How GOP Leaders Use Campaign Cash to Head Off Troublemakers

Leadership super PACs are working against Republican candidates who buck the party line.

The Senate Leadership Fund is boosting Senator Luther Strange, R-Ala., who replaced Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the Senate.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
June 1, 2017, 8 p.m.

Super PACs aligned with GOP leadership on both sides of the Capitol are cracking the whip on members who threaten the party’s legislative agenda.

Earlier this spring, House Speaker Paul Ryan’s Congressional Leadership Fund made an example of Rep. David Young by pulling its reelection support after the second-term congressman came out against leaders’ plan to repeal and replace Obamacare.

Now, as the Senate wades through its own health care negotiations, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund is spending millions to keep another House health-care-plan dissenter out of the upper chamber in the race to replace former Sen. Jeff Sessions in Alabama.

Both moves underscore the drag that intraparty dissent has had on the GOP’s legislative agenda in the first months of a Republican-controlled Washington. Despite majorities in both chambers, leaders have struggled to make meaningful progress on big-ticket items such as health care and tax reform, largely due to disagreements among their own members.

Unlike the National Republican Senatorial Committee and National Republican Congressional Committee, the super PACs have the ability to accept unlimited contributions. In recent years, leaders have pushed donors who care about the majority to give there instead of other GOP groups.

Also unlike the party committees, leaders’ super PACs are not funded by member dues, and don’t have to treat all incumbents equally. While both CLF and SLF have affiliated policy arms that spend directly on issue advocacy, their ability to be selective in who they help electorally is another way that leaders can pressure members to support their agenda—and weed potential troublemakers out of their caucus.

In Alabama, the Senate Leadership Fund has already pledged up to $10 million to help appointed-Sen. Luther Strange through a crowded special-election primary that includes a handful of conservative firebrands who could butt heads with leadership if elected. Though SLF has engaged in open primaries before—most notably for Sen. Todd Young over House Freedom Caucus Member Marlin Stutzman in Indiana last cycle—its leaders previously said they would only do so if the seat was at risk in the general election. In backing Strange, who will have only been an incumbent for four months by the August primary, SLF is taking on a race that even Democrats concede they have no shot at, regardless of the nominee.

SLF spokesman Chris Pack said the group counts the new senator as any other incumbent, adding that SLF is “generally supportive” of defending incumbents from primary challenges.

“Senator Strange is a strong supporter of the priorities of Senate leadership and the White House—and that is why we are supporting him,” said Pack.

They’re also aggressively attacking his GOP opponents, most of who would not qualify as allies of leadership. Rep. Mo Brooks is a member of the House Freedom Caucus, and was a vocal opponent of Ryan’s first health care proposal. Another serious contender, far-right state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, has railed against GOP leaders in Washington, and declined to say whether he would support McConnell if elected.

“Basically Strange is the one who’s best able to work with Mitch McConnell and actually get s—- done, as opposed to being the party of ‘no,’” said one GOP strategist with knowledge of the race.

While leaders picking favorites in primaries is nothing new for either party, spending big to tip the scales in a safe seat is unusual. NRSC defends incumbents—including ones who occasionally feud with leadership—against primary threats, but has a policy of not making formal endorsements in open races.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee endorsed in primaries last cycle and spent millions for Katie McGinty in Pennsylvania, but did so on the premise that her opponent would hurt their chances at picking up the seat. And while former Democratic Leader Harry Reid personally endorsed Sen. Chris Van Hollen over then-Rep. Donna Edwards for a safe seat in Maryland, his super PAC, Senate Majority PAC, didn’t spend any money to help Van Hollen.

“Democrats go out of their way not to do this,” said one Democratic strategist with ties to Reid. “Senate Majority PAC just doesn’t have the money that Senate Leadership Fund does, so they can’t piss it away” on candidates who will vote the same when they get there.

Republicans, for their part, may have more reason to be wary of dissenters. On the House side, Ryan’s first health care proposal was sidetracked by the same organized group of conservatives that ousted former Speaker John Boehner just two years ago.

Since then, leaders have consolidated much of the House fundraising to Ryan-aligned outside groups, where they can dole it out to help members who support leadership, and cut off those who don’t. The Ryan-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund, which plans to spend $100 million on competitive House races, already cancelled plans to open campaign offices for Young the day he announced his opposition to Ryan’s health care plan.

CLF executive director Corry Bliss said at the time the group would be “terminating [their] lease” because the congressman “decided not to support President Trump and House leadership.” Bliss added that the group wished Young “the best of luck,” but had “no plans to spend any money for [him] this cycle.”

While Republicans concede it’s unlikely that CLF will abandon other members after setting up shop in their district, the decision to cut off Young was a clear warning to Republicans who buck leadership.

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