Powerful Senate Conservatives Fund Expands To Focus On House Races

Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, speaks to reporters after being named chairman of the House Rules Committee when the 113th Congress convenes in January, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012. The Rules ... Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, speaks to reporters after being named chairman of the House Rules Committee when the 113th Congress convenes in January, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012. The Rules Committee controls how bills are amended and debated. Its chairman is one of the more high-profile House members because of the time spent leading floor debates. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) MORE LESS
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The Senate Conservatives Fund, an organization that has emerged as a powerful challenger to incumbent Republicans who wade too far to the middle, is expanding its focus to the House of Representatives, creating a new force with deep coffers likely to divide an already ideologically split caucus of Republican lawmakers.

Prominent conservatives up for re-election like Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX) should pay close attention. Sessions, the chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee and former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, has been in the crosshairs of the group and now faces a primary challenge from someone the organization could be very interested in backing.

The expansion, called the House Conservative Project, is still in its infancy, but the Senate Conservatives Fund has already begun targeting big-name House Republicans who are known as some of the most conservative in the body.

“Part of the reason for that is our House project — we see it a little bit as building a farm team for the Senate,” Senate Conservatives Fund Executive Director Matt Hoskins told TPM.

According to the Fund’s website, it only backs candidates who “support a congressional amendment to balance the federal budget without raising taxes,” want a “full repeal” of Obamacare because it will “destroy American medicine and bankrupt our country” and oppose “taxpayer funding for abortion.” The Senate Conservatives Fund raised $9 million in 2010 and handled $16 million in 2012.

The Fund started out as Jim DeMint’s (R-SC) leadership political action committee in 2008, three and a half years after entering the Senate. DeMint left several years later, handing the reigns over to Hoskins, the senator’s former chief of staff from his House days. It was under his leadership, in 2012, that the organization formed a super PAC. Its recent focus has mostly been on defunding Obamacare — attacking conservative Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) — but The Senate Conservatives Fund also factors in fiscal and social issues for deciding on whether to support or oppose candidates.

The group also plays a role in endorsements — previously backing Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) with a $500,000 supporting ad buy in 2012. Other past endorsements include Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO) when Akin ran against Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) in 2012, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock (R) in 2012 and Republican Ken Buck (R-CO) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) in 2010.

In May, the Senate Conservatives Action super PAC, which is the independent expenditure political action committee connected to the Senate Conservatives Fund, spent $320,000 on ads against Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR) who is facing a tough re-election fight against challenger Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AR). Most of the super PAC’s focus, though, has been on which Republican to back and which to attack.

A Senate Conservatives Fund endorsement does not necessarily mean a candidate will get elected (in addition to a misstep in choosing Akin, the group endorsed Delaware Republican Christine O’Donnell in the 2010 general election for Senate), but by successfully backing Cruz, the group already has a growing contingent in the Senate. By picking some new winners in House races, it hopes to build a pipeline of promising candidates to the Senate.

With its new House project, the Senate Conservatives Fund plans to support candidates that standout as hard-line conservatives. So far the organization has only endorsed Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) for re-election, someone they see as a possible candidate to replace Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) when he leaves office in 2016. Unlike with the Senate, The Senate Conservatives Fund is willing to endorse incumbents in the House.

“Tom Coburn is retiring in Oklahoma and we’d love to see Jim Bridenstine run for the U.S. Senate and so we’re going to support him now in the House in the hopes of helping elevate his profile,” Hoskins said. “Maybe that’s something he’ll decide to do and if he does you can be sure we’ll be there supporting him. He’s a fantastic guy and just a very strong conservative in the House.”

The Senate Conservatives Fund has started dipping its toe into the House waters on policy as well. Last week, it targeted 29 House Republicans with a mailer that urged them to oppose House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-VA) recent continuing resolution budget proposal because it gave the Senate the option of stripping a provision aimed at defunding Obamacare.

The House members the Senate Conservatives Fund targeted are considered some of the loudest and most conservative in the chamber: Rep. Steve King (R-IA), Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA), Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN). The group is using the same approach it has taken in the Senate — target Republican lawmakers for refusing to follow The Senate Conservative Fund’s preferred playbook on issues like defunding Obamacare or other hot topics.

Brian Walsh, formerly a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee who also served as Cornyn’s chief communications strategist, argued that The Senate Conservative Fund doesn’t actually aim to beat Democrats or even give Republicans control of both chambers of Congress again.

“They have become one hundred percent focused not only electing candidates but on raising money for themselves,” Walsh told TPM. “The Senate Conservatives Fund has been a tremendous detriment to Republican efforts to win back the majority.”

Walsh noted that instead of running ads against incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) or moving to support one of her potential challengers, they’re attacking her colleague, Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), on Obamacare. While Burr opposes the health care law, the group made a small ad buy attacking the North Carolina Republican for saying an initiative to defund Obamacare was the “dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.”

Walsh wrote a scathing op-ed in U.S. News last week on The Senate Conservative Fund, noting that the Senate Conservatives Fund had already gone after Sessions. The former NRCC chairman helped Republicans gain 63 seats in the House, has an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association, a 100 percent rating from National Right to Life and a 97 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union. Nevertheless, Walsh wrote, Sessions has become a target.

Democrats, meanwhile, say the Fund so far has done more to foster internal divisions among Republicans than fight Democrats.

“I think the biggest effect they’ve had is to intensify the civil war that’s going on in the Republican party,” Democratic National Committee press secretary Justin Barasky told TPM. “Not just in this cycle but in the last cycle as well.”

An important thing to remember about the group, Barasky noted, is that they oftentimes back or oppose a candidate based on small policy differences. Cornyn is a good example. The Senate Conservatives Fund has strongly criticized the senior senator from Texas for refusing to sign on to an effort to only back a government funding or debt limit bill if that bill defunds Obamacare. Cornyn has responded to this criticism by stressing that the disagreement is really over how to defund the law, not whether or not the law should be defunded.

Meanwhile, a prime candidate for the Fund’s new House project could be Dallas tea party activist Katrina Pierson, who jumped into the race for Sessions’s seat last week. Pierson was immediately endorsed by Freedomworks and could attract the support of the Senate Conservatives Fund as well.

In announcing her candidacy, Pierson accused Sessions of playing “the go-along-to-get-along, business as usual politics that have been hurting this country for so long,” according to the Dallas Morning News.

That’s the kind of conservative-on-Republican attack language that the Senate Conservatives Fund seems to want to hear.

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