Lawmakers: Cantor’s $25k controversial donation may come up this week

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) this week may face tough questions from disgruntled rank-and-file GOP lawmakers upset with his $25,000 donation to a group dedicated to ousting incumbents in Congress.

When the House convenes on Monday, it will be the first time that members of the GOP conference will gather since Cantor’s contribution to the anti-incumbent Campaign for Primary Accountability (CPA) became public.

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More than a half dozen Republican lawmakers, stunned by the news of Cantor’s donation, agreed to speak with The Hill on the condition of anonymity to vent their frustration without fear of retribution. The lawmakers interviewed included both younger and senior members of the GOP conference.

One veteran lawmaker, upset with the majority leader’s perceived aggression toward members of his own party, said House GOP members will now fear payback when they speak out or vote against leadership.

“It is a serious breach of trust,” the lawmaker said. “It sends a signal to the rest of us that if we don’t fall 100 percent in line…they will come after you.”

The drama is a continuation of Cantor’s move to take sides in the member vs. member Illinois Republican primary that pitted freshman Adam Kinzinger — Cantor’s pick — vs. 20-year incumbent Don Manzullo.

Cantor sought to curtail potential damage soon before news broke of the Virginia lawmaker’s donation to CPA, which targets incumbents on both sides of the aisle, according to sources familiar with the situation. He called GOP incumbents targeted by CPA to emphasize that his donation was used only for the Kinzinger race.

Kinzinger ended up beating Manzullo, who has publicly ripped Cantor for getting involved in the contest.

Cantor’s contribution has given CPA more credibility and enhanced its reputation. Because of the increased media attention, the super-PAC will likely receive more donors in the coming weeks and months.

Despite the concerns of members, the issue was not broached on a Wednesday conference call with GOP lawmakers, sources said. But lawmakers made clear to The Hill that it is very much on their minds.

Some GOP legislators say the donation from Cantor’s PAC, called Every Republican is Crucial, raises questions about the majority leader’s political judgment.

Cantor’s political consultant, Ray Allen, issued a statement to clarify that the six-term lawmaker does not endorse the other actions of the CPA, which is now targeting Texas incumbents Joe Barton (R), Ralph Hall (R), Silvestre Reyes (D), Eddie Bernice Johnson (D) and Pennsylvania incumbents Tim Murphy (R) and Tim Holden (D).

“On Thursday, March 15, 2012, Leader Cantor was asked by Congressman [Aaron] Schock [R-Ill.] to contribute to an organization that was supporting Adam Kinzinger in the Illinois election of March 20.  EricPAC subsequently made a contribution with the understanding that those funds would be used only in the effort to support Congressman Kinzinger.  Leader Cantor does not support the actions of this organization in any other election,” Allen stated.

The CPA told The Hill that in all likelihood, the Cantor money was spent in the last-stage of the media buys in the race, running anti-Manzullo advertisements or direct mailers.

CPA spokesman Curtis Ellis said it was unclear if Cantor’s check specified whether it was to be spent on the Kinzinger-Manzullo race.

Still, Ellis contends that “that money was spent in the Illinois 16 race. The money came in, we spent it — that’s where those bullets [were] going.”

That answer doesn’t satisfy some Republican lawmakers.

The recent controversy revived bitter feelings on the part of senior lawmakers after Cantor officially backed Kinzinger over Manzullo last month.

At the time of that endorsement, one longtime GOP lawmaker told The Hill that Cantor’s decision was a sign of his desire for support of the younger lawmakers in an attempt to push Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) aside after the 2012 election.

“I think it [was] designed to show Boehner the door after this election…We’ll be reelected in the majority, maybe pick up the Senate, maybe the White House and they say, ‘Thanks John, here’s your watch,” the member said.

Another GOP lawmaker called Cantor’s willingness to cut a check to CPA “a mistake.”

“Eric is afraid of being thrown out with Boehner as two peas in a pod.  Eric may or may not view [House Majority Whip Kevin] McCarthy [R-Calif.] as a potential threat. Eric clearly views time as his enemy in his pursuit of the Speakership,” the legislator said, noting that House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) stock is on the rise.

Eight-term Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), who was a key member in garnering Cantor’s support for Kinzinger, defended Cantor.

“Was it gutsy for Eric to do this? Absolutely, it was gutsy. How do individual members evaluate gutsy? That’s the question. Do they evaluate gutsy as stupid or do they evaluate it as courageous? I would side with courageous,” Shimkus said in an interview with The Hill. 

Though Shimkus was unaware of the particular details surrounding Cantor’s donation to CPA, the Illinois lawmaker said that concerned members should personally seek out the majority leader to discuss the matter with him. 

“I know Eric’s ready, willing, able to talk to anybody ... and they ought to talk to [him],” Shimkus said, emphasizing that Cantor became involved in the race in the wake of his and Schock’s lobbying efforts. 

Shimkus revealed that several weeks ago, he sat down with Cantor, Schock and “12-15 members” to discuss “what we did and why we did it.”

Since that sit down, Shimkus said that he’s talked to a handful of other rank-and-file members upset with the aggressive press for Kinzinger over Manzullo. 

Those meetings happened before the revelations of Cantor’s donation to CPA, which was first reported by Roll Call.

While Cantor’s team stresses the $25,000 donation was just earmarked for the Kinzinger contest, politics is often about perception.

For example, CPA co-founder Leo Linbeck last week said on CNN that “we are delighted that the House leadership of the GOP shares our vision of creating real competition for entrenched incumbents. I mean, that’s so forward thinking of them. You know, this idea that committee chairs and House leadership ought to actually have to compete for the support of their district. We applaud their foresight.”

While the donation to CPA may bolster Cantor’s standing among the 87-member freshman class, it could cost him votes when, and if, he runs for Speaker.