Establishment Republicans are opening a new front in their fight against conservative grassroots groups, challenging their self-styled image as defenders of freedom and the Constitution.
Amid growing fears the Republican brand is being damaged by the groups’ no-compromise crusading, GOP strategists are casting the conservative organizations as driven more by profit motive than ideological purity.
In particular, the party’s establishment is aiming at the Club for Growth, Madison Project, Heritage Action and the Senate Conservatives Fund, all of which have either bucked the GOP’s congressional leadership, aired ads attacking incumbent lawmakers or supported primary challengers.
“There are plenty of outside groups involved (in campaigns) because of specific issues or specific candidates that do it for totally upfront and honest reasons, but I don’t think that’s the case with all groups,” said Billy Piper, a GOP lobbyist and a leading voice in the movement against the conservative groups.
He called the Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF), a group backing primary challengers to Sens. Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Thad Cochran (Miss.), “the poster child for disingenuous behavior.”
“They back candidates not based on ideology or party position, but to either be contrarian or cause trouble, because that puts money in the bank account,” Piper said.
Republican strategist John Feehery, an outspoken critic of the groups, said “it’s not like [these outside groups] represent an issue or interest group.”
Feehery, a columnist for The Hill, said groups like the SCF “are seeming to try to determine what is conservative.”
“But who decides that? Matt Hoskins?” said Feehery, in reference to the executive director of SCF.
Brian Walsh, former communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said the groups’ self interest became painfully apparent when they campaigned to shut down the government as a way to defund ObamaCare.
“Some of these groups, it’s not about advancing conservative principles, it’s about raising money and advancing their own influence in Washington — particularly when you see them endorsing a strategy that could’ve collapsed our economy,” Walsh said.
Walsh, Feehery and Piper note that the leaders of two prominent groups — former Rep. Jim Ryun of the Madison Project and former Rep. Chris Chocola of Club for Growth — supported earmarks during their time in Congress. To now question the conservative credentials of others, they contend, is the epitome of hypocrisy.
Spokesmen for the groups dismissed criticism.
“People donate to SCF because they believe in our mission and they know it takes money to win these fights,” Hoskins said. “We’re very open with people about what we do. It’s spelled out in our name. We’re the Senate Conservatives Fund. We raise money to make the Senate more conservative.”
He added, “The fact that these Washington insiders are upset with us is proof that we’re making a difference.”
Barney Keller, a spokesman for the Club for Growth, was also dismissive.
“We only care about advancing pro-growth policy and not what some former staffer for Bob Ney thinks about us,” he said, a reference to Walsh, who served as spokesman for the former Ohio congressman and was convicted on corruption charges in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.
Drew Ryun, political director of the Madison Project, said his father — the group’s chairman, Jim Ryun — began to fight against earmarks in Congress after he realized they were being abused.
“My dad largely requested earmarks for the military bases in his district. He served in Congress long enough to witness the abuses of earmarks and ... when corruption was exposed, he was one of the early members to oppose them,” he said.
Concerns about the influence of outside groups escalated after the 2012 election. Establishment Republicans believe controversial conservative candidates like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock cost the GOP winnable Senate seats.
They fear a repeat in 2014.
Jesse Benton, McConnell’s campaign manager, earlier this year said “there are few organizations in American politics more responsible for the Democratic Majority in the U.S. Senate, and thus the continued existence of ObamaCare, than the Senate Conservatives Fund.”
Walsh and Feehery said it’s vital other wings of the Republican party — particularly business leaders — get active in races to curb the influence of conservative groups.
“Fundamentally, it needs to be a grassroots effort in individual districts,” Walsh said. “The Chamber of Commerce is based in Washington, but they represent millions. They need to be talking to their members, and there needs to be an educational effort at home.”