After years of taking the backseat to their big-moneyed super PAC arms, GOP policy groups aligned with House and Senate leadership are flexing their muscle in the first months of the Trump administration.
American Action Network, a nonprofit group associated with House Speaker Paul Ryan, has already spent more than $10 million on ads this year aimed at moving health care reform through the lower chamber—a pace well ahead of the $20 million AAN spent on policy issues over the course of two years last cycle. AAN’s Senate counterpart, One Nation, run by allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, is also on TV in nine states urging senators—including some Republicans—to repeal and replace the health care law.
Leaders from both groups say those early investments are just the beginning of a more-robust campaign from the policy-focused groups that stayed relatively quiet through the Obama years. While the super PAC arms, Senate Leadership Fund and Congressional Leadership Fund, are still expected to do most of the heavy lifting in the midterms, these groups are now charged with ensuring the success of a policy agenda GOP leaders view as critical to their electoral efforts in 2018.
“It’s a more interesting time for conservative advocacy groups because we now have legislation and issues that have a chance of becoming law,” said One Nation spokesman Ian Prior. “Prior to the new administration … [it] was going to hit the Oval Office and die.”
On both sides of the Capitol, the most immediate threat to that agenda comes from other Republicans. Conservative groups like the Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity have already lined up against GOP leadership on a handful of big-ticket items, including major parts of the American Health Care Act, as well the border-adjustment tax that Ryan hopes to use to pay for tax reform.
While those groups have years of experience applying policy pressure on their GOP allies, leadership-aligned groups that traditionally focused their energy across the aisle are gearing up to push back.
In addition to ads hitting vulnerable Democrats, last week American Action Network launched robocalls aimed at House Freedom Caucus members who threatened to vote against the House health care proposal. The move came days after Americans for Prosperity held an event near the Hill vowing to give cover to “courageous members” who help stop the AHCA from advancing in its current form.
“We’re going to be very aggressive moving forward on all the big legislative agenda items,” AAN executive director Corry Bliss said in an interview. “Part of that will be explaining why policies Democrats support are bad, and part will be ensuring that our friends and allies support good legislation.”
In a less-pointed approach, One Nation rolled out a $3 million health care campaign last month targeting five Democrats and five Republican senators to support full repeal and replacement of Obamacare. While the ads targeting Republicans simply asked them to “keep fighting to repeal and replace,” the group also pushed out polling that it hoped would give those senators cover from hard-line conservatives pushing them to take up a repeal bill that already passed the Senate, leaving the replacement for later.
American Action Network ran similar ads in 2015, criticizing some House conservatives over a plan to defund the Department of Homeland Security. The move drew anger from conservatives who suggested leadership was trying to silence their voices in the conference and punish members who opposed then-Speaker John Boehner.
Brian Walsh, a GOP strategist who held Bliss’s role at the time, said he expected AAN’s intra-party engagement to increase as Republicans take over all three Houses of government.
“You have some major policy opportunities and challenges that are coming, and stakeholders are eager to make sure they have a robust external ally,” said Walsh. “The sausage-making is the sausage-making—it’s all just steps along the way.”
Unlike Democrats, who had help from President Obama’s political group in uniting Democratic majorities to pass Obamacare, Republicans on the Hill are currently working without the help of a White House-blessed outside group. The president is doing his own outreach for the health care bill, which he supports, but the closest outside group with ties to the White House, America First Policies, has largely been grounded by leadership disputes. A handful of other groups are also competing for that mantle, but none have broken away in time to help with the White House’s first policy battles.
In the meantime, Walsh said GOP leaders’ increased investment in the policy sphere underscores the political pressure Republicans face in delivering on their campaign promises.
“Common sense would tell you that the success of these major policy initiatives, whether it be health care, tax reform, or other things, obviously have political implications on the 2018 midterm elections,” Walsh said.