Conservatives are seething after an outside group aligned with Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerLobbyists bounce back under Trump Business groups silent on Trump's Ex-Im nominee Chaffetz won't run for reelection MORE (R-Ohio) spent hundreds of thousands of dollars targeting a trio of Republican lawmakers over threats to shut down the Department of Homeland Security.
Tea Party Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) equated the attack ads to GOP “cannibalism,” while his conservative colleague Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) called them a “stupid” tactic that would backfire.
The campaign also included national ads on conservative talk radio, including shows hosted by Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, and on digital ads in the district of nine other House Republicans.
The non-election year ad buy was a shot across the bow to the newly formed House Freedom Caucus, a bloc of nearly 40 conservative rebels led by Jordan who refused to compromise on a DHS funding bill that didn’t include defunding of President Obama’s executive actions on immigration.
Boehner has done his best to distance himself from the AAN ads. His spokesman Kevin Smith pointed out that members of Congress are prohibited by law from coordinating with outside political groups like AAN and added that the Speaker does not think these ads attacking fellow Republicans are “appropriate and “strongly believes in Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment.”
But that did little to mollify conservative hardliners who see the Speaker’s fingerprints all over the ad campaign.
Aside from Boehner’s ex-chief, the AAN board is loaded with GOP establishment allies, including former Republican National Committee chief of staff Mike Shields; Fred Malek, a former aide to Presidents Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush; former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) and former Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.).
“It looks like cannibalism by leadership to me. I mean, when you go after your own people, what else would you call that?” said King, one of the most vocal advocates for defunding President Obama’s executive actions on immigration.
“These are Republican resources. They're being used against Republicans? And then he wants unity?” the Iowa Republican asked incredulously of Boehner.
GOP leaders, with Democratic help, eventually passed a clean funding bill avoiding a shutdown.
But conservatives argued that they had not only weathered the attacks — they’ve emerged stronger, receiving hundreds of phone calls and thousands in donations from conservatives supporting their stand.
These ads “made heroes out of the guys they were attacking,” said Bridenstine spokeswoman Sheryl Kaufman.
At least one group, the Senate Conservatives Fund, has raised more than $90,000 for Huelskamp, Bridenstine and Jordan in response to the AAN campaign.
And Salmon, a perennial thorn in Boehner’s side, said the AAN campaign did little more than infuriate conservatives who were already fuming at the Speaker for caving.
“It’s kind of like taking someone who’s beating you in a boxing match and throwing something in their eyes just to piss them off. It didn’t accomplish anything except to make people angry,” the Arizona Republican told The Hill in an interview.
“It just seems stupid. Stupid politically. A gratuitous slap in the face with no real point.”
But other GOP sources said the howls from conservatives about intraparty warfare were highly hypocritical. The Club for Growth has financed numerous primary challenges against sitting GOP members. And SCF launched a campaign to try to oust Boehner from power in January.
AAN spokesman Dan Conston was unapologetic about the ads and wouldn’t rule out running more ads against fellow Republicans in upcoming fiscal fights to back “center-right policies.”
Other recent AAN ads haven’t been negative. After Congress passed the bill averting a DHS shutdown, the nonprofit spent $525,000 in ads thanking GOP lawmakers for voting for the $40 billion package. And the group recently launched a new campaign urging members to pass the fiscal 2016 GOP budget authored by Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.).
“This was all about tactics. We are all conservatives who believe that the Obama administration’s executive order is unconstitutional and we were all looking for the best way to keep DHS open while fighting Obama in the courts,” Conston said.
American Action Network is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that doesn't have to publicly disclose its donors. But according to OpenSecrets.org, some of its biggest donors include the American Petroleum Institute; Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America; and the Karl Rove-affiliated Crossroads GPS.
The DHS ads, however, only reinforced conservatives’ dim view and distrust of GOP leadership and the establishment.
Huelskamp even claimed that Boehner avoided eye contact when they passed on the House floor the day the ads were announced.
“He just walked by, he didn't have a comment. 'Cause I was waiting to ask him about it,” Huelskamp said. “In Kansas, we wouldn't do that. In my family, if you've got a problem with someone, you have the wherewithal to take it up with them.”
GOP leadership’s retaliation may not just extend to the ads. King said he received a notice from the Speaker’s office that his approval for a trip to Egypt this month to meet with the country’s president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, had been revoked — just hours before his flight was set to depart. No other lawmaker on the congressional delegation received the same cancellation notice.
He ended up going on the trip anyway using his own money and “literally reached into my kids’ inheritance.”
By now, King, who’s led the charge against many leadership initiatives, doesn’t see much use in trying to confront Boehner about it in person.
“At some point, what is the point? Private conversations don't count for much sometimes when you've got that kind of thing going on. You might as well just have a conversation through the press,” King told The Hill.
The Speaker’s office declined to comment. But top Republican aides said King shouldn’t expect any more federally funded travel.
“Members earn the right to go on taxpayer-funded travel. Those rewards aren’t going to be handed out to members who oppose the broader GOP team on a regular basis, especially those who’ve previously asked the leaders to bail them out to keep their seat,” a House GOP leadership aide said, referring to campaign committee help King got in his tough 2012 reelection.
Other conservatives haven’t been targeted, but they’re still sounding off about what they see as unfair attacks on members who are voting their conscience.
“Why are we up here? Are we up here to be puppets for special interests and the Speaker of the House?” a furious Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) said just outside the Speaker’s lobby. “We’re not puppets!”