GOP super-PAC promises big spending in 2018

GOP super-PAC promises big spending in 2018
© Keren Carrion

A super PAC with ties to the House GOP leadership that helped carry Republicans to victory in four competitive special elections this year has even bigger plans for 2018.

With the House majority on the line, the Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF) plans to raise and spend $100 million to boost House campaigns during the midterms.

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The CLF has been a major power broker in House campaigns this year, sending more than $10 million into the four special elections to fill open seats created by President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Democrat slams Donald Trump Jr. for ‘serious case of amnesia’ after testimony Skier Lindsey Vonn: I don’t want to represent Trump at Olympics Poll: 4 in 10 Republicans think senior Trump advisers had improper dealings with Russia MORE’s Cabinet nominations. The biggest prize came on June 20, when Republicans held on to a Georgia House seat amid massive spending from both sides.

The super PAC has been seen as an informal ally of House leadership ever since it was started in 2011 by top allies to then-Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerJohn Feehery: A political forest fire Trump's pick for Federal Reserve chief is right choice at right time The two-party system is dying — let’s put it out of its misery MORE (R-Ohio). While lawmakers and campaign committees can’t coordinate spending with super PACs, it’s understood that the CLF is the preferred political action committee of leadership thanks to its shared goals of protecting and growing the majority.

The CLF, helmed by GOP campaign veteran Corry Bliss, plans to replicate its winning strategy next year. Bliss’s group shows no signs of slowing down, with an extensive ground operation already in full swing and a planned nine-figure investment to help defend the GOP’s 24-seat majority.

A president’s party typically loses seats in the midterms, but Bliss believes his group has found the messaging to stave off that historic trend. Bliss points to the recent special election wins as proof that the GOP can hang on to its majority.

While Bliss cautions against leaning too heavily on the special elections when handicapping 2018, he says the GOP already has a successful message: comparing House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees House Republican: 'I worry about both sides' of the aisle on DACA Overnight Health Care: 3.6M signed up for ObamaCare in first month | Ryan pledges 'entitlement reform' next year | Dems push for more money to fight opioids MORE (R-Wis.).

“One thing that does matter that we did learn, and we proved that it works in term of messaging, [is] the Pelosi-Ryan contrast. That is a contrast that works all across the country,” Bliss told The Hill.

The CLF was the first major outside group to wade into the race for Georgia’s 6th District, putting a $7 million investment into an early attempt to define Democrat Jon Ossoff. Bliss said he was responding to the energy among the Democratic base and Ossoff’s high-dollar fundraising, which amounted to an eye-popping $23 million by the end of the race.

The group had a similar approach in Montana’s special election, running attack ads early against Democrat Rob Quist just one day after he won his party’s nomination. The CLF made modest investments in lower-profile special elections in Kansas and South Carolina, spending a combined $100,000. Republicans won all three of those races.

The CLF was behind the sharp-edged ads that linked the Democratic candidates to Pelosi, arguing that Democratic candidates would rubber-stamp Pelosi’s agenda. That messaging was motivated in large part by the group’s internal data, which found Pelosi with a negative favorability rating.

The ads helped power Republican Karen Handel to victory in Georgia by nearly 4 points, blowing out expectations that the race would be much closer.

The CLF released a memo on Tuesday that showed polling conducted in the last two months from 11 competitive districts where Pelosi has a negative favorability rating.

But Pelosi spokesman Jorge Aguilar pushed back on CLF’s polling, saying there’s “no evidence to suggest this strategy works.”

“If anything, this memo shows Republicans are on defense,” Aguilar said. “Desperation is not a strategy and Republicans will not be able to spend $25 million on each and every seat.”

Bliss says his group will only amplify those attacks in 2018 campaigns.

“In both races, we rang the alarm bell first. We were the first to go in both and attack Quist and Ossoff and tie them to Nancy Pelosi,” Bliss said.

“Nancy Pelosi will be front and center in the millions of dollars we’re going to spend over the next two years across the country.”

Bliss is most proud of the CLF’s ground game in Georgia, an area of campaigns that he said super PACs typically don’t focus on. The CLF spent nearly $2 million on canvassing, mail and digital efforts in the Georgia race.

The CLF didn’t endorse in April’s all-party “jungle” primary, where Handel was one of 11 Republicans running. Instead, the super PAC concentrated on 100,000 of the most conservative Republicans in the suburban Atlanta district and urged them to vote against Ossoff.

After Ossoff came within less than 2 points of winning an outright majority, instead advancing to the June runoff along with Handel, the CLF shifted its strategy to a “totally different universe” and looked to cut Ossoff’s lead in early voting. The group focused on 70,000 “soft Republican” voters who don’t always cast a vote, as well as 38,000 Republicans who voted in the 2016 elections but didn’t cast a ballot in the April primary.

Bliss joined the CLF fresh off managing the vaunted reelection race for Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Overnight Finance: House approves motion to go to tax conference — with drama | GOP leaders to consider Dec. 30 spending bill | Justices skeptical of ban on sports betting | Mulvaney won't fire official who sued him How four GOP senators guided a tax-bill victory behind the scenes MORE (R-Ohio), who won by an astounding 21 points in 2016. He’s managed several other Senate campaigns, including Handel’s failed 2014 Senate bid.

As the CLF takes a victory lap, the super PAC has already started to prepare to expand its ground game nationwide.

The group has opened 12 field offices, including four in California, two in Florida and two in New York. The CLF has done at least one survey in each of these districts while volunteers are already barnstorming the area with door-knocking efforts every night, according to Bliss.

The CLF will open two new offices every month, with an overall goal of having 20 to 30 offices across the country in districts with vulnerable GOP incumbents or potential Republican opportunities.

Both parties’ emphasis on California reflects how critical the state will be in 2018, with the House majority hanging in the balance. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), House Democrats’ campaign arm, also has an office in the Golden State that is focused on a handful of GOP-held districts won by Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGrassley blasts Democrats over unwillingness to probe Clinton GOP lawmakers cite new allegations of political bias in FBI Top intel Dem: Trump Jr. refused to answer questions about Trump Tower discussions with father MORE in the 2016 presidential election.

Even after the disappointing defeat in Georgia, Democrats are going into the 2018 cycle optimistic. Shortly after Ossoff’s defeat, DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Luján (N.M.) declared that the House was in play.

The DCCC said its polling and data show that Democrats can compete in districts that will be easier targets than the special election seats they failed to win.

“These districts for the specials are Donald Trump’s handpicked districts,” Dan Sena, DCCC executive director, said of the special election races on a recent call with reporters.

“These are the districts that should have never been in play to begin with. We have forced the Republicans to spend north of $23 million to defend them.”

But Bliss doesn’t see it that way. He said Republicans were heavily outspent in Georgia and still managed to stave off defeat.

“We only have one mission statement at CLF and that’s to protect and expand the majority,” Bliss said. “That’s our goal.”

Updated at 11:46 a.m.