Mitch McConnell may have neutered the Senate Conservatives Fund.
The organization, founded by former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) to defeat or dragoon the GOP’s old guard into stauncher conservatism, appears to have been silenced.
That’s in line with a warning handed down by the Senate minority leader, who told the SCF after it endorsed his primary challenger, Matt Bevin, that the establishment would “crush [it] everywhere.”
Instead, the group, independent of now-Heritage president DeMint, is spending in small House races and safe Senate primaries in hopes of notching a win.
The SCF’s newfound caution does not, however, indicate that the group has changed its opinions or allegiances. Rather, to remain relevant and to raise money, it is focusing on trying to put a win, even an unimpressive one, on the scoreboard.
This has been made harder by the establishment effort, led by McConnell, to make the group irrelevant this cycle.
While the group probably won’t be completely unsuccessful this year, it has run into walls in some contests.
In Mississippi, where Cochran has long been seen as the incumbent senator most likely to fall in a primary, establishment Republicans fought back early and aggressively. Henry Barbour, a nephew of former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, launched a super-PAC to engage in the race in January, which has aired advertising attacking McDaniel.
And McDaniel’s candidacy has suffered from persistent news reports about controversial comments he made when he was a talk-radio host.
The SCF has been dark in the race since March, with under a month to go until the primary.
In the Kentucky Senate race, the SCF spent nearly a million dollars boosting Bevin’s candidacy. Its campaign against McConnell became particularly nasty, with the group calling McConnell a “bully” in one ad and McConnell’s campaign hitting back with an ad highlighting the SCF’s spending practices.
But Bevin’s campaign was crippled by news reports that outlined apparent exaggerations and what his opponents successfully characterized as hypocrisy in his past, and he was never able to pick up much traction against McConnell.
Now, the SCF has all but abandoned Bevin, and McConnell is expected to cruise to a primary win May 20.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a longtime critic of groups like the SCF, said he expects them to oppose him if he runs again in 2016. But he said what will be different for him, and what’s been different for incumbents this cycle, is they’ve been ready.
“The challengers won’t win [this cycle] because the incumbents were prepared,” he said. “In the case of 2010, we had some incumbents that believed they were somehow entitled.”
McConnell took other steps to limit the SCF’s influence. He’s blacklisted the group’s ad vendor, Jamestown Associates, from working with the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) and warned other consultants they could meet a similar fate if they played ball with the SCF.
The GOP leader and his allies have engaged in a concerted counter-publicity effort to highlight what they see as the hypocrisy of groups like the SCF, noting their own lavish spending practices and times they’ve flip-flopped on issues in tweets and news reports.
Brian Walsh, a former NRSC spokesman and an outspoken critic of groups like SCF, said the group’s safer strategy indicates it’s “finally seeing the writing on the wall.”
“They’re now shifting and desperately trying to have some wins to point to next year,” he added. “Why else would a group called the Senate Conservatives Fund engage in House races?”
And the counter-publicity effort appears to be working: In its most recent Federal Election Commission filing, the SCF revealed it actually spent more than it raised and had just $782,000 cash on hand at the end of March — hardly enough to engage at this juncture in either Mississippi or Kentucky.
SCF Executive Director Matt Hoskins pushed back against the idea that the group is playing it safe in primaries and only engaging in House races to score a point.
“All of our candidates are conservative underdogs and have the odds stacked against them. Our goal is to help elect as many of them as we can,” he said.
But equally revealing are the races where the SCF has endorsed but isn’t playing.
The group hasn’t gone on air in Louisiana, where it’s supporting retired Air Force Colonel Rob Maness over establishment pick Rep. Bill Cassidy (R) in the fight against Sen. Mary Landrieu (D); or in Kansas, where it’s backing radiologist Milton Wolf against Sen. Pat Roberts (R). Even though those are both later primaries, Maness hasn’t managed to eat into Cassidy’s support, and Wolf’s candidacy stalled after news reports revealed he posted patients’ X-rays on his Facebook page and included his own off-color commentary.
The group never weighed in on races in Tennessee and South Carolina, despite launching ads attacking both Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) last fall for refusing to join the push to defund ObamaCare.
It never engaged in the North Carolina and Georgia GOP Senate primaries, where conservatives at one point had an array of credible options and a real shot at notching a victory in a competitive seat.
Instead, the SCF backed Joni Ernst in the Iowa GOP Senate primary, a candidate who’s also drawn establishment backing.
And the SCF is currently spending on ads boosting frontrunner Ben Sasse in Nebraska’s GOP Senate primary next week, a safe seat; and a duo of House races.
One of those races is likely to give the group a win.
And so the SCF, even with its standing diminished, will likely live to see another cycle.
But with under a million cash on hand, Walsh pointed out, the group has few options in its upcoming primaries.
“The problem is,” he said, “that in a final two months of the Kentucky Senate race, they’ll have spent more on their hot tub than Bevin’s candidacy.”