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WASHINGTON (Detroit Free Press) -- U.S. Rep. Justin Amash of west Michigan is a libertarian darling who at age 34 mingles social media savvy with old-school constitutionalism: He has been called the intellectual heir to Ron Paul and is mentioned as a possible running mate to tea party presidential prospects.

But a storm of bad press has erupted over Amash. A California colleague recently called him "al-Qaida's best friend" for his efforts to stop phone data collection. A fellow Michigan congressman accused him — falsely — of voting with Democrats more than he does his own party.

But the greatest threat to Amash, R-Cascade Township, may come from business. In a west Michigan district where conservatism is often equated with commerce, Amash has alienated some business leaders to the point where they are openly backing his challenger, Brian Ellis, in the Aug. 5 primary.

They include people connected to concerns many, if not most, Michiganders could identify: The Meijer family, with its string of eponymous stores. Mark Bissell, heir to the self-named vacuum cleaner company. The heads of Steelcase, which sells office furniture around the globe. And executives at Dow Chemical, one of the largest chemical companies in the world.

The local Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce and its larger counterpart, the Michigan Chamber, perhaps the largest player in state Republican politics, are even considering withholding their endorsements from Amash, or endorsing Ellis outright.

"The (state) Chamber is the core of the power of the Republican Party," said Rich Robinson, who runs the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a watchdog group. "It's the institutional core."

If it happens, it would amount to a rare, public rebuke of a Republican congressman. But Richard Studley, president and CEO of the Michigan Chamber, said Amash presents a rare case. Amash could still get the endorsement, Studley said, but he acknowledged that Amash has rankled some members by giving the cold shoulder to business people looking for an open door or a welcoming ear on issues he may disagree with them on — as well as by frequently voting against his own party.

"We have good companies in that district, large and small, who say the congressman is unhelpful or unresponsive," Studley said. "It is unusual. Ordinarily you would expect an incumbent Republican would have a good or positive relationship with the business community."

Specific examples are hard to come by. A handful of businesses contacted by the Free Press declined to return calls. Others said their backing for Amash's challenger is statement enough. But it comes at a time when establishment Republicans are pushing back against tea party candidates across the U.S.

But not everyone remained silent: Mark Hewitt, a real estate broker in Hastings, said he used to be able to call Amash's predecessor, Vern Ehlers, who retired in 2011, for help getting Veterans Administration loans moving or a motivational call to Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac to get a short-sale untracked. But no more.

"When I called down to Justin's office … they're all like, 'Well, what do you want us to do?' " Hewitt said. Like some others, he said he backed Amash in the past but won't this time.

Amash's office didn't respond directly to Hewitt's claim, but said it has helped thousands of constituents over the last 3½ years. Amash can point to his own business supporters, as well as the backing of the most prominent Republican family in Michigan, the DeVoses. He rejects any suggestion that his office provides less than "superb" service to constituents.

"My constituents are more important than the Chamber," he told the Free Press. Later, he added in an e-mail, "I'm a principled, consistent conservative who defends the Constitution and represents everyone, not just big corporations and special interests."

Voting record

Amash is a Michigan original: a bundle of movement, a wry grin crossing his face as he unexpectedly comes across a reporter outside his office. He extols a small-government message. He posts an explanation of every vote he takes on Facebook, a record that is unparalleled in its transparency.

It's the record that alienates some people.

He votes against his own party more than all but one other House Republican, according to OpenCongress.org. He maintains high rankings from conservative groups including Heritage Action and the American Conservative Union, but has also publicly split with the majority of his party on GOP priorities, like Rep. Paul Ryan's fiscal 2012 budget plan and a balanced budget amendment.

It's not just the well-publicized votes: He was the only member of either party to vote against legislation allowing the government to disinter someone buried in a national cemetery accused or convicted of a capital crime. It was passed after a veteran accused of killing a woman was mistakenly buried in a Michigan cemetery after committing suicide.

Amash believed it threatened "the burial rights of all veterans going forward." A friend of the woman killed called his vote "morally repulsive."

