The Republican Party has been handed many opportunities by the need to redraw congressional districts on the basis of the 2010 census. Some strong Republican states like Texas have grown substantially, offering the opportunity for several new seats for Republicans in Congress. Other states lost population, leaving Republican lawmakers with difficult decisions and scrambling to hold onto gains made in the 2008 election.
This situation has the potential to reverse some of the gains made by grassroots candidates supported by groups like the tea parties and the Republican Liberty Caucus who brought many new Republicans into the House of Representatives last fall, some of them in states which are losing seats in redistricting and are controlled by very small Republican majorities in their state legislatures.
Early indications are that in states where Republicans face redistricting losses the priorities of the establishment lawmakers in those states and the interests of the people of the states who brought the party gains in the last election are drastically out of sync and as they redistrict, party leaders seem poised to do a lot of harm to their relationship with the grassroots activists who are becoming increasingly necessary if they want to keep winning elections.
Early indications are that the inclination of state party leaders is to solve tough redistricting challenges by sacrificing newly elected candidates favored by the grassroots in order to strengthen the positions of establishment incumbents who are not nearly as popular with grassroots voters. The superficial benefits of this strategy for the party elite may quickly be outweighed by the backlash from activists who are not pleased with the way the Republican Party is run and just need a little nudge like this to start challenging large numbers of Republican incumbents in party primaries.
The first stand-out example of this problem appears to be over redistricting in Michigan and the fate of its recently elected third district representative, Justin Amash. Amash won a strong victory in a mixed district. Since his election he has been one of the most followed freshman congressmen and one of the most politically consistent in his adherence to the fiscal conservatism and constitutional principles which characterized the anti-establishment uprising on the right in 2010. Amash has not exactly been a clone of Ron Paul, but he exhibits the same adherence to principle over party and this makes the party leadership kind of nervous.
In his short term in office Amash has won even more support from his constituents by making himself unusually accessible, sponsoring innovative legislation including a new constitutional amendment to balance the budget, and even posting explanations of every vote he makes to his Facebook page. Amash has been singled out as one of the best new congressmen by conservative groups and even received praise from the libertarian press. He’s also angered Democrats in his district who have launched several recall petitions against him, another sign he is doing what his radical supporters want. He is in many ways the model of the kind of new political leader which the reawakened base of the political right wants to see in Washington.
Yet Amash’s popularity and success are apparently of little interest to party leaders in Michigan. When the state’s House Redistricting Committee met this week the redistricting map which they were given for approval by the state Senate would make it very difficult for Amash to win reelection while protecting and strengthening the districts of other more establishment-friendly legislators like Thaddeus McCotter, Bill Huizinga, Fred Upton and Dave Camp. It even helps solidify the districts of some Democrat incumbents like John Dingell.
The specific threat to Amash is that parts of his district had to be removed to strengthen the districts of more favored Republicans, replaced by areas which are more evenly balanced between the parties. This includes giving several towns and suburbs where he won very strong majorities in 2010 to the neighboring 2nd District held by Bill Huizinga and replacing them with parts of Calhoun county which have traditionally voted Democrat. They also moved the home of popular Democrat former representative Mark Schauer into Amash’s district, giving the Democrats a ready made challenger for the young radical.
The reasoning behind this may be that the libertarian-leaning Amash has the ability to win more independent and crossover votes than an establishment Republican, but it also means that Amash faces a much closer election, has to spend more time fundraising and campaigning, and will therefore be less effective in Congress this year if he wants to remain there after next November. Party leaders are not engineering a guaranteed loss for Amash, but they are dumping as many of their problems as they can in his district while smoothing the way for their cronies, leaving Amash to deal with their mess.
Any redistricting effort is always a series of trade-offs, and with Michigan losing one of their congressional seats the division of the remaining voter base to keep Republicans in power has to be tricky. One Democrat will clearly be out of office, but the other outcome is that the mix of Republicans may be different and Amash could very well no longer be part of the Michigan delegation. I doubt that they actively want Amash to lose, but they are putting most of the pressure and most of the risk of the election on Amash, almost offering him as a sacrificial lamb to the Democrats so that if the Democrats have a surge in 2012 and Republicans have to lose one district it will be Amash who gets voted out, not someone less principled and better connected.
Of course, if I had to pick one Republican to win against these odds with little support from his state party establishment, it would be Justin Amash. His appeal transcends the limits of the Republican Party and goes directly to disaffected and independent voters who understand that a representative with his firm principles and dedication to serving the public is worth a lot more than the R or D after their name.
No matter the outcome, this little example of how party insiders use redistricting to protect their own at the expense of those whose main allies are the grassroots voters, is a warning which every candidate and political activist ought to keep in mind when deciding where to put their support in 2012. Amash and others like him still need and deserve our support while party leaders continue to earn our disregard and disapproval by their self-serving actions. Justin Amash serves his constituents and the interests of the American people. Those who are working against him within his own party are only serving their own interests.
This article appeared previously in Blogcritics Magazine.