Headwinds for Republican Rebels Despite Trump’s Success

House Freedom Caucus members lack the money and ground game to win promotion to the Senate.

Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, a member of the House Freedom Caucus
AP Photo/David Goldman
Andrea Drusch and Daniel Newhauser
Add to Briefcase
Andrea Drusch and Daniel Newhauser
July 20, 2016, 4:27 p.m.

CLEV­E­LAND—Rep. John Flem­ing could not have painted a bet­ter back­drop for his Sen­ate race. After eight years of buck­ing party lead­er­ship in the House—in­clud­ing work­ing to oust former House Speak­er John Boehner—the Louisi­ana Re­pub­lic­an is now seek­ing a pro­mo­tion in the ul­ti­mate year of the out­sider.

But as Re­pub­lic­ans gath­er here this week to rally be­hind Don­ald Trump, Flem­ing and his col­leagues in the House Free­dom Caucus are fa­cing a polit­ic­al para­dox: For all of the sup­port Trump has re­ceived from the grass­roots in the pres­id­en­tial primary, very little of that has trickled down to the self-styled out­siders of Cap­it­ol Hill.

“It’s the year of the out­sider for those who can get their mes­sage out to the people,” said Rep. Dave Brat, who be­came the poster boy for con­gres­sion­al out­siders after top­pling then-Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor in a Vir­gin­ia primary and is now con­sid­er­ing a Sen­ate bid if Sen. Tim Kaine is chosen as Hil­lary Clin­ton’s run­ning mate.

“At the pres­id­en­tial level Trump has been a mas­ter with the me­dia, and at the loc­al, state, and even con­gres­sion­al levels it is still pos­sible to reach large num­bers of people through smal­ler news­pa­pers and door-knock­ing and per­haps per­son­al repu­ta­tion,” Brat said. “But the statewide Sen­ate races are likely toughest to win.”

Flem­ing is trail­ing oth­er can­did­ates, win­ning only single-di­git sup­port in his race. An­oth­er Free­dom Caucus mem­ber, Rep. Marlin Stutz­man, lost an In­di­ana Sen­ate primary to the more es­tab­lish­ment-friendly Rep. Todd Young. Rep. Ron De­S­antis, mean­while, dropped his long-shot Flor­ida Sen­ate bid after Marco Ru­bio de­cided to seek reelec­tion.

The Free­dom Caucus has proven it­self to be a power broker in the House, not only in­flu­en­cing a le­gis­lat­ive swing to the right but for­cing lead­er­ship changes. But so far, trans­lat­ing that tac­tic­al suc­cess to win­ning seats in the up­per cham­ber has proven much more dif­fi­cult.

Even as HFC mem­bers de­livered on one of their biggest prom­ises last year—re­mov­ing Boehner—op­pon­ents have un­der­mined their “out­sider” cre­den­tials.

Rep. Mark San­ford, the former gov­ernor of South Car­o­lina who is now a mem­ber of the Free­dom Caucus, said part of the prob­lem is hav­ing the word “Rep.” tagged to the front of one’s name, which makes it hard to prove out­sider status even for those who have chal­lenged their own lead­er­ship. San­ford re­called a re­cent con­ver­sa­tion with Wil­li­am Tim­mons, who had ous­ted a 32-year state le­gis­lat­or, in which Tim­mons told him, “‘I just had to be from the out­side and my tick­et was paid.’”

It’s a frus­trat­ing road­b­lock for the con­ser­vat­ive groups that helped build the Free­dom Caucus in the first place. After their can­did­ates were wiped out in the 2014 midterms, lead­ers of these groups turned their fo­cus to pro­mot­ing from with­in, blam­ing losses on can­did­ates who were un­pre­pared or un­able to raise money for high­er-pro­file races.

But in Louisi­ana, where these groups seized on a prime op­por­tun­ity to rally be­hind an HFC mem­ber in an open, red-state race, they’re fa­cing head­winds non­ethe­less.

“Trump has really cap­tured the ima­gin­a­tion of the Amer­ic­an people. He’s an out­sider; he doesn’t seem to be con­strained by a bunch of con­sult­ants telling him what to say and what to be­lieve and what to do,” Flem­ing said. “And frankly, that’s just who I am.”

But state Treas­urer John Kennedy, a Demo­crat-turned-Re­pub­lic­an who has run for Sen­ate twice be­fore, is lead­ing Flem­ing and es­tab­lish­ment-favored Rep. Charles Bous­tany in the polls by bash­ing both men as part of a broken in­sti­tu­tion. A fourth can­did­ate, re­tired Col. Rob Maness, has been nip­ping at Flem­ing’s heels, cri­ti­ciz­ing the con­gress­man for vot­ing for Boehner be­fore he voted against him.

