Amash, taking historic step to White House bid, becomes first Libertarian in Congress: 'I'm in the race to win it'

Rep. Justin Amash from Michigan made history by becoming the first Libertarian Party member in Congress after he officially changed his party affiliation Friday to launch his 2020 presidential bid against President Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

Amash, the former Republican and Independent, now is the Libertarian Party's highest-ranking public official ever and he's seeking to break boundaries again with a freshly launched presidential campaign.

"I'm in the race to win it," Amash told Fox News about his intention to earn the Libertarian Party's presidential nomination and then win the presidency. "I would not have entered the race unless I thought there was a path to victory."

Faulting the two major parties --- the Republicans and Democrats -- for creating a "huge mess" in Washington and declaring Trump a "danger" to America, Amash wants to strengthen the third party choice for Americans in November.

"I bring honesty and practicality to the table," Amash said. "I've always been willing to buck my party and do the right thing for my constituents. I put the constitution first."

He's campaigning on a set of principles he's long embraced but says the Republican Party has since abandoned for Trump: limited government, fiscal restraint, restoring civil liberties, constitutionalism, and strengthening legislative branch checks on executive power. His core platform for the presidency is actually empowering Congress to legislate.

He says he'd refuse to negotiate directly with congressional leadership -- like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi -- and force them to go work with their members on passing legislation. He's tired of top congressional leaders and the White House hammering out a deal in private and forcing members to vote on it as is, such as the latest coronavirus relief packages that are topping trillions of dollars.

"I can change that as president," Amash said. "I can force Congress to do its job, and I think that's really important."

The Libertarian Party officially welcomed Amash on Friday, tweeting "Welcome Home" to its first member of Congress.

But some longtime Libertarians were leery Amash was a political opportunist and who is parachuting into the party just a month before the nominating convention that's tentatively scheduled in Austin over Memorial Day weekend, barring any COVID-19 scheduling changes.

"It looks likes it's more for self-interest than the interest of the Libertarian Party," said Jo Jorgensen, one of several presidential candidates vying for the Libertarian Party presidential nomination.

Jorgensen, who was on the ballot nationally in 1996 as the Libertarian Party's vice presidential nominee, questioned why Amash didn't join the party 10 months ago when he quit the GOP. Amash missed an opportunity to draw more members to the Libertarian Party in the last year from his perch in Congress as he voted to impeach Trump.

"He was in a lot of fights with Trump," Jorgensen, a Clemson University senior lecturer, said. "But he was in fights with Trump as an independent. If he had been in fights with Trump as a Libertarian, then people would have discovered what Libertarians stood for."

Amash said he thought it was appropriate at the time to be an independent in his Third Congressional District seat. But now with his eyes set on the presidency, Amash said he realizes that the best hope of changing politics on the national level is building up a strong third party alternative to the Republicans and Democrats.

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"I am seeking the nomination [of the Libertarian Party] ... I hope to earn it by spending time talking to delegates and earning their trust and support," Amash said.

Gary Johnson had historic success for the Libertarian Party in the 2016 presidential race, securing 3.3 percent of the vote nationally and nearly 4.5 million votes.

Johnson, the former GOP New Mexico governor, got 3.6 percent of the vote in Michigan, or 172,000 votes, compared to Green Party candidate Jill Stein, with 1 percent and 51,000 votes. Third-party candidates took plenty of blame -- whether warranted or not -- for Hillary Clinton losing Michigan in 2016 by less than 11,000 votes. Now Amash's run is already sparking grumbles from both sides that he's poised to play spoiler in the critical Great Lakes swing state.

Stu Sandler, a Michigan GOP consultant, predicts if Amash is on the presidential ticket in Michigan he helps Trump's victory by courting disaffected Republicans who may have gone in the direction of Joe Biden.

"If his goal is to have Trump lose, I don't know how that's going to help," Sandler said.

Amash scoffs at the spoiler criticism, arguing regardless of whether he wins the nomination there will be third-party candidates on the ballot. He suggests he can pick off support from both the Biden and Trump camps as his message gets out. But more importantly, he thinks he can appeal to "the majority or large plurality" of Americans who feel neither party represents them.

“It’s about time the other parties had some competition,” Amash said.

