“Throw the bums out” is a common refrain these days as Congress descends to new lows in public approval. Now a super PAC is putting money behind the idea—$1.8 million and counting—and planning to try to unseat incumbents of both parties in their primary elections.
Most of the money has come from a handful of conservative-leaning, limited-government donors, fueling intrigue about hidden motives. But so far the group, which calls itself the Campaign for Primary Accountability, has zigged and zagged ideologically, backing liberal Rep. Dennis Kucinich in a primary contest against fellow Ohio Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur—including a $100,000 cable TV buy last Friday—while spending money to defeat Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.
Whoever wins those primaries, neither seat is expected to change party hands. And that’s the point. “At the end of the day, we’re not going to elect one more Democrat or one more Republican in Congress,” said group spokesman Curtis Ellis.
The mission, Ellis said, is singular and nonpartisan: booting tainted, unpopular, and otherwise ensconced incumbents in primary contests.
“I can see how that confuses people. I can see how that blows their mind. It’s man bites dog,” Ellis said. The group plans to get involved in roughly a dozen primaries this year, he said.
Those targeted for defeat are less than impressed. “By any rational standard, ignoring what a candidate stands for is a bizarre and eccentric political philosophy that will not serve the best interest of the voters,” said Larry Lavender, Bachus’s campaign manager.
Most congressional districts are nearly impregnable for the opposing party, drawn to be so “safe’’ for one party that the victor in most primaries waltzes through the general election. And that’s hurting democracy, said Leo Linbeck III, a Houston-based construction mogul and the group’s biggest contributor at more than $775,000 since November.
“The right-versus-left paradigm is the wrong one, or Democrat versus Republican,” Linbeck said. “It’s a struggle between the ruling elite … versus the citizens.”
Linbeck cuts an unusual figure for someone trying to stir up a populist takeover of political primaries. For one thing, he’s super-rich. For another, he has not voted in a primary since at least 1994, according to Harris County, Texas, voting records. “I didn’t vote in primaries mostly because I was an idiot. I didn’t know,” he said repentantly. (He has consistently voted in general elections.)
Linbeck acknowledged that his group’s task is an uphill battle because most of the incumbents they’re taking on are, by definition, firmly rooted in power. “It’s like going to the track and making a 100-1 bet,” he conceded. “The smart money would say we probably won’t win any.”
One top priority is ousting Bachus, who faces an ethics investigation into insider trading, in the upcoming March 13 primary, said Eric O’Keefe, an activist who gave $100,000 to the group. O’Keefe, who was a leader of the term-limits movement in the 1990s and donated to Herman Cain’s presidential bid last year, said a Bachus defeat would send “shockwaves through the country.” Television ads are on their way, he said, in what he called the “most important House primary” in the nation.
So far, the super PAC’s maneuverings have elicited little more than a shrug from official Washington, where the relentless focus is on flipping seats and which party will hold power in 2013.
Along with Linbeck, many of the super PAC’s donors hail from Texas, where the group is opposing the reelection of Democratic Reps. Silvestre Reyes, in office since 1997, and Eddie Bernice Johnson, in office since 1993. One firm, which contributed more than $18,000 to the super PAC, has been linked to the father-in-law of Reyes’ challenger.
“This is a clear example of how special-interest money … and family wealth [are] being used to undermine the vote and will of the people,” Reyes said in a statement.
Another of the super PAC’s biggest donors is J. Joe Ricketts, founder of TD Ameritrade and whose family owns the Chicago Cubs. He gave $500,000. Two of the races that the group is targeting are in the Chicago area, including seats held by GOP Rep. Don Manzullo and Democratic Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.
Linbeck said Ricketts, who founded a different anti-earmark group last cycle that spent more than $850,000 against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., contributed to the cause before those specific races had been chosen.
“He bought into this broad vision,” Linbeck said.
With $1.8 million in its campaign treasury, the Campaign for Primary Accountability is already the 13th-largest super PAC in the nation, according to records from the Center for Responsive Politics. And that’s just the start.
“I’ll be putting more money in,” Linbeck said. “We’ll deploy more dollars for sure.”
This article appears in the Feb. 29, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.