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
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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.”

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