Freedom Caucus bruised but unbowed in GOP primary fights

Freedom Caucus bruised but unbowed in GOP primary fights
© Greg Nash

The political arm of the conservative House Freedom Caucus has had a mixed record in the 2018 primaries.

The House Freedom Fund backed two successful candidates: Debbie Lesko of Arizona and Russ Fulcher of Idaho. And the conservative PAC hopes to notch a couple more victories in Tuesday’s runoff elections in Texas.

But it was defeated this spring in four other races where it went head to head with the GOP establishment and the Republican Main Street Partnership, which calls itself the “governing wing” of the GOP.

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The GOP civil war playing out in House primary races across the country isn’t only about Republicans trying to extend their eight-year rein in the House of Representatives.

It’s also a proxy battle over how much influence Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsJordan, Meadows backed by new ads from pro-Trump group: report Trump keeps tight grip on GOP Dems fear Trump is looking at presidential pardons MORE (R-N.C.), Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanJordan, Meadows backed by new ads from pro-Trump group: report Jordan jokes that sport coats inhibit him during heated hearings Attorney previously in contact with Cohen pushes back on pardon narrative to CNN MORE (R-Ohio) and the Freedom Caucus can exert over the House GOP conference next year — and who might lead Republicans after retiring Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanFormer Dem candidate says he faced cultural barriers on the campaign trail because he is working-class Former House candidate and ex-ironworker says there is 'buyer's remorse' for Trump in Midwest Head of top hedge fund association to step down MORE (R-Wis.) steps down.

Ryan has endorsed his top deputy, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyHouse leaders need to modernize Congress for the sake of America Overnight Energy: McConnell tees up vote on Green New Deal | Centrist Dems pitch alternative to plan | House Republican likens Green New Deal to genocide | Coca-Cola reveals it uses 3M tons of plastic every year House GOP lawmaker says Green New Deal is like genocide MORE (R-Calif.), to succeed him. But with the Freedom Caucus — a bloc of roughly 30 conservative bomb throwers — withholding their support, McCarthy can’t secure the 218 GOP votes he needs to be elected Speaker on the House floor.

On Monday, more than 100 conservative leaders sent a letter trying to draft Jordan, the founding chairman of the Freedom Caucus, to challenge McCarthy for Speaker.

Primary results in Ohio and Pennsylvania this month have been encouraging for the leadership-friendly Main Street Partnership, which counts House GOP Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris RodgersCathy McMorris RodgersThe 25 Republicans who defied Trump on emergency declaration GOP pushes back on net neutrality bill at testy hearing Hillicon Valley: Dems renew fight over net neutrality | Zuckerberg vows more 'privacy-focused' Facebook | House Dems focus on diversity in Silicon Valley | FBI chief warns of new disinformation campaigns MORE (R-Wash.) and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve StiversSteven (Steve) Ernst StiversThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Dems aim to end anti-Semitism controversy with vote today Schultz recruiting GOP insiders ahead of possible 2020 bid New push to open banks to marijuana industry MORE (R-Ohio) among its members.

In Ohio’s 12th District, state Sen. Troy Balderson edged local township trustee Melanie Leneghan, who was backed by Jordan and the Freedom Fund, by just 653 votes in the GOP primary to replace former GOP Rep. Pat TiberiPatrick (Pat) Joseph TiberiOhio New Members 2019 Many authors of GOP tax law will not be returning to Congress GOP Rep. Balderson holds onto seat in Ohio MORE, a Main Street ally.

In another Ohio race, former NFL wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez, 33, trounced state Rep. Christina Hagan, 29, in the GOP primary to replace GOP Rep. Jim RenacciJames (Jim) B. RenacciGOP rep: If Mueller had found collusion, ‘investigation would have wrapped up very quickly’ House Ethics Committee extends probe into Renacci Sherrod Brown says he has 'no real timetable' for deciding on 2020 presidential run MORE, who is running for the Senate. Gonzalez was backed by Defending Main Street, while Hagan earned an endorsement from Jordan and the Freedom Fund.

Defending Main Street also proved victorious last week in Pennsylvania’s newly redrawn 14th District, where GOP state Sen. Guy Reschenthaler defeated Freedom-backed state Rep. Rick Saccone.

