Conservatives warn leadership to stay out of Ohio GOP primary

Greg Nash

Conservative leaders are warning Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to stay out of next week’s Republican primary for an Ohio special election and other similar races across the country.

While Ryan and McCarthy have personally steered clear of the Ohio race, their vast network of political allies, donors, strategists and ad-makers are aggressively working to elect Troy Balderson, the business-friendly state senator who’s backed by what many call the “governing” wing of the GOP.


House Freedom Caucus leaders are solidly behind Melanie Leneghan, a Liberty County trustee.

“We have great concerns that we once again have a battle between leadership and conservative members,” said one conservative lawmaker who’s been closely monitoring the race.

Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) both have endorsed Leneghan, and their PAC, the House Freedom Action Fund, has spent more than $225,000 in ads and mailers backing Leneghan.

Club for Growth Action, the political arm for the conservative outside group Club for Growth, went up with $190,000 in ads, one bashing Balderson as a “fake Republican.”

On the other side, former Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-Ohio), an ally of the House GOP leadership, has endorsed Balderson and dumped nearly $450,000 from his own campaign coffers to help elect the state lawmaker to his old central Ohio congressional seat.

Defending Main Street, the political arm of the Republican Main Street Partnership, also has gone in big for Balderson, buying $250,000 in TV ads to support him. Main Street Partnership’s members include Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), chairman of the House GOP’s campaign arm, the National Congressional Campaign Committee, though Stivers insisted he’s stayed neutral in Tuesday’s primary.

The primary fight represents yet another proxy battle in the larger war between the GOP establishment and conservative outsiders. And Tuesday’s outcome could have greater implications for the race to succeed Ryan as Speaker of the House.

The Freedom Caucus, a band of 30 conservative hard-liners led by Meadows and Jordan, will have the power to block or veto any nominee for Speaker should Republicans hold the majority this November.

The caucus’s hand would only be strengthened if Leneghan is elected and joins the conservative group. Such a scenario could create additional headaches for McCarthy, the No. 2 GOP leader whom Ryan has already endorsed for Speaker.

A Ryan campaign aide said it’s the Speaker’s policy not to get involved in GOP primaries, a position echoed by officials with the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC linked to Ryan. And McCarthy recently told The Hill he hasn’t been paying very close attention to the Ohio race.

“I haven’t given money; I don’t even know the candidates,” McCarthy told The Hill. “I am concerned we have so many candidates. It’s always a competitive race there [in Ohio’s 12th District]. So we want the strongest person to win the primary.”

A number of Republicans believe that if Leneghan emerges as the GOP candidate, she could cost the party a seat.

Stivers, who’s leading GOP efforts to protect the House majority this cycle, said he does not have a preference for any of the dozen primary candidates in the Ohio special election but described one as “concerning.”

“There are some really good candidates and there is at least one concerning candidate. We’ll see how it goes,” Stivers told The Hill, without elaborating or naming Leneghan.

Given the large number of GOP candidates in the race, someone could win the primary with just 18 to 20 percent, Ohio sources said.

“It appears to be pretty wide open,” said Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio), a member of the Republican Main Street Caucus who is staying neutral in the primary.

Wealthy Ohio GOP donor Karen Buchwald Wright, who has sent hundreds of thousands of dollars to leadership-friendly groups, last month donated $100,000 to a mysterious super PAC — Fund for a Working Congress — that is running ads in favor of Balderson.

Wright, president and CEO of gas-compressor manufacturer Ariel Corp., could not be reached for comment. But she recently wrote a $185,000 check to McCarthy and Vice President Pence’s joint fundraising operation, Protect the House, and another $100,000 check to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, campaign finance records show.

The leadership web extends further: Friends of Tiberi and the Fund for a Working Congress are working closely with two vendors — Majority Strategies and Strategic Media Placement — that the Congressional Leadership Fund paid more than $5 million to last year for campaign work on a special election in Georgia, records reveal.

Officials with the super PAC said it has 31 field offices and works with dozens of vendors across the country but has no control over other clients that may hire these vendors.

Because of current campaign finance laws, it’s difficult to know who is behind some of the super PACs backing Balderson. In addition to Wright, a super PAC called American Policy Coalition also gave $83,000 this cycle to Fund for a Working Congress, the group running ads promoting Balderson and attacking Leneghan.

“We don’t know if there is leadership engagement but there are super PACs in the leadership political organization that are supporting Balderson,” explained David McIntosh, a former Indiana GOP congressman who is now the president of Club for Growth.

“My message to the leadership has been: We need to energize the base of the party, so stay out of these primaries so we can have everyone rowing in the same direction in the fall,” McIntosh added. “The leadership would be smart to avoid these primaries and focus on keeping the majority.”

The Kentucky-based American Policy Coalition also contributed $362,000 this cycle to another PAC, Americans United for Values, which has spent $30,000 in recent days on mailers attacking Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), a Freedom Caucus ally, ahead of his tough primary on Tuesday.

One of the mailers, obtained by The Hill, includes the edited images of Jones and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) with the headline “Two’s Company.”

Americans United for Values also ran ads opposing conservative Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) in a special election primary last year. Norman ended up winning the seat — and joining the Freedom Caucus.

What’s peculiar is that Americans United for Values received an $85,000 contribution from the Congressional Leadership Fund during the 2016 campaign cycle, according to campaign records.

Staffers say there was a turnover in the entire leadership and communications team this cycle and that they don’t know anything about why the super PAC would donate to a group that’s now trying to take out Freedom Caucus allies.

“CLF does not and will not get involved in Republican primaries,” spokeswoman Courtney Alexander said. “That has always been our policy.” 

Tags David Joyce Jim Jordan Kevin McCarthy Mark Meadows Nancy Pelosi Pat Tiberi Paul Ryan Ralph Norman Steve Stivers Walter Jones

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