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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