Why Justin Amash's Primary Victory Matters

His challenger for the GOP nomination tried to twist his opposition to NSA spying and indefinite detention as comfort to al-Qaeda—and the attack failed miserably.
Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Representative Justin Amash, a Michigan Republican, is one of the most important civil libertarians in the House of Representatives. He isn't just a staunch opponent of the NSA's mass surveillance of Americans—he actually has a sophisticated understanding of surveillance policy (unlike the vast majority of his congressional colleagues) as well as a record of bringing forth actual reform proposals.

Amash voted against the reauthorization of the Patriot Act, favored a measure to repeal indefinite detention, and opposed reauthorization of the FISA Amendments Act. Little wonder that an ACLU staffer told Mother Jones that he's "a game changer."

For his heresies, establishment GOP forces spent a bunch of money trying to oust Amash in a primary. His loss would've been especially devastating to civil libertarians. Opposition to Amash came largely from Republican business interests, but Amash's vote against the debt-ceiling hike—a mistake, in my view—wasn't the focus of the campaign. Instead, civil-liberties issues played an important role. Amash's opponents didn't merely disagree with the Tea Partier's efforts to stop abuses of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. They equated his position with supporting terrorists in one of the more disgusting attacks of this cycle:

And guess what? That attack failed in a Republican primary in a relatively conservative district. If Amash wins the general election, it will matter because his leadership reining in the national-security state is sorely needed going forward. His easy primary victory already matters because it shows that Republicans who want to rein in the NSA, repeal the Patriot Act, and close the prison at Guantanamo Bay can win a primary vote handily—even in a safe Republican district where a shameless opponent tries to portray them as siding with the enemy.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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