Freedom Caucus to Battle McConnell on Campaign Finance

Conservatives fear a move on the omnibus to raise party spending limits will help the establishment at the expense of outside groups.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Dec. 1, 2015, 5:45 p.m.

House con­ser­vat­ives are de­cry­ing an at­tempt by Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers to loosen cam­paign spend­ing lim­its, band­ing Demo­crats to­geth­er with anti­es­tab­lish­ment Re­pub­lic­ans and open­ing up a rare in­tra-party split on an is­sue that usu­ally unites the GOP.

The dus­tup comes as Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell is push­ing to do away with lim­its on spend­ing by polit­ic­al parties in co­ordin­a­tion with can­did­ates. As first re­por­ted by Politico, Mc­Con­nell is try­ing to at­tach a pro­vi­sion to the om­ni­bus spend­ing bill that would al­low party groups, such as the Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee and the Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee, to spend un­lim­ited sums in co­ordin­a­tion with party nom­in­ees.

That would al­low the parties to fin­ance ad­vert­ise­ments and oth­er cam­paign needs in co­ordin­a­tion with can­did­ates, as long as the money is not dir­ectly donated to the can­did­ates.

Mem­bers of the House Free­dom Caucus, however, are ar­guing that the meas­ure is an at­tempt by the GOP es­tab­lish­ment to con­sol­id­ate power to box out can­did­ates who do not toe the party line, and they are mak­ing it one of their top tar­gets in ne­go­ti­ations over must-pass spend­ing le­gis­la­tion. Rep. Mick Mul­vaney, a found­ing mem­ber of the Free­dom Caucus, said Tues­day that loosen­ing the lim­its would send the wrong mes­sage as GOP voters are clam­or­ing for a party out­sider in the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion.

“Don’t let it be the anti-Don­ald Trump bill. Be­cause that’s what it is,” Mul­vaney said. “It ef­fect­ively em­powers the es­tab­lish­ment wing of both parties. And that’s one of the reas­ons I think you’ll see some kick­back from the Free­dom Caucus.”

Rep. John Flem­ing, an­oth­er Free­dom Caucus founder, who is run­ning for the Sen­ate seat be­ing va­cated by Sen. Dav­id Vit­ter, said that al­low­ing un­lim­ited co­ordin­ated spend­ing by party com­mit­tees would make it more dif­fi­cult for a can­did­ate like he was in his first race—an up­start who was not the pick of the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee. He said he would prefer the lim­its to stay where they are, but that if lead­ers feel they must do away with them, they should also al­low polit­ic­al ac­tion com­mit­tees to spend un­lim­ited sums in co­ordin­a­tion with can­did­ates.

“Either un­cap everything or un­cap noth­ing,” Flem­ing said. “What they’re really say­ing is, ‘We get to choose our can­did­ate, and we run our can­did­ate, and we’re go­ing to make sure they have un­lim­ited money.’ … If they are giv­en no lim­its or more lim­its or more co­ordin­a­tion, so should the oth­er or­gan­iz­a­tions.”

That would al­low groups like the Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ives Fund, which has fin­anced anti­es­tab­lish­ment can­did­ates and even run ads against Mc­Con­nell, to keep pace with party com­mit­tees. These PACs, un­like their spinoff groups called su­per PACs, can spend in co­ordin­a­tion with can­did­ates, but the spend­ing is capped at $5,000 per elec­tion.

Party com­mit­tees can donate only $5,000 per can­did­ate per elec­tion, but can spend more in co­ordin­a­tion with a can­did­ate. The caps to co­ordin­ated spend­ing vary state-to-state based on pop­u­la­tion, but range from $48,000 for House can­did­ates to some $20 mil­lion for pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates. Mc­Con­nell, however, is try­ing to re­move the caps out­right, which would give party com­mit­tees an ad­vant­age over not only PACs, but also su­per PACs, which can spend un­lim­ited sums on ads and oth­er spend­ing, yet are not al­lowed to co­ordin­ate with can­did­ates. Polit­ic­al party com­mit­tees can also spend un­lim­ited sums in in­de­pend­ent ex­pendit­ures if the spend­ing is not co­ordin­ated.

The is­sue marks the latest rift in the fraught re­la­tion­ship between GOP lead­ers and out­siders with­in their party. Lead­ers have long com­plained that some con­ser­vat­ives do little to fun­draise for the party and do not pay their dues to the NR­CC. Al­tern­ately, mem­bers of the Free­dom Caucus have com­plained that the es­tab­lish­ment has with­held dona­tions or even tar­geted them with ads or oth­er spend­ing.

Yet just how in­flu­en­tial the Free­dom Caucus can be on the is­sue re­mains to be seen. Many mem­bers of­ten vote against om­ni­bus bills to be­gin with, lim­it­ing their ne­go­ti­at­ing power as this pack­age is be­ing put to­geth­er. Mean­while, the group is also seek­ing pro­vi­sions on the om­ni­bus deal­ing with Obama­care, the Syr­i­an refugee crisis, and Planned Par­ent­hood, so it’s not clear they would sup­port an om­ni­bus bill even if it does block Mc­Con­nell’s rider if it did not also in­clude riders deal­ing with those is­sues.

Mc­Con­nell has made no secret of his con­tempt for the out­side groups pour­ing money in­to con­tests against Re­pub­lic­an in­cum­bents. He made waves among tea-party Re­pub­lic­ans in 2014 when he de­clared, in re­gard to the out­side con­ser­vat­ive groups tar­get­ing him­self and oth­ers: “We are go­ing to crush them every­where.”

Mc­Con­nell has long pushed to roll back some cam­paign fin­ance laws, and he is a ma­jor con­gres­sion­al ad­voc­ate of the Su­preme Court’s de­cision in the Cit­izens United case. As a former chair­man of the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ori­al Com­mit­tee, Mc­Con­nell has of­ten pushed to in­crease spend­ing lim­its for polit­ic­al parties. Dur­ing last year’s “CRom­ni­bus” battle, Mc­Con­nell helped to at­tach a rider that al­lows in­di­vidu­als to donate 10 times as much to polit­ic­al parties as they had been able to pre­vi­ously. This year, he’s push­ing to elim­in­ate lim­its on how much of that money polit­ic­al parties can spend on in­di­vidu­al can­did­ates.

A Mc­Con­nell spokes­man said that the om­ni­bus rider, which has been float­ing around for years, had noth­ing to do with the re­l­at­ively new Free­dom Caucus and its mem­bers.

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