Kibbe: Grassroots trumps big money in ‘new politics’

FreedomWorks is preparing to roll out its 2014 endorsements in the coming weeks, but the group’s president believes some GOP incumbents are already headed for defeat in their primary elections.

In a wide-ranging interview Wednesday with The Hill, the conservative group’s president, Matt Kibbe said he believes one of the biggest to fall will be former National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas). The group has already endorsed his primary challenger, Katrina Pierson.

The grassroots group could also have its eye on the Senate’s top GOP leader. Kibbe indicated the group is looking closely at backing Matt Bevin, Sen. Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellPelosi urges end to Pentagon's clawback of soldier overpayments Coffman’s stance on climate change disingenuous, irresponsible Bill Murray honored with Mark Twain Prize MORE’s (Ky.) primary challenger, and argued McConnell would be weaker than Bevin in the general election against Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D).

McConnell is deeply unpopular in his home state, and repeated polls have shown him running within single digits of — or even behind — his Democratic challenger. Conservatives read those numbers as evidence the senator won’t be able to defeat Lundergan Grimes in a general election fight.

“It’s pretty clear to me that, if Mitch McConnell wins the primary, he’s highly vulnerable in the general, and if you’re worried about saving that seat, you may need to reconsider your premises about who can win,” Kibbe said.

Kibbe also said his group expects to topple Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.); FreedomWorks and other conservative groups have rallied behind state Sen. Chris McDaniel. He also suggested Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), facing four primary challengers, could be vulnerable in a runoff and indicated the group might wait for such a scenario to engage in the race.

FreedomWorks has built a reputation since its 2004 inception for backing conservative insurgents in Republican primaries, much to the chagrin and skeptical eye of many in the GOP establishment. Kibbe said the group is still surveying its supporters on the ground in many races before making final picks.

But Brian Walsh, a GOP strategist and former spokesman at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said the group’s record made it “hard to take [its] predictions seriously,” adding it is “unfortunate” FreedomWorks hasn’t learned any lessons from the last election cycle, when weak candidates who made it through primaries with conservative support cost the party winnable seats.

And he echoed criticism made by other establishment Republicans that FreedomWorks and other conservative groups are engaged in primary fights for profit rather than the benefit of the party.

“I’m sure the purity-for-profit business model is tempting and lucrative, but it does nothing to seriously advance conservative principles and hold the Democrats accountable,” Walsh said. “They should follow the lead of more serious conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity and focus on the Democrats instead of attacking Republicans to raise money so they can cover their exorbitant salaries and Las Vegas hotel bills.”

But one surprising place FreedomWorks doesn’t see a compelling candidate yet is in Georgia, where Kibbe said the group doesn’t have a favorite in an eight-way Republican primary. That race is pitting three Georgia congressmen — Reps. Paul Broun, Phil Gingrey and Jack Kingston — against each other and a handful of local activists, business leaders and politicians, including former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel. The fight has developed into a race to the right, with each candidate jockeying for a more conservative position than the next; both Broun and Gingrey are favorites of conservative groups.

But Kibbe said a confluence of issues — namely ObamaCare, the sluggish economy and revelations the Internal Revenue Service inappropriately targeted applications for tax-exempt status from partisan groups for extra scrutiny — have created a ripe environment to make races competitive for conservatives this cycle.

“Healthcare, No. 1; the economy, No. 2; IRS abuses, No. 3, are the perfect storm — at the margins. So this is an off-year election, and in the primaries, and particularly these red-state Senate fights, where the Democrats currently hold the seats, those are the issues,” he said.

Kibbe was adamant conservatives could win campaigns running on ObamaCare, touting new polling the group conducted late last year as evidence the law is toxic for Democrats and voters have largely moved past the shutdown that was seen as so harmful to conservatives.

The polling, however, has inspired somewhat of a shift for the group — it revealed voters want an alternative to the healthcare law, a finding that has inspired FreedomWorks to launch an effort to crowdsource its own healthcare reform plan.

“If the leadership patches up a plan, which I think they might have a hard time doing, I don’t think it has the credibility that a grassroots plan would,” he said of the effort.

The shift reflects a growing realization within the GOP that the party can’t run merely against ObamaCare — it needs to also offer voters an alternative.

But FreedomWorks and other conservative groups are facing a fight they haven’t had to contend with before: a pushback from business groups, who now say they’re more likely to engage in primaries to defend establishment candidates against conservative challenges.

Conservative groups have been criticized by establishment Republicans, most recently Speaker John Boehner (Ohio), for pushing policy they say is counterproductive for the party.

Kibbe said Boehner’s criticism, which came in December when FreedomWorks and a number of other conservative groups opposed a developing budget deal, could hurt his claim to the Speaker’s gavel.

“I don’t think it was smart for his Speakership, and I wonder if he’s not interviewing for his next job. It strikes me that that was the actions of a short-timer,” he said.

Kibbe said the engagement of some of those establishment actors in primaries could ultimately hurt their preferred candidates.

“I actually think that their endorsement, Karl Rove’s endorsement, in a primary is probably a liability for candidates, and that in the new politics, where grassroots organization and GOTV [get out the vote] trumps television ads and big-dollar contributions, I think we win that fight,” he said.

Still, reports the group was struggling financially last year raise questions about its ability to remain competitive in races this cycle. Kibbe insisted such reports were overblown and said the group’s end-of-year fundraising report will “be comparable to where we were in 2011,” when it brought in about $10 million.

The group has endorsed only two Senate candidates, McDaniel and Shane Osborn, who is running for Nebraska’s open Senate seat; and seven House candidates, including Sessions’s primary challenger.

Kibbe said he’s confident of an upset there.

“That’s going to be a shocker,” he said of Sessions. “He is a creature of Washington, and he’s been there a really long time, and he’s used to not running a campaign.”

And he was confident in the group’s bet on McDaniel as well.

“I think he’s highly vulnerable. I think we’re going to win that primary,” Kibbe said of Cochran.

In South Carolina, Kibbe suggested the group would hold its fire until a runoff. State Sen. Lee Bright, businessman Richard Cash, attorney Bill Connor, and businesswoman and libertarian activist Nancy Mace are all challenging Graham in the primary. If no candidate takes a majority of the vote, the race will head to a runoff.

—This piece was updated at 8:24 p.m.