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Will voters send U.S. House's "Mr. No" back to Washington?

By David Lawder

GRAND RAPIDS, Michigan (Reuters) - U.S. freshman Republican Congressman Justin Amash has not been afraid to rub his party - and sometimes his western Michigan constituents - the wrong way.

And he makes no excuses about the many things he has cast votes against.

He voted against the budget bill authored by Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan this year because it did not cut deeply enough for him.

On nearly every recent critical vote where House Speaker John Boehner struggled to win support from his party, Amash voted no: A landmark deal to raise the debt limit and institute spending controls last year, a payroll tax cut extension, a measure to keep student loan rates from rising, and a highway bill to keep road construction from grinding to a halt.

Now Amash takes his record back to Third District voters in Grand Rapids, Michigan. But it's not the same Third District that elected Amash in 2010. It has been redrawn as a result of the once-a-decade census and is less Republican than it was the last time around.

While he remains the favorite in the race, some in mainstream Republican circles are expressing a bit of buyer's remorse about him, while Democrats have been busy tallying up his votes for attack ads.

District shifts have been a major factor in some of the tightest races involving Republican freshmen.

Tea Party stalwart Joe Walsh saw his northern Illinois district swallowed up by two Democratic-leaning districts and chose to run in the more conservative region, only to run up against a strong Democratic challenger, Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth.

Allen West, one of the most outspoken Tea Party freshmen, switched to a slightly more Republican district in south Florida after his old district shifted Democratic, but he still finds himself neck-and-neck with a local businessman.

In upstate New York, Ann Marie Buerkle, who won by less than 700 votes in 2010, is considered one of the most endangered freshmen Republicans in a redrawn district now evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.

And in Michigan's far-northern First District, which kept its rural Republican majority after redistricting, Tea Party Republican freshman Dan Benishek is trailing in polls against his Democratic rival because of a backlash against the Republican's budget-slashing votes that would have hurt local subsidies.

Amash's district is still majority Republican, but the question is whether his voting record is too far to the right for his constituents, prompting them to trade him in for a centrist Democrat. The district has traditionally elected more moderate, pragmatic Republicans - including hometown legend Gerald R. Ford and, more recently, longtime ex-Congressman Vern Ehlers.

Sometimes described as a "party of one," the 32-year-old Amash has positioned himself as the heir apparent to Ron Paul, the House's retiring libertarian iconoclast. He endorsed Paul for president and has declined to shift that allegiance to the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney.

Bill Farr, a lawyer and former Kent County Republican Party chairman, said Amash's strict constitutionalist approach is out of step with the district's needs.

"It's like not having anybody down there in Washington. He's meaningless," Farr said of Amash. "He should tell us he's a libertarian and run as a libertarian."

Democratic challenger Steve Pestka, a former state representative and local judge, is betting that a lot of Republicans are feeling the same way and that he can flip them.

Pestka's first television campaign ad portrayed him as safe for Republicans, extolling his business experience and showing a local voter saying: "I'm a Republican, but I know I'm supporting Steve."

A new ad attacks Amash for being the only House member to oppose a bill to ease financial burdens on military personnel serving overseas.

"Ideologically, and philosophically, he's too conservative even for that district. But that doesn't necessarily mean they're going to throw him out," said Bill Ballenger, editor of Inside Michigan Politics newsletter and a longtime pundit on state races.

"MR. NO" GOES TO WASHINGTON

Amash wears his libertarian stripes and grounding in the Constitution as a badge of honor. Though a favorite of the Tea Party movement, he has never officially joined the House Tea Party Caucus, choosing instead to form his own House Liberty Caucus, which lists seven other members.

He maintains that his unprecedented practice of explaining every single vote on his Facebook page keeps building formidable support -- he has nearly 35,000 "likes" and 11,000 Twitter followers.

"I follow a few basic principles," Amash said. "I always make sure that legislation is moving in the direction of limited government, economic freedom and individual liberty."

In the Michigan House of Representatives, where he previously served, he earned the nickname "Mr. No" for opposing legislation in the Democratic-controlled body.

Amash said he will oppose any post-election efforts in Congress to delay or avoid $109 billion in automatic spending cuts due to hit in January, despite projections that they could cost the country more than 2 million jobs. He will insist on deep cuts -- even to the military -- in any new fiscal deal.

For Pestka, the acrimony surrounding last year's debt limit deal, when Republican demands for deep spending cuts pushed the U.S. Treasury to the brink of default, got him thinking about how Democrats could take the Third District seat.

"I just thought that our Congress in Washington, D.C., was letting down the American people," Pestka said in an interview.

ROCKY PATH

Even though a majority of the redrawn district voted for President Barack Obama in 2008, Pestka faces an uphill battle.

The Cook Political Report, a non-partisan firm that tracks congressional races, rates the Third District as "competitive," but currently lists it as "likely Republican."

As of July, Amash led Pestka in fund raising $939,281 to $798,522. New figures will be disclosed on October 15, but Amash has begun turning to the libertarian faithful, raising $39,900 in a four-day contest that featured a drawing to have dinner with him and Ron Paul, dubbed "Liberty Dinner Money Bomb."

Amash has some big business interests behind him, including generous contributions from the family of Richard DeVos, a co-founder of Amway Corp, the global direct-sales company that supports many cultural and civic institutions in Grand Rapids.

But some local business executives have expressed concerns about his views.

Amash has sponsored legislation to eliminate the Export-Import Bank of the United States, calling it "corporate welfare" for large companies.

That would have made life difficult for 5 Star Parts Inc, a small Grand Rapids-area firm that exports U.S. truck parts to southern Africa and used Exim Bank trade guarantees to grow its business. Without these, the firm would employ fewer people, said Doug Luyk, a consultant and spokesman for the firm.

However, the firm's owners, Bredell and Melissa Herrer, also support Amash's goals to limit the reach of government. They'll take his Exim Bank views into consideration but are "not single-issue voters," Luyk said.

"He's not going to vote exactly how you want all the time, and he gets a lot of flak for it, but you absolutely know where he stands," added supporter Shelby Reno, director of marketing and communications for Two Men and a Truck Inc, a moving services franchise firm.

ECONOMY IMPROVING

Local residents say that jobs are still their top concern, but Grand Rapids' economy has seen growth in exports in recent years, and it is more prosperous than much of Michigan.

Battle Creek, known as "Cereal City" for its Kellogg's, Post and Ralston cereal factories, was brought into Amash's redrawn district. And while the sweet smell of cooking corn still wafts over the new part of the district, jobs are harder to come by and Democrats are more numerous.

Many in the new part of the district are just starting to get to know Amash.

With a higher percentage of its population over 65 and a lower median household income than in the Grand Rapids area, concerns over Republican plans to cut Medicare and Medicaid health care benefits may be higher.

"It's a traditional Romney-Ryan Republican district," said Ballenger of Inside Michigan Politics. "What puts it in play is that Amash is this Ron Paul, Tea Party libertarian."

But at the end of the day, Pestka is still a Democrat "who is going to vote with Nancy Pelosi," Ballenger said in reference to the House Democratic leader, whose California district includes the liberal city of San Francisco.

(Editing by Fred Barbash and Lisa Shumaker)

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