Ellis, in a series of e-mails and blog posts called "Amash Bizarre Votes," regularly cites Amash's record: A vote against a breast cancer stamp, against a bill to defund Planned Parenthood; declining to vote yea or nay on construction of the Keystone pipeline.

Amash offers reasoned, detailed explanations for each, typically on principled grounds: the measure was unconstitutional, or expanded government's reach unnecessarily, or didn't go as far as needed, or wrongly singled out one group over another, or was simply too flawed to warrant passage. They have been employed to justify votes against poison control hotlines and the sale of commemorative stamps to help fund national parks.

"I make no apologies for taking the Constitution seriously," he told the Free Press.

But Ellis and his allies say Amash and hard-line Republicans "had effectively nullified" the GOP majority in the House.

"Just saying 'no' is not a solution," said Ellis. "In his idealistic world you want to get everything perfectly the way you want. We have a democracy where there is give and take."

For and against

Amash isn't worried about Ellis or his supporters, and he could be right. He has better name recognition, twice as much money in the bank and powerful allies. The only real polling in the district shows Amash well ahead, but it has been done by groups that have already endorsed him, like FreedomWorks for America.

The DeVos family has given him tens of thousands of dollars. The Club for Growth has funneled close to $200,000 in contributions to his campaign and spent nearly that much on independent ads targeting Ellis, accusing him of serving on a economic development fund under Gov. Jennifer Granholm and supporting tax increases while a member of the East Grand Rapids School Board.

For his part, Ellis notes he was appointed to the Michigan Strategic Fund by the then-Republican leader in the state Senate, and that tax increases at the school board level are approved by the voters, not the board.

Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller said Ellis has had to loan his own campaign $400,000 already and is spreading "falsehoods about Justin Amash's record." But if Ellis glosses over Amash's rationale for contrary votes, he can still point to numerous instances where the incumbent voted in the same direction as the Democrats did — even if he did so for far different reasons.

"What Brian Ellis doesn't understand, apparently, is Republicans as much as Democrats contributed to the $17-trillion debt," Keller said. "Justin Amash stands up for the taxpayers and against the big spenders in both parties."

Amash rejects any claims that he is uncompromising. He says he has built bipartisan coalitions, such as one for limiting the U.S. response to the Syrian civil war. In other cases his claims can fall flat.

Just two weeks ago, Amash said the Freedom Act, meant to rein in data collection efforts by the National Security Agency and supported by a bipartisan coalition, "wouldn't exist without my efforts." But last week, as it came up for a vote, he abandoned it, saying last-minute changes meant he couldn't support it. Many of those who worked with him still backed the bill.

"He's sticking to his principles. That may or may not serve his district well," said Saul Anuzis, a former state Republican Party chairman. "Because he votes that way, he's not a darling of leadership."

"My views reflect the common sense principles that most Americans share," Amash said about his record. "The agenda in Washington is driven mostly by people who are outside the mainstream and that's the primary reason Congress has such low approval."

If Amash is in the mainstream; however, it comes as news to a lot of longtime Republicans.

Meijer co-CEO Mark Murray, a former state treasurer and budget director, is one of those supporting Ellis. He won't badmouth Amash — he would only say that he expects the race to be close and that both "will have the money to make their case." Kevin Kolevar, a vice president at Dow, declined to talk about Amash, too, though he said last year's government shutdown — which was blamed on Republican hard-liners by many — was a factor in his company's support of Ellis.

"Dow has determined to stand with individuals and members who are dedicated to ... breaking the current climate of intransigence," he said. "We've been very impressed with Brian."

And Amash keeps providing ammunition to his enemies.

Last week, compromise legislation came up on a water resources development bill. U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township, was one of those who wrote the compromise measure and it was touted on all political sides as a big win for the state, with authority to slow the spread of Asian carp and a mechanism to raise funding for dredging Great Lakes harbors and channels. Some state Republicans also noted it was also far less expensive than some previous bills.

On a vote of 412-4 it passed in the House. Amash, who had supported an earlier, even less-expensive version, was one of four Republicans — and the only one from Michigan — to vote against it.

He said it cost too much to support.

Contact Todd Spangler: 703-854-8947 or tspangler@freepress.com

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