Stutz­man faced sim­il­ar cri­ti­cism from a can­did­ate to his left. Even though both men were elec­ted in 2010, Young hit Stutz­man as a “ca­reer politi­cian” who moved his fam­ily to Wash­ing­ton the minute he was elec­ted.

In oth­er races where a Free­dom Caucus-backed can­did­ate lost or de­ferred to the es­tab­lish­ment’s choice, San­ford said the nas­cent D.C.-based con­ser­vat­ive group has been faced with stra­tegic stum­bling blocks.

“There are or­gan­iz­a­tion­al hurdles that ex­ist when you move to statewide races that don’t ex­ist in con­gres­sion­al races,” he said. “Free­dom Caucus, which is just get­ting star­ted, is go­ing to have lim­it­a­tions to its abil­ity to build a ground game in some­body else’s state. That’s got to be or­gan­ic. Wheth­er it’s the Free­dom Caucus or an­oth­er caucus, they can aug­ment and help, but you’ve got to have that ground game and money game in place in a statewide race.”

Free­dom Caucus Chair­man Jim Jordan agreed, not­ing that in the race to suc­ceed Stutz­man, the group backed state Sen. Jim Banks with a $100,000 ad buy in the form of in­de­pend­ent ex­pendit­ures through the group’s polit­ic­al ac­tion com­mit­tee, the Free­dom Fund. In a con­gres­sion­al race, “that means something, but in the U.S. Sen­ate? Come on,” Jordan said.

Cer­tainly the ap­pet­ite for can­did­ates from the out­side is still alive. Con­ser­vat­ive groups that were wiped out in their Sen­ate races last year notched one vic­tory in Col­or­ado this spring, when they lined up be­hind little-known El Paso County Com­mis­sion­er Darryl Glenn. They also scored some House primary vic­tor­ies, in­clud­ing get­ting their choice can­did­ate War­ren Dav­id­son in the race to re­place Boehner.

While Jordan con­ceded that the group is zero for three on Sen­ate races so far, he poin­ted to wins by its House can­did­ates, like Dav­id­son, Banks, and gun-shop own­er Ted Budd, a North Car­o­lina primary vic­tor. He also said HFC-backed at­tor­ney Mary Thomas has a strong chance in an up­com­ing Flor­ida primary. An­oth­er pos­it­ive was keep­ing De­S­antis in the House.

“I’m much more con­cerned with get­ting Free­dom Caucus mem­bers in­to the House,” he said. “We’re four for four.”

For his part, Flem­ing is still op­tim­ist­ic he can do bet­ter than his col­leagues.

“I think I fit my state bet­ter maybe than some of the oth­ers,” he said. “In the case of the oth­er two Sen­ate races, those are swing states. … In our case, I really think a Re­pub­lic­an is go­ing to win.”

What We're Following See More »
Puerto Rico Another Sticking Point in Budget Talks
3 hours ago

President Trump’s portrayal of an effort to funnel more Medicaid dollars to Puerto Rico as a "bailout" is complicating negotiations over a continuing resolution on the budget. "House Democrats are now requiring such assistance as a condition for supporting the continuing resolution," a position that the GOP leadership is amenable to. "But Mr. Trump’s apparent skepticism aligns him with conservative House Republicans inclined to view its request as a bailout, leaving the deal a narrow path to passage in Congress."

Facebook To Cut Down On Govt-Sponsored Info Campaigns
3 hours ago

Facebook "outlined new measures it is taking to combat what it calls 'information operations' that go well beyond the phenomenon known as fake news" on Thursday. Facebook acknowledged that there are governments using its platform as a tool to launch propaganda information campaigns and "manipulate public opinion in other countries. ... Facebook suspended 30,000 accounts in France ahead of last Sunday’s first-round presidential election."

Democrats Threaten Spending Bill Over Obamacare
7 hours ago

Democrats in the House are threatening to shut down the government if Republicans expedite a vote on a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare, said Democratic House Whip Steny Hoyer Thursday. Lawmakers have introduced a one-week spending bill to give themselves an extra week to reach a long-term funding deal, which seemed poised to pass easily. However, the White House is pressuring House Republicans to take a vote on their Obamacare replacement Friday to give Trump a legislative victory, though it is still not clear that they have the necessary votes to pass the health care bill. This could go down to the wire.

IN 2014
Pentagon Warned Flynn Not To Accept Foreign Payments
9 hours ago
One-Week Spending Bill On The Table
10 hours ago

Members of Congress are eyeing a one-week spending bill which would keep the government open past the Friday night deadline, giving lawmakers an extra week to iron out a long-term deal to fund the government. Without any action, the government would run out of funding starting at midnight Saturday. “I am optimistic that a final funding package will be completed soon," said Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.