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Amash's candidacy injects uncertainty for Trump in key swing state of Michigan

Winning Michigan this fall is crucial for Donald Trump's reelection, but his path to victory could be upended by the entrance of Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, who last week announced he was exploring a run for the Libertarian Party's presidential nomination.

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Michael Warren
Ryan Nobles, CNN
CNN — Winning Michigan this fall is crucial for Donald Trump's reelection, but his path to victory could be upended by the entrance of Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, who last week announced he was exploring a run for the Libertarian Party's presidential nomination.

In interviews with CNN, there was a collective shrug among many Republicans in the Great Lake State, and at the President's campaign, about the possibility Amash would in any way shake up their efforts to win Michigan again for Trump and the GOP. Yet if Amash earned just a fraction of the more than 169,000 votes he won in his district in 2018, his third-party White House bid could affect the outcome of who wins Michigan -- and with it, perhaps, the White House. It's a possibility some Republicans in the state say their party should be taking seriously.

"Clearly with a state as close as it was last time around, everyone thinks darn near anything could have an impact," said David Doyle, a former chairman of the Michigan GOP.

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A persistently Democratic state that narrowly swung to the Republicans four years ago, Michigan favored Trump over Hillary Clinton by just more than 10,000 votes. With Joe Biden holding a small but significant lead over Trump in the polls there, every last vote counts. Amash, a five-term congressman who was a Republican until last year, has won big majorities in his Western Michigan district as a Republican.

Doyle and several other Michigan Republicans told CNN that an Amash candidacy would more likely hurt Biden by splitting off a small chunk of the anti-Trump vote. Republicans in the state, matching national trends, remain fiercely loyal to Trump.

Amash is not exactly a major player in the Michigan GOP, and it's possible his decision to leave the party has caused too many of his former supporters to sour on him. Republicans in Michigan say Amash would face an uphill battle if he were running for reelection in his solidly GOP House seat around Grand Rapids.

"He has burned a lot of bridges with the Republican Party in West Michigan," said Pete MacGregor, a GOP state senator from Kent County.

Since Trump's razor-thin victory there in 2016, the GOP and the Trump campaign have devoted time and resources to holding onto Michigan.

The Trump campaign currently has 50 paid staffers on the ground in Michigan. They say they've made 2.1 million voter contacts, including 1.2 million phone calls since they moved to a 100% virtual campaign on March 19. They boast more than 1,300 volunteers in the state.

"The difference between winning and losing for us in 2016 ended up being around 100 voters per congressional district," said Rick Gorka, a spokesman for Trump Victory 2020, the joint fundraising committee between the campaign and the Republican National Committee. "It is a tier-one state for us and one we basically never stopped our work in."

For the campaign, the focus is on drawing distinctions with Biden. Amash, they say, is not even on their radar.

"We spend zero time talking about him," said Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh. "In fact the only time I talk about Justin Amash is when reporters call to ask me about him."

The Trump campaign also says Amash would help pull votes away from Biden. On Twitter, the President has mocked Amash's potential candidacy and said he "like[s] him even more than Jill Stein" -- a reference to the 2016 Green Party presidential candidate who some Democrats say cost Clinton crucial votes.

But veteran GOP operative John Truscott says he believes it's a "huge mistake" for the President's team to think Amash won't have more appeal to Trump voters than to potential Biden voters. Truscott said Amash has also cultivated good relationships with his constituents, who could reward them with their votes for President.

"There is always a certain, small percentage of the electorate that says throw chaos out there, toss out the current guys," said Truscott, who was former Michigan Gov. John Engler's longtime spokesman. "The Amash voter is much more independent, much more libertarian, maybe more contrarian."

Amash's spokeswoman did not respond to questions for this story. On State of the Union last week, CNN's Jake Tapper asked Amash about the possibility his entry could "spoil" the race for either Trump or Biden.

"We don't know how the additional candidate changes a race. It's too impossible to figure out. There are too many calculations involved," Amash said.

Despite being the third largest national party, the Libertarian presidential candidates rarely get above 1% support nationally. In 2016, Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson set the high watermark for his party at just over 3% nationally, or nearly 4.5 million votes. But Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico, outperformed in his home state by getting more than 9% of the vote, likely keeping Clinton from winning an outright majority in a state that had long trended Democratic.

Could a favorite-son status boost Amash in a similar way in swing-state Michigan?

"I don't think anybody knows at this point," said Doyle. "Nobody thought Trump was going to win Michigan last time."

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