In recent months, a struggle for power has been going on within the Republican Party. Although cast as a struggle between “true conservatives” and the “Republicans in name only” of the party “establishment,” in reality the struggle seems to be one more concerned with what strategy the Republican Party should take and a competition for donor dollars. The ultimate prize is control of the party itself.
Nowhere was the power struggle within the Republican Party more evident than in last year’s attempt to defund the Affordable Care Act. Even though Republicans unanimously voted against Obamacare and unanimously favor its repeal, the party became bitterly divided over the defund strategy which, as Examiner explained at the time, could not work because Obamacare had already been funded and the Democrats had enough votes in the Senate to block the effort, even without President Obama’s veto.
If the defund effort could not succeed, why was so much emphasis placed on persuading Republicans in Congress to vote for what turned out to be an utterly destructive strategy? Part of the answer may lie with the Senate Conservatives Fund, an advocacy group headed by Matt Hoskins, a former aide to South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint. The Senate Conservatives Fund was one of the few winners in the government shutdown. Politico reported that the group raised more than $9 million in 2013, a record for a nonelection year. The group raised almost half of that total, $3.7 million, in September and October as the government shutdown loomed and was in process.
Much of the money raised by the Senate Conservatives Fund is spent attacking sitting Republican officeholders who are deemed insufficiently conservative. Recent targets of the group include majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). In fact, Politico reports that of the five candidates for 2014 elections funded by the Senate Conservatives Fund, only one is running for a Democratic-held seat. The rest are challenging GOP incumbents.
Responding to Republican criticism of his tactics, Hoskins argues in Politico, “If they don’t want to be criticized by conservatives, there is an easy solution: They can stop voting with Democrats.” He goes on to charge Republican incumbents with “help[ing] the Democrats to enact their liberal agenda.”
Do Hoskins’ charges against Republican lawmakers hold water? According to the American Conservative Union, an organization that rates legislators every session, Mitch McConnell is a “Defender of Liberty” with a 100 percent conservative voting record. Lindsay Graham is a “conservative” in the eyes of the ACU with an 89 percent record. Roberts, Cochran, and Alexander have lifetime records of 83 percent, 79 percent, and 77 percent respectively although their 2012 ratings are lower.
Money that goes to “true conservative” groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund is money that does not go to the Republican Party or more established candidates. Politico reported last week that Karl Rove’s Crossroads groups had raised only $6.1 million in 2013, a 98 percent decrease over 2012. Similarly, a Politico report from October 2013 noted that at least eight of the most outspoken Republican congressmen had not donated to the National Republican Congressional Committee, the political wing of the House Republican caucus. Georgia’s Rep. Tom Graves is among those who had not given money to help the party.
As Tea Party and “true conservative” groups act to defund the GOP, where is the money going? The Center for Public Integrity reported that Tea Party groups rarely involved themselves in electoral politics. Two exceptions were Patriotic Veterans, a group that ran ads against Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and for Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) in 2012, and Patriot Majority USA, a Democratic affiliated group that ran ads attacking Republicans. Casey and Kinzinger both won their respective campaigns.
An analysis of the FEC filings of many Tea Party groups by the Sunlight Foundation shows that they frequently attack Republican incumbents nearly as much as Democrats. Tea Party Patriots has yet to spend money on the 2014 campaign and in 2012 spent almost all of their money on Ted Cruz with only token amounts to Mitt Romney and Kevin Brady (R-Tex.). In 2014, Freedomworks is spending more to attack Republicans John Cornyn and Mitch McConnell than to target Democratic senators Kay Hagan (N.C.), Mark Begich (Alaska), Mark Pryor (Ark.), and Mary Landrieu (La.). In 2012, Freedomworks opposed almost as many Republicans as Democrats. Many of the Republicans the group did support lost their races.
For its part, so far in 2014 the Senate Conservatives Fund’s biggest recipient is Matthew Bevin, the Tea Party challenger to Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. In second place, the group ran ads against Mark Pryor, but in third place was Christopher McDaniel, the primary challenger to Mississippi Republican Thad Cochran.
For all his bluster, Hoskins has not been overly successful in electing his brand of conservatives. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, of the 11 candidates supported by SCF in 2012, only three were elected. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) was the notable winner and list of losers contains such now infamous names as Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock. Nevertheless, failure is also profitable for Hoskins. The SCF has paid approximately $535,000 to Hoskins and his company over the past three years.
The assaults on sitting Republicans are doubly tragic because, not only do they waste money that could have been used to campaign against Democrats, it also forces other Republican and conservative groups to spend more money to defend conservative incumbents. This sometimes makes strange bedfellows. Bloomberg reported that labor unions and the Chamber of Commerce came together to fund Defending Main Street, the super-PAC of Ohio Republican Steve LaTourette.
One candidate who did not get support from the Tea Party was Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli. In spite of claims that the GOP “establishment” hung Cuccinelli out to dry, Time reported that several vocal Tea Party critics of the Party did not fund the Republican candidate at all.
The biggest question for conservatives is why Tea Party groups are spending more to unseat the Republican Senate majority leader than to unseat Democrats in key Senate races. To win control of the Senate and have a chance to begin rolling back the Obama agenda, Republicans need to win at least six Senate seats. If Tea Party and “true conservative” groups really want to advance a conservative agenda, they would do better to attack Democrats than a successful GOP senator with a 100 percent rating from the American Conservative Union.
Given that many of the “establishment RINOs” have voting records among the most conservative in the Congress, it seems likely that there are other motives for the attacks on what would more accurately be called the Republican Party’s “Old Guard.” In addition to financial incentives to attacking sitting Republicans, the current struggle is essentially a battle for control of the party pitting the young Turks against the current Republican leadership.