GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- Nearly three years after a band of renegade congressmen brought the Tea Party insurgency to Washington, there are early rumblings of a political backlash in some of their districts.
In the Dutch Reformed country of West Michigan -- long a bastion of mainstream, mannerly conservatism --voters in 2010 handed the House seat once held by future President Gerald Ford to Justin Amash, a 33-year-old revolutionary and heir to the libertarian mantle of former Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas. Mr. Amash was part of an attempted coup against House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and is a leader of the House Tea Party faction that helped force a government shutdown last week.
But within Grand Rapids' powerful business establishment, patience is running low with Mr. Amash's ideological agenda and tactics. Some business leaders are recruiting a Republican primary challenger who they hope will serve the old-fashioned way -- by working the inside game and playing nice to gain influence and solve problems for the district. They are tired of Tea Party governance, as exemplified by the budget fight that led to the shutdown and threatens a first-ever U.S. credit default.
Similar efforts are underway in at least three other districts -- one in the moneyed Detroit suburbs and the others in North Carolina and Tennessee -- where business leaders are backing primary campaigns against GOP congressmen who have alienated party leaders.
These races mark a notable shift in a party where most primary challenges in recent years have come from the right.
"It's a new dynamic, and we don't know how far it's going to go," said former Rep. Vin Weber, R-Minn., who is close to the House leadership. "All the energy in the Republican Party the last few years has come from the Tea Party. The notion that there might be some energy from the radical center, the people whose positions in the conservative mainstream are more center-right but who are just furious about the dysfunctionality of government -- that's different."
But any move to take out a Tea Party-aligned congressman in a GOP primary would be challenging, especially here in Michigan's 3rd District, where grass-roots conservatives hold considerable sway. In the 2012 presidential primary, former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., beat the eventual presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, in this culturally conservative district, even though Mr. Romney carried the state.
Some prominent business leaders are lining up behind investment manager Brian Ellis, several local GOP operatives say. Mr. Ellis declined to grant an interview but wrote in an email: "I am taking a hard look at running in the Republican primary" and "will make up my mind in the near future."
State Sen. Mark Jansen, seen as a pragmatic Republican, also is weighing a challenge to Mr. Amash, said Deb Drick, his chief of staff.
Meg Goebel, president of the Paul Goebel Group insurance agency, said she is "really, really unhappy" with the leading role Mr. Amash has played in tying the health care law to overall government funding.
There are similar sentiments 140 miles east, in the Detroit suburbs of Oakland County, where businessman David Trott is waging a well-funded primary campaign to defeat Rep. Kerry Bentivolio, a former high school teacher and reindeer rancher now dubbed by fellow Republicans the "accidental congressman." After longtime Rep. Thaddeus McCotter's 2012 re-election bid collapsed, Mr. Bentivolio was the only Republican on the ballot -- and, in the GOP-leaning 11th District, he won.
Although Mr. Bentivolio aligns with Tea Party conservatives, he has not been as much of a thorn in the House leadership's side as Mr. Amash has; Mr. Boehner even hosted a fundraiser for him in the summer. But Mr. Bentivolio is struggling to prepare for re-election and has just $42,000 in cash on hand, according to campaign finance records. His spokesman did not respond to several requests for comment.
In Tennessee, Tea Party-aligned Rep. Scott DesJarlais faces a GOP primary challenge from state Sen. Jim Tracy, who has won over donors and other supporters who abandoned Mr. DesJarlais after a series of personal scandals. In Mr. DesJarlais's divorce records, released too late in the 2012 campaign to impact the result, he revealed that he had multiple affairs with coworkers and patients while chief of staff at a hospital, and had counseled a mistress and his wife to get abortions.
First Published October 7, 2013 8:00 PM