When it comes to Congress, the only number higher than voters’ disapproval of its members is the rate at which they re-elect those same lawmakers. With sitting members of Congress backed by cash from Washington-based trade groups and party leaders, running against an incumbent traditionally has seemed like an exercise in futility.
But activists are using a new tool to disrupt the status quo: super PACs that could spend enough money across the country to knock off low-performing members of Congress in low-turnout, little-discussed primaries.
With the vast majority of districts a lock for one party or the other, the party primaries — 10 states hold elections or caucuses Tuesday — are where the face of Congress really takes shape.
“Almost 90 percent of districts are one-party dominated. The only chance for a competitive election is in the primaries, but 9 out of 10 eligible voters don’t participate,” said Curtis Ellis, a spokesman for the Campaign for Primary Accountability, a super PAC that has been the most active independent group in Tuesday’s primaries, according to federal records.
Those races also are the most ignored, except by those with an interest in maintaining the status quo.
“County committeemen, people who depend on patronage from the party, government jobs. Those are the only people who participate, and they’re going to pull the lever faithfully for who the party leaders tell them to vote for — and that will always be the incumbent,” Mr. Ellis said.
Precisely because of the nearly perfunctory way in which the small portion of voters in House primaries come out to check the names of their party’s incumbents, though, outside groups sense a chance to make a difference well ahead of November’s general election.
Mr. Ellis‘ group has spent $315,000 in recent weeks on advertisements targeting members of Congress who are plagued by poor performance or ethics issues, yet represent districts that would never vote for a candidate from the opposing party.
With all eyes on the presidential contest, that kind of money being spent quietly on lesser races could be enough to have significant impact where low-ranking lawmakers have enough cash to shut out a challenger without assistance, but not enough to make them entirely invincible.
The political action committee has the rare quality of true bipartisanship. In Ohio, it has attacked Rep. Jean Schmidt, a three-term Republican who has authored only three bills, two of which are thinly veiled earmarks for top campaign contributors, The Washington Times found in a review of proposed legislation and contributor records.
“She squeaked in because she was lucky, but she got in, so she’s stayed,” Mr. Ellis said.
It also has run ads to unseat Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr., Illinois Democrat, who “has a mistress and a host of ethical problems,” Mr. Ellis said.
The group started when Leo Linbeck III, a wealthy conservative engineer, teamed up with Eric O’Keefe, who in the 1990s crusaded for the introduction of term limits.
‘A better way’
“He now sees this as a better way. We have term limits: It’s called elections,” Mr. Ellis said. “The key is they’ve been voting in the wrong elections.”