Feb 28, 2013

Could Michigan go libertarian?

Carl Levin announced today that he will decide in two weeks if he will retire from his US Senate seat representing the state of Michigan. It was previously rumored that Justin Amash, a 2nd term libertarian Republican from Michigan's 3rd congressional district, is considering running for Levin's seat should he retire.

If true, an Amash run for Michigan would be a fascinating electoral prospect. Could a libertarian win statewide in a deep blue state like Michigan? Others like Rand Paul have won statewide in deep red states, but even for a libertarian with crossover appeal on many issues, it would be sailing into the wind. Would Amash's moderate stance on some social issues make Democrats more likely to vote for him or Republicans to vote against him? Or would his further right stance on fiscal issues turn off more Democrats than the former would attract?

Or would issues matter at all? Amash is young (at 32, only 3 months older than me!), energetic, and unafraid to buck party trends. He also has an engaging social media presence that positions him as a leader in 21st Century politics. He explains every significant vote he makes on his Facebook page, and posts regularly from his official and personal Twitter accounts. While useful as an outreach tool, that kind of online presence could  also become a liability in a more highly scrutinized Senate campaign.

What do his recent victories tell us? Amash was first elected to the House in the Tea Party wave of 2010 with 59.7% (133,714 votes) in his district, which includes Grand Rapids and Battle Creek. He was reelected in 2012 with a smaller 52.7% (173,529 votes). He gained more votes the second time, but less of a margin because of the higher Democratic turnout of a Presidential election year. According to the Presidential election results from his district, though, Amash may not have the crossover appeal that his ideology might suggest. Mitt Romney won that district with 53.1% (though Obama won it in 2008 with 49.7%), almost exactly but slightly over Amash's share of the vote, which means some who voted for Romney likely voted for Amash's opponent as well. That doesn't bode well for anyone crossing the aisle in a statewide Senate race. Contrast that with Paul Ryan, who won Wisconsin's 1st district with 54.9% while Romney(/Ryan!) won the same district with 51.6% (Obama actually won it in 2008 with 50.8%). Ryan gets 3% crossover vote in his district, but Amash loses 0.4% or breaks even. Would that change statewide in another non-Presidential election year? Republican Rick Snyder won the Michigan governorship in the off-year of 2010 with a similar margin as Amash's initial congressional win. Would an off-year Senate race have the same cross-partisan prospects?

All this is moot, of course, if Levin decides to run again. No one would stand a chance against a 35 year veteran of the Senate in a safely partisan state. We'll find out in a couple weeks!

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