Super PAC aims to wrest grip of incumbents

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.”

Others who were “more about governance than politics” chipped in, including J. Joe Ricketts, an owner of the Chicago Cubs, who gave a half-million dollars.

That kind of activity across the political spectrum might be impossible to finance under old rules, where members of a long-standing political class gave the maximum $5,000 contribution to clearly defined ideological pushes.

“Most people are interested in advancing Team D or Team R, but we can raise as much as we want from even one person” for a more nuanced mission, Mr. Ellis said, acknowledging that the overall effect of relaxed campaign finance rules had been to bolster the positions of people already well-represented.

“All the other super PACs are basically reinforcing the system. This is the only one using the new money to reform the system,” he said.

As the Campaign for Primary Accountability targets poor-performing lawmakers of both parties, other advocacy groups are spending money to push their parties further to extremes, sensing an opportunity to leverage the new campaign finance laws to overcome the advantages of incumbency.

The Club for Growth for years has aimed to “replace Republicans with conservatives,” with a traditional political action committee that has spent $190,000 and a newly added super PAC arm that has spent $575,000 on the primaries this year.

“Some incumbents haven’t had primary challenges for years and years. They’ve been able to stockpile cash,” said Barney Keller, a spokesman for the group. “The super PAC has been an incredibly effective tool.”

The Karl Rove-linked FreedomWorks, meanwhile, has spent nearly $400,000 on its Retire Orrin Hatch initiative, designed to get rid of the Utah Republican who has served in the Senate since 1977, and replace him with someone more friendly to the tea party movement.

“There are hundreds of lobbyists in D.C. whose jobs depend on their relationship with [Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican] and his staff or Orrin Hatch. You’re talking about vested interests,” the group’s Brendan Steinhauser said about the difficulty in unseating an incumbent.

Reshape Congress

Despite disappointment with the status quo, many groups seeking to reshape the face of Congress through primary elections would prefer that the number of people involved remain tiny.

“People may not even know there is a primary challenger. So our job is to say who are the Republican supervoters? There are a certain number of people who are going to show up, and you can deal with the rest later,” Mr. Steinhauser said.

Mr. Ellis said that kind of conventional wisdom means there is no political incentive for interests to involve more voters in sparsely attended but important contests.

“Political consultants would rather deal with the smallest subset because they don’t have unlimited money. If you haven’t voted in a primary before, no one’s going to encourage you to,” he said.

But, he noted, because those who haven’t voted before aren’t fervent about politics, they can be persuaded to vote against the incumbent.

While Mr. Ellis acknowledged that changing long-standing behaviors won’t be easy, “turnout is so low that if we increase it by even a meager percentage we can have a dramatic influence,” he said.

A pledge to vote in primary elections has so far been signed by 150,000 people, he said, may of them first-time voters.

“People are trained to think we go to the polls in November. In a primary, they say, ‘You know a Republican’s going to win, so why come out? I just want to make sure my team wins,’ ” Mr. Ellis said.

“Twelve incumbents were replaced in primaries and 13 died in office” from 2002 to 2008, he said. “God recalls more people in primaries than we do.”

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