Throughout the month of August conservatives by the hundreds of thousands went to the “Don’t Fund Obamacare” web site to sign a petition telling Congress not to fund the president’s signature health care law. Visitors to the Don’t Fund site were then encouraged to donate to the Senate Conservatives Fund, the political action committee originally launched by former senator Jim DeMint. Donations flooded in from across the country, often in $5 and $10 increments from retirees, teachers, and homemakers.
The result for the SCF has been more than two million signatures on its petition and more than $1.5 million in donations in August alone. In turn, the SCF has used the money both to run a broad campaign against sitting Republican senators who have been deemed insufficiently conservative, as well as to finance exactly the sort of well-connected, inside-the-Beltway operation that grassroots activists so often complain about.
The finer points of SCF’s operations are detailed in its monthly FEC disclosure reports, which show the group spent more than $3.8 million in 2013, raised more than $3.5 million, and finished the last quarter with more than $800,000 in cash reserves. The reports also show a number of expenses that have raised eyebrows among some conservatives, including cash outlays for interior decorating, car services, and rent in Washington’s pricey Capitol Hill neighborhood.
Specifically, SCF paid $32,000 for painting, furniture, and interior design services to Haddon Interiors, a Washington, D.C. interior design firm that bills itself as a “a boutique interior design firm specializing in luxury interiors.” SCF also paid $46,000 for rent in a Capitol Hill row house this year, $2,700 for maid service, $626 to the town car service, Uber, $3,900 to Bang & Olufsen and $658 to Sports Authority, both listed as expenses for office supplies. SCF also spent more than $800 at the Monocle, the legendary Washington bar and restaurant in the shadow of the Senate, and $1,100 at Taylor Gourmet, the same sandwich shop where President Obama took Joe Biden for subs in the first days of the government shutdown.
Beyond its operating expenses, the SCF used much of its money in 2013 to pay for the very type of high-dollar consultants and pollsters that grassroots activists vocally lament. For example, SCF paid $105,000 to Basswood Research, a Republican polling firm that also conducts polls for the conservative Club for Growth. In addition to its pollsters, SCF paid $96,000 to BOLD Colors, LLC, the strategic consulting firm of Matt Hoskins, SCF’s executive director and a former top adviser to DeMint. BOLD Colors also includes Senate Conservatives Action, the super PAC affiliated with SCF, as a client for $6,000 per month. A second former DeMint staffer, Tom Jones, runs 339 Group, a strategic consulting firm that SCF has paid $18,000 this year and Senate Conservatives Action also has on its payroll.
The largest item on the SCF’s balance sheet was also its most controversial—$1.6 million to Rapid Response Television, a Texas-based media firm at the center of SCF’s the massive, multi-media ad campaign to defund Obamacare. In the months before the government shutdown, the campaign targeted Republican senators whom SCF described as “voting for Obamacare,” when those senators had in fact voted against Obamacare but not shown an appetite for pushing for a government shutdown to defund the law. Senators like Lamar Alexander, Jeff Flake, and Richard Burr saw television ads in their own states chastising them for failing to stand up for against the health care law and, in some cases, had to run ads of their own to respond.
Although SCF recently announced new ads hitting Democratic senators over the government shutdown, the bulk of its time and money has focused on Republicans. The August ads have left GOP senators furious with both DeMint and Sen. Ted Cruz, who starred in a number of SCF ads. At a recent senators-only meeting, Republicans lambasted Cruz for getting them embroiled in a government shutdown, but having no plan to get them out of it. Many were also livid with Cruz for working with the SCF when the group had attacked so many of the senators in the room.
“Isn’t it interesting that every dollar that is spent [attacking] good conservative Republicans … is a dollar that isn’t spent on winning the majority?” Sen. Tom Coburn recently vented to Politico. “If your strategy is to think that you can get 60 hard-core conservative senators in this country, I don’t think it works.”
Coburn’s statement makes the assumption that a strategy exists somewhere behind the ads and the polls and the money and the outrage. But as SCF has demonstrated, who needs a strategy in Washington these days when anger is more lucrative than accomplishment and every incentive in the American political system today lies in profiting off of problems instead of solving them?