WASHINGTON – Just as a jam-packed presidential field finally was whittled down to two, the first major third-party candidate is emerging to potentially muddle the contest between President Donald Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
Michigan Rep. Justin Amash faces almost impossibly steep odds to becoming president. But any candidacy outside the nation's two major parties can produce unpredictable twists in presidential politics.
For Amash, a Republican-turned-independent who says he'll seek the White House as a Libertarian, that unexpected turn could be helping a president he has opposed — and voted to impeach. Conservatives who are opposed to Trump say any serious Libertarian candidate could shift the support of wary Republicans away from Biden and help ensure that the president secures a second term.
“If your priority is to remove Donald Trump from the White House, then you have to recognize that the only person who is in any position to make that happen right now is Joe Biden,” said Jennifer Horn, former chairwoman of the New Hampshire Republican Party who is now active with the Lincoln Project, a collection of former Republicans opposing “Trump and Trumpism.”
“A third-party candidate who takes votes away from the person who is best positioned to do that undermines that effort,” Horn said.
A deficit hawk, Amash would seem a natural fit for small-government Republicans who already have Libertarian tendencies. Some conservatives like former U.N. ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley have decried ballooning federal spending in response to the coronavirus outbreak. That may make such voters reluctant to embrace Biden, which the Lincoln Project has already done, endorsing the former vice president after his final primary opponent, Bernie Sanders, dropped out of the race three weeks ago.
Amash shrugged off concerns that his candidacy could benefit either Trump or Biden.
“I hear from people who support Joe Biden that I’m helping Trump. I hear from people who support Trump that I’m helping Biden. There’s no clear-cut answer to that,” Amash told The Associated Press. “I firmly believe that the positions I hold and the principles I espouse are ones that reflect a larger portion of the electorate than the number of people supporting either Donald Trump or Joe Biden.”
But former Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh, who challenged Trump in the GOP 2020 primary, thinks that by running, Amash will ultimately help Trump — whom he derided as an “authoritarian con man.”
“He can siphon enough votes from the Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, to hand the election to Trump,” Walsh wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. “If Amash gets the Libertarian nomination and stays in until the end, he could wind up going in the books as the guy who voted to impeach Trump one year, then tipped the election to him 11 months later.”
Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson ran on the Libertarian ticket the last two presidential cycles and got nearly 4.5 million votes in 2016, though he’s said he won’t run again. But attention four years ago focused more on Green Party nominee Jill Stein, who won more votes in Michigan and Wisconsin than Trump’s small margin of victory in both states.
That led some Democrats to blame Stein for helping catapult Trump to the White House, an accusation her party rejected — and no one knows for sure if Green voters might have sided with Democrat Hillary Clinton had they known the race would be as close as it turned out to be in their states.
Trump suggested via Twitter that he’d relish having Amash in the race.
“I think Amash would make a wonderful candidate,” the president tweeted. “He almost always votes for the Do Nothing Dems anyway. I like him even more than Jill Stein!”
Brendan Steinhauser, a Texas Republican strategist with ties to Libertarian-leaning grassroots activists, said that some of that group voted for Johnson last cycle but that others supported Clinton — and could be swayed to back Amash in November.
“I think that there’s a lot of people in the country who vote in the general election -- let’s say tens of thousands of them who are in key states, Ohio, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, New Hampshire — who might look at this and say, ’I don’t want to necessarily vote for the Democrat,'” he said. “It’s a small number. It’s not insignificant.”
The Libertarian Party says it is on the ballot in 36 states and the District of Columbia. That includes Michigan but not other key potential tossups like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Minnesota — and the party suspended signature-gathering efforts to qualify for more ballots on March 7 to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
But executive director Daniel Fishman said that a federal judge in Illinois ruled this month that, given the difficulties of meeting signature requirements amid a pandemic, the Libertarian Party and Green Party could be on the 2020 ballot based on having run in the state’s elections in previous cycles. He said he expects similar legal challenges to help his party gain ballot access to the remaining 14 states.
“We’re not particularly worried about Libertarians stealing votes from anyone else,” Fishman said. ”If you look at the candidates right now, we’re looking at two 70-plus-year-old males who have been accused of sexual assault. The country deserves at least one slightly different choice.”
Associated Press writer David Eggert in Lansing, Mich., contributed to this report.