal crime. He added: “If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.”

Amash said his “principal conclusions” from the Mueller report are that Barr “deliberately misrepresented” the report to the public; Trump “engaged in impeachable conduct;” “partisanship has eroded our system of checks and balances;” and few members of Congress read the report.

“Contrary to Barr’s portrayal, Mueller’s report reveals that President Trump engaged in specific actions and a pattern of behavior that meet the threshold for impeachment,” Amash wrote on Twitter. He later added that obstruction of justice doesn’t require the prosecution of an underlying crime.

Asked whether defending Trump against impeachment is putting the party over the country, Lower responded: “I’d say it’s the opposite. From my perspective, Democrats will say and do anything to make excuses why they won’t work with (Trump). Since the day he was elected, they’ve just wanted to resist, obstruct and stop him from doing anything. It’s not good for the country.”

3rd Congressional District politics

This relatively early showdown between Amash and Lower sheds light on Republican Party politics in the district, which includes Barry, Ionia and Calhoun counties, most of Kent County, and a small portion of Montcalm County.

Amash took the district in 2018 with 54 percent of the vote over Democrat Cathy Albro. In 2016, Amash won 59 percent of the vote over Democrat Douglas Smith.

Freeman of the Kent County GOP said the 2016 outcome was “really interesting” since both Trump and Amash won the district, although Amash “was not on Team Trump.”

“I think there is a lot of room for both individuals even though they’re very different,” Freeman said.

Whereas Lower says there’s strong backing for a Trump candidate among Republican voters, Amash appears unconcerned.

“He’s completely out of touch with reality on that,” Lower said. “Despite what some people think, our polling is very clear: They’re very pro-Trump whether they’re in the rural part of the district or in Grand Rapids.”

GOP strategist Darnoi says both Amash and Lower are correct on their assumption of voters. While it’s likely there are fewer general election voters in support of Trump than 2016, the Republican primary electorate “is still strong and in favor of Trump and does want their Congress person to be supportive of Trump. They’re both correct, but they’re talking about different universes.”

The more Lower can build support with the business community and high-profile donors, the more of a threat he is to Amash, Darnoi said.

However, it’s only early summer 2019. The Republican field is likely to continue growing, in addition to announced candidates Lower and Norton. An Amash ally who spoke on background has heard more than 10 names surface as possible GOP challengers.

“I think the larger number of primary candidates, the greater the benefit is to Justin Amash,” Darnoi said. “They get it, they understand the game. It’s why (Lower) is trying to go on the offensive and why they’re going to tout polls that show his ability to beat Justin Amash. They need to make sure it’s a very limited primary field.” 

Democrats, meanwhile, are watching the GOP drama unfold with high spirits.

“It’s been amusing to watch,” said Gary Stark, chair of the Kent County Democrats. “Of course, we Democrats have disagreed with (Amash) on virtually everything. The seriousness, integrity and even courage with which he looked at the Mueller report — we applaud him for that. We think the same thing.”

A Democratic primary also is likely in 2020 given that at least three candidates have announced campaigns. These include Amanda Le’Anne Brunzell, Doug Booth and Nick Colvin.

Stark thinks Democrats would fare better if Amash loses his primary.

“If a Democrat runs against a rabid Trumpite, I think it would probably be a much better situation for us,” Stark said. “I don’t think the 3rd District is a strong Trump district.”

While Darnoi believes the 3rd Congressional District favors Republicans by 8 to 10 percentage points over Democrats, he points out that Michigan is losing a congressional seat in 2022 and the 3rd is “ripe for redistricting” and combining geographical areas.

“If I’m looking at it from a consultant’s standpoint, you have to realize your time is probably limited,” Darnoi said. 

Meanwhile, Lower has been reaching out to the powerful Trump and DeVos families for support, recognizing an early endorsement would be a major boost to his profile.

“I’d like to see the president get directly involved,” Lower told Ingraham on June 12.

She responded: “We hope the president is watching this tonight.”

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