The Long Game
Right-Wing PACs’ Formula: Lose Races, Rake In the Cash
As Tea Party-affiliated Super PACs keep losing elections, their grassroots fundraising keeps going up, up, up. What’s the mentality there?
Despite losing eight of nine GOP Senate primaries and being nearly shut out in a handful of Republican-on-Republican House showdowns in 2014, the three top D.C.-based Super PACs that fueled many of those losing efforts are continuing to rake in donations from supporters across the country.
According to the latest monthly filings with the Federal Election Commission compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, the groups—the Senate Conservatives Fund, Club for Growth Action, and FreedomWorks for America—all saw one of their best fundraising months of the 2014 election cycle even as conservative losses piled up from North Carolina to Georgia to Kentucky. The spike in fundraising came as Chris McDaniel, Milton Wolf, and T.W. Shannon, all darlings of far-right activists, prepared for June primaries in Mississippi, Kansas, and Oklahoma, respectively. In the end, all three lost, while once-ballyhooed primary challenges to Sens. Lindsey Graham and Lamar Alexander faded with a whimper in South Carolina and Tennessee.
The top-grossing of the three Super PACs was Club for Growth Action, which eventually spent more than $3 million in independent expenditures in its effort to defeat Sen. Thad Cochran, who of course beat McDaniel in Mississippi. Even with expensive defeats in their top two races the month before, Club for Growth Action’s receipts jumped a staggering 173 percent from May to June (detailed in their June and July filings), from $665,843 to $1,154.654.
FreedomWorks for America, the Super PAC affiliated with the FreedomWorks grassroots organizing operation, had just spent hundreds of thousands of dollars each for Matt Bevin, who was seeking to defeat Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, and Greg Brannon, a Baptist minister running against the Republican Speaker of the House in the North Carolina GOP primary. Bevin and Brannon both lost by double digits, but like Club for Growth Action, FreedomWorks for America saw its fundraising go up from $369,757 to $374,361, its third-best month of the 2014 election cycle, as the Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Kansas primaries loomed.
Even the group that concentrated its spending most heavily on early Senate losses, the Senate Conservatives Fund saw its fundraising jump by a whopping 46 percent in June, from $604,879 to $886,338, with an expensive loss in Kentucky in the rear-view mirror. In the end, of the $7.6 million the SCF spent on campaigns going into August, more than $5 million went to Senate challengers who eventually lost. Only Ben Sasse, a former Bush aide and telegenic college president, won his primary, coasting to a victory for Nebraska’s open Senate seat by more than 20 points.
Along with Sasse, the biggest conservative victory of the 2014 cycle so far has been Dave Brat, the out-of-nowhere college professor who upset House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia. But of all of the challenger campaigns the groups plowed money into this cycle, Brat’s was not among them. The surprise nominee received no help from the outside groups.
So why would conservatives keep giving money to groups that are losing so spectacularly? Why throw good money after bad? Because winning isn’t the only victory in elections where they never had a chance in the first place. Is an out-of-state, no-name bell maker like Bevin really going to knock off the Senate minority leader? Of course not. But the fact that McConnell had to think about his primary for even a minute, and then adjust his agenda in Washington while he did it, made anyone who gave Matt Bevin $25 feel pretty good.
And if 2014 produces even one or two more Ted Cruzes to throw on the pile, so much the better.
By that measure, where winning is almost irrelevant, it’s easy to see how Ken Cuccinelli, the newest leader of the SCF and former attorney general of Virginia, could tell a room full of activists and donors that they’re getting what they paid for, even if almost none of their candidates won their primaries after nearly two years and millions of dollars, as he did last weekend at the Red State Gathering.
“Some people worry about our batting average,” he told the crowd of activists. “But George Washington lost more battles than he won, and he won the war. And we are not going anywhere. We understand this is a long war, not a short one. We are motivated by principles that the other side can’t even understand.”
To many Republicans’ dismay, the “other side” that Cuccinelli referred to in his speech and that the SCF, FreedomWorks for America, and Clun For Growth Fund have been attacking this year has not been Democrats, but fellow Republicans—especially the incumbent senators leading and being supported by the National Republican Senatorial Committee in Washington, the committee tasked with winning Senate races across the country.
“What is the NRSC? Not allies. We can start there,” Cuccinelli said. “They support power over ideology. Pure and simple.”
Brad Dayspring, communications director for the NRSC, shot back, describing the D.C.-based Super PACs as “cannibal conservatives” looking to personally profit off of Tea Party activists and conservatives across the country, who show no sign of pulling their financial support away from the Super PACs even as the losses mount.
“There are two groups of people who talk about the margins of defeat in any given campaign: political nerds and those who lose,” Dayspring said. “Our job is to win a Senate majority. SCF makes that slightly more difficult by misleading well-intentioned conservatives across the country and recklessly supporting poorly vetted, fringe candidates. But we continue to win in spite of their efforts. Real conservatives despise ineptitude, lack of preparation and wasting money—three qualities that the SCF seems to prioritize.”