Conservative groups, hoping that an anti-Washington sentiment will help them add to their ranks in the Senate, are promoting a handful of their closest political allies in open-seat races.
But, as many of these candidates seek to repeat the insurgent campaigns that got them to the House in the first place, they’re facing competition from critics who say these sitting members of Congress can no longer claim the “outsider mantle” that propelled them to Capitol Hill.
In the most extreme case, Louisiana grassroots activists are railing against House Freedom Caucus member John Fleming on behalf of one of his Senate race opponents, potentially causing his D.C. allies to take a pass on one of their biggest pickup opportunities on the map.
Tea Party of Louisiana spokesman Bob Reid rattled off a handful of votes, including ones for former House Speaker John Boehner and current Speaker Paul Ryan among his grievances against Fleming, suggesting that retired Air Force Col. Rob Maness would be more likely to incite change in Washington.
In an interview with National Journal at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Fleming dismissed Reid’s criticism of leadership votes, saying it “would have been irresponsible” to vote in such a way that he “would have gotten kicked off the House Armed Services Committee.” He noted that as a member of the House Freedom Caucus, he is “one of the key people who made sure to put the pressure on Speaker Boehner to resign and we blocked the second-in-command,” Kevin McCarthy, from taking his place.
“We are the ones who brought change to the House, we are the ones who forced the speaker to resign,” Fleming said.
Still, his predicament underscores the challenge that conservatives face in attempting to promote from within. While D.C.-based groups hope to someday build a Senate Freedom Caucus from their allies currently serving in the House, many of the otherwise like-minded state-based conservative organizations have turned their attention away from voting scorecards and toward candidates who haven’t already served in Washington. Case in point: real-estate mogul Donald Trump’s ability to surpass tea-party hero Ted Cruz in the presidential race.
For outside groups, the resistance is frustrating. After being shut out in nearly every race in the 2014 midterms, strategists pushed to focus their resources on races like Fleming’s, believing that a more established candidate running for an open seat would have a better chance than the little-known contenders they’ve backed in past years.
But before they could even come in to help Fleming, who has an 89 percent vote score with the Heritage Foundation, a group of far-right grassroots activists had already lined up behind Maness, who finished third in the 2014 Senate jungle primary. The Tea Party of Louisiana, along with a handful of other groups, penned a letter to FreedomWorks threatening them not to intervene on Fleming’s behalf.
FreedomWorks president Adam Brandon said for now his group is doing a listening tour of its members in Louisiana before deciding whether to endorse. But, he countered, it’s nothing his group hasn’t dealt with before.
“In all of our biggest races, we have made people unhappy,” he said. “When Mike Lee was running, when Ted Cruz was running, people were mad we didn’t support other candidates. I could go down the list, and these are now conservative heroes!”
Still, Brandon acknowledged the anti-Congress discrepancy in the presidential race, which could play out in a handful of races where they’re already involved.
In Florida’s Republican primary, wealthy businessman Carlos Beruff has hammered tea-party favorite Rep. Ron DeSantis relentlessly for using his D.C. connections to raise money for his campaign. In Indiana, Rep. Marlin Stutzman’s primary opponent, who is also a House member, launched a microsite suggesting that he’s been “a politician since age 26” and voted to raise his own pay in Congress.
If all three Freedom Caucus members advance to their respective general elections, DeSantis would face the greatest challenge in the race to replace Sen. Marco Rubio in swing-state Florida.
But Fleming and Brandon both pointed to achievements of the House Freedom Caucus as a potential weapon against primary challengers.
“It’s easy to talk conservative, it’s a lot more difficult to be conservative,” Fleming said. “I’m able to point to my voting record, and [my ability] to form a group that actually forced our leadership to step down. You don’t get any more outsider than that.”
It’s a strategy that Stutzman has also leaned on in his primary, running ads touting his votes against the speaker, saying it’s not enough to simply buck the other party.