The Sound and Fury of Political Endorsements Rock Amash’s World

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – It is easy to confuse the incumbent with the insurgent in Michigan 3rd Congressional District race.

Brian Ellis, challenging two-term GOP incumbent Justin Amash, has picked up endorsements from three business organizations that backed Amash in the 2010 and 2012 election cycles.

The rumored revolt of the West Michigan business community against the congressman they had backed in two previous elections became fact in the ides of June.

The Michigan Farm Bureau, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and even Amash’s hometown Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce PAC came out in favor of Ellis in mid-June.

However, beyond being a wake-up call for the incumbent — and a source of new campaign financing — perhaps political endorsements are not much more than the sound and fury that should be expected from the foundations of the political establishment.

And if the politician is an anti-establishment candidate, even if that politician would seem to be a two-term member of the establishment, perhaps those endorsements can be spun in the politician’s favor.

But still, for those at the eye of this Republican hurricane, the fact that the business establishment says it has more faith in the challenger than the incumbent is news.

"Brian is a business leader who will advance solutions to grow our economy, encourage job creation, and create more opportunities for job providers in West Michigan and across the state to succeed,” said the president and chief executive officer of the Michigan Chamber, Rich Studley.

"Brian Ellis understands that balanced budgets, free-market healthcare solutions, and improving the tax climate will encourage job creation and business growth in Michigan," said the chair of the Michigan Chamber Board of Directors and president & CEO of King Lake Wilderness, LLC, in Covington, Michigan, Scott L. Holman.

Rick Baker, the president and chief executive officer of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, made a similar statement in the announcement of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce PAC’s support of Ellis over Amash.

“In the race for the 3rd Congressional District, the PAC believed the best choice to represent the West Michigan business community and provide leadership in Washington was Brian Ellis,” said Baker in their endorsement press release.

“It is clear that Washington is at a crossroads and we need leaders to make the tough decisions to ensure our future is better than our past. Brian is committed to implementing policies that will create economic opportunity and eliminate hurdles to job growth,” said Baker.

The Michigan Farm Bureau’s political action committee known as AgriPac, another organization that had supported Amash in the past two elections, completed the three-day trifecta of endorsements for Ellis by declaring him a “Friend of Agriculture.”

It isn’t every political day that three large business organizations line up against a congressional incumbent. However, Tim Detwiler, Ph.D., a Cornerstone University professor of communication arts in Grand Rapids, said that while endorsements are important, they are often the sound and fury of a political race that don’t signify much in the end.

“They are the formal opinion leaders, the longstanding political players. But I am of the opinion that it still comes down to the individual voter making the choice,” said Detwiler.

“I don’t think the endorsements are going to be the magic that wins it for Brian Ellis.”

Erika King, Ph.D., a political science professor at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, said even though three business organizations are backing Ellis, Amash still has the support of the Dick DeVos family, heir to the Amway Corp. fortune.

“And around here I think you could call them the establishment,” said King.

Detwiler said that while the endorsements don’t come close to mattering as much as individual votes on Election Day, they are still sending a message to Amash, and one that reminds him of David Brat’s victory in Virginia.

“Sometimes I think these endorsements can be kind of a wake-up call to the incumbent, shaking him up a bit. Maybe Justin (Amash) has not been communicating well or listening to some of his constituent groups,” said Detwiler.

“I think that (Cantor vs. Brat) primary election in Virginia could be a mirror to what could happen here,” said Ellis. “That was a representative who was out of touch with his district, and I think we have that going on right here. And we are going to find out what the people have to say about that pretty quick.”

The candidates are adding their own sound and fury to the GOP congressional primary race in Michigan’s second-largest city, Grand Rapids.

Amash has refused to debate Ellis on a Grand Rapids television station, because he said Ellis is “neither a serious nor credible candidate.”  Amash’s hometown newspaper, the Grand Rapids Press, described that as “insulting to voters.”

Ellis said Amash’s refusal to debate is “very arrogant on his part. Debates are an important part of the political process and he has a horrendous voting record that I would be happy to talk about.”

Detwiler said Amash’s refusal to debate is a classic strategy of an incumbent politician.

“The more you give opportunities for the challenger to be seen as equal with you, the more legitimacy you give to his campaign,” said Detwiler.

“I think Justin has taken away all of that opportunity from Ellis and also has avoided the opportunity to make some sort of a mistake in the debate.”

The most recent poll of voters in the 3rd Congressional District shows that Amash doesn’t have much to worry about, yet. He held a 42-23 percentage point advantage over Ellis in the Michigan Information & Research Service (MIRS) survey conducted May 27-29.

Megan Wells, the spokeswoman for the Ellis campaign, trumpeted the poll results, arguing that for an incumbent to be at 42 percent “shows what we have known all along — that Justin Amash is vulnerable.”

Neither the Amash congressional nor campaign offices returned calls asking for comment.

(For complete 2014 midterm coverage, get your campaign fix on The Grid.)