Amash, 40, came to Congress in 2011 as part of the conservative tea party wave that swept the country. He was considered a trailblazer for his embrace of social media and becoming the first member of Congress to post an explanation of each of his votes on Facebook. (Although he's pared that back in recent years saying it was impossible to keep the pace.)

He made a quick adversary of then-House Speaker John Boehner, who stripped him of his Budget Committee assignment after Amash refused to support Rep. Paul Ryan's budget, saying it did not balance fast enough. Often a lone wolf in Congress, Amash bucked his party on issues like protecting civil liberties, war powers and curtailing the government's counterterrorism surveillance power.

A stickler for process and allowing members more access to amend legislation, Amash co-founded the House Freedom Caucus in 2015 with a small renegade group of conservative and libertarian-leaning reps who wanted to pressure leadership on policy and process changes.

But now, Amash doesn't recognize the group that rose to political power after the 2016 election by aligning themselves with Trump at a time when he was still battling the GOP establishment. "It became more of a Trump PR team," Amash said.

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Amash left the Freedom Caucus in June 2019 after becoming the sole Republican to support opening up the impeachment inquiry into Trump, saying he didn't want to be a distraction to the group and his friends. He officially left the GOP and became an independent on July 4, declaring the two-party system "has evolved into an existential threat to American principles and institutions.”

Trump celebrated Amash's exit as "great news."

Now in 2020, Amash was already facing a tough reelection fight to win the Grand Rapids district he's represented for nearly a decade. He'd be running as an independent for the first time when many Michigan residents have a habit of voting straight party ticket for all Republicans or all Democrats. Republicans fielded an impressive list of candidates, especially one with a household last name, Peter Meijer, a veteran and heir to the storied Michigan grocery store chain started by his grandfather Frederik Meijer.

Amash's frequent divisions with Trump -- chiefly his vote to impeach him -- gave Amash new fans in liberal circles, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Amash has respect for AOC too.

“She stands up for principle. I disagree with many of the things she stands for, but at least she stands up for it. And that is a rarity in Congress. And I know that now more than ever," Amash said.

While Amash was known to buck his party in the name of principle, his support of impeachment was a final straw for some Republicans who viewed his vote as a betrayal.

"He doesn't have a home," Sandler said, suggesting Amash's longshot bid for the White House was a better offramp than losing his congressional seat at the ballot box.

"I don't think it's a serious bid and I think he knew he was going to lose [his congressional seat]," said Sandler, who is working for the Meijer campaign.

Democrat Hillary Scholten thinks her chances of flipping the congressional seat blue have increased with Amash out.

But Amash said his fundraising and support showed he was poised to win and critics -- including Trump -- have used that line of attack as an excuse to "belittle" his campaign and dissuade him from running.

"I felt confident I could win reelection in the district," Amash said. "But at the end of the day, I had to think about whether that would make the impact that it needed to make ... to change our system so that we don't have this kind of situation happen again where a Donald Trump gets elected and partisanship dominates everything. ... It's one of the hardest decisions I've had to make."

Though Amash filed the paperwork to change his party affiliation in the House just this week, he's long carried a libertarian streak. He was an avid supporter of Sen. Ron Paul's presidential bid in 2012 and was wrapped up in the liberty movement that he was convinced at the time would become mainstream GOP politics by 2022.

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In the 2016 election, Amash backed Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., for president and wrote his name in on his ballot in November, instead of voting for Trump, his party's nominee.

But Amash said Trump hijacked the party he once believed in with populism, soaring deficits, nationalism, disregard for the constitution and derogatory discord. He now predicts Trumpism will have a grip on the GOP for the next 10 years.

"I think the Republican Party is basically stuck in this mode for a while I don't think that they're coming back from it," Amash said.

Amash pledges to bring principled leadership and civility back to governance, as well as empowering citizens.

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"[It's] bringing humility to the process," Amash said in calling to restore a representative system of government. "People in government positions often think they know everything about everything. And that's why they assert a lot of control over our lives because they think they can manage it from some room in the Capitol or in the White House.

"And that's not the way life really works," Amash added. "People sitting in a room somewhere in Washington can't figure out everything for everyone  We need to trust the people."