Louisiana’s crowded open-seat Senate race offers the tea-party movement one of its few pickup opportunities this year, but there is already reason for concern.
Divisions within the grassroots over who will carry that mantle—House Freedom Caucus founding member John Fleming or 2014 Senate candidate Rob Maness—are threatening to weaken both potential prospects.
The website Conservative Review published a leaked video Thursday of Fleming addressing a constituent forum in 2008 and “lamenting a lack of illegal aliens to fill American jobs,” as the post’s author wrote. When reached by National Journal, Fleming senior adviser John Brabender disputed that assessment, saying Fleming has an “A-plus rating” by immigration groups and “a very conservative position on immigration.”
While the source of the video is unknown, the direct shot at Fleming’s conservative credentials underscores the precarious situation both he and Maness face in the five-way primary. Both need to lock down the same ideological base to be competitive against the top contenders, Rep. Charles Boustany and state Treasurer John Kennedy.
In the short term, that’s causing their allies to turn their guns on each other rather than on Boustany or Kennedy, and it’s giving some national groups pause about their involvement in the race.
Daniel Horowitz, senior editor of the Conservative Review, said his publication wasn’t “trying to tip the scales” for Maness but was merely pointing out a “pretty potent statement.” He noted that Fleming, who has an 86 percent rating on the review’s scorecard, has “been good on [immigration] since being a member of Congress.”
Maness had the backing of the Senate Conservatives Fund in his 2014 race, but so far in this cycle the SCF, Club for Growth, and FreedomWorks have remained neutral. All have expressed an interest in unifying their efforts this cycle, particularly in promoting Senate candidates from the House Freedom Caucus, but reactions to the video Thursday were mixed.
An SCF spokeswoman said in a statement that the video was “concerning” and “not the kind of thing a conservative would ever say.” The group was interested to hear Fleming’s explanation, adding, “Simply saying you’re a member of the House Freedom Caucus isn’t enough.”
Spokesmen from FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth both said immigration was not one of the issues they act on and declined to comment on whether the video would affect their deliberations in the race.
For Fleming allies, the video was met with frustration.
“Congressman Fleming is a fiscal conservative; he’s good on the issues we care about,” said one national conservative strategist. “To take one comment, that’s being taken out of context, to paint him as weak on immigration is absurd.”
Back in Louisiana, Bob Reid, spokesman for the Tea Party of Louisiana, which backs Maness, said his group is doing everything it can to shut down an internal primary within the conservative movement. Reid said he was contacted by FreedomWorks to discuss the possibility that the group might support Fleming, and he responded in a letter demanding the group stay out.
“We in the Tea Party of Louisiana have become increasingly disillusioned with Congressman Fleming,” said Reid, citing votes for former House Speaker John Boehner and current Speaker Paul Ryan among the grievances. “To our knowledge, we know of no grassroots groups that’s supporting Fleming here.”
“FreedomWorks had no idea; they thought he was the grassroots favorite here,” Reid added. “I said, ‘We will whip you to pieces here in Louisiana if y’all try to come out and say Fleming is a grassroots candidate in Louisiana.’”