In Pennsylvania’s redrawn 13th District, establishment favorite John Joyce, an Altoona dermatologist, prevailed in an eight-way GOP primary. He had the backing of Defending Main Street, as well as the man who now holds the seat, retiring Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill ShusterWilliam (Bill) Franklin ShusterFormer GOP chairman Royce joins lobbying shop Lobbying world Crowley, Shuster moving to K Street MORE (R-Pa.), a key leadership ally.

“Everywhere we went head to head with them we have defeated them, which hopefully gets us the best candidates in these districts in Pennsylvania and Ohio for the general election,” said Sarah Chamberlain, president and CEO of the Main Street Partnership.

“Our goal is not anti-Freedom Caucus,” added Chamberlain, who also leads the group’s super PAC, Defending Main Street. “Our goal is to win the seats that are not gerrymandered and make sure Republicans continue to control the House.”

Jordan led the Freedom Caucus when it forced out Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerBoehner says it's Democrats' turn for a Tea Party movement House Republicans find silver lining in minority Alaskan becomes longest serving Republican in House history MORE, a fellow Ohio Republican, in September 2015. In a phone interview Monday, he defended the Freedom Fund’s track record.

“We’ve won lots of races, but, yeah, we’ve lost some, too,” Jordan conceded.

Overall, however, the Freedom Fund has had some key victories, Jordan said, beginning in 2015 with Warren DavidsonWarren Earl DavidsonNew push to open banks to marijuana industry Washington must defend American crypto innovation, not crush it GOP lawmaker unveils bill soliciting private contributions to pay for border wall MORE, who succeeded BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerBoehner says it's Democrats' turn for a Tea Party movement House Republicans find silver lining in minority Alaskan becomes longest serving Republican in House history MORE in Congress and then promptly joined the Freedom Caucus. The fund had helped boost Davidson in a crowded primary, Jordan argued.

In other races, the Freedom Fund has managed to preserve the status quo.

In a 2017 special election primary in South Carolina, Freedom-backed candidate Ralph NormanRalph Warren NormanSouth Carolina New Members 2019 House conservatives want ethics probe into Dems' handling of Kavanaugh allegations Milwaukee County GOP mocks Kavanaugh accusation, says Ginsburg claimed Lincoln 'grabbed my ass' MORE narrowly defeated Chamber of Commerce-backed candidate Tommy Pope in the race to replace former Rep. Mick MulvaneyJohn (Mick) Michael MulvaneyWhite House rejects Dem request for documents on Trump-Putin communications Consumer bureau chief reverses efforts to sideline advisory panels Mulvaney poised to become permanent White House chief of staff: report MORE (R-S.C.). Norman won the seat and joined the Freedom Caucus.

After Rep. Trent FranksHarold (Trent) Trent FranksArizona New Members 2019 Cook shifts 8 House races toward Dems Freedom Caucus members see openings in leadership MORE (R-Ariz.), a vocal Freedom Caucus member, resigned in a scandal, the Freedom leaders quickly endorsed Lesko, a former state senator, at the urging of Freedom Caucus Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.). In the GOP special primary, Lesko defeated her former state Senate colleague, Steve Montenegro, who was embroiled in a sex scandal of his own. She went onto defeat Democrat Hiral Tipirneni, and then pledged to joined the Freedom Caucus that had helped elect her.

The Ohio race between Balderson and Langehan is still gnawing at Jordan, however.

“We went in big for Melanie and we lost by 653 votes. Would have, could have, should have, but I wished we had raised her a little bit more money,” Jordan said in the interview.

The fund and the associated House Freedom Action super PAC technically are independent of Jordan, Meadows and the Freedom Caucus. While Jordan and Meadows can raise money for the fund, they cannot coordinate with it on things like endorsements or where to spend money.

“In Columbus and Washington, the establishment was all in. We were out spent two-and-a-half to one. And we lost by 653 votes," he said.

“There is no substitute for winning,” added Jordan, who despite his frustration said he’d attend a D.C. fundraiser for Balderson later this week. “The fact that we were that close was amazing in and of itself. But I’m still ticked.”

The Texas primary runoff is Tuesday, and the Freedom Fund has endorsed a pair of candidates in the Lone Star State: Chip Roy, a former chief of staff to Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzCNN town halls put network at center of Dem primary The Memo: Trump can't let go of McCain grudge Michael Bennet 'encouraged' in possible presidential bid: report MORE (R-Texas) who is running to replace retiring GOP Rep. Lamar SmithLamar Seeligson SmithFormer GOP chairman Royce joins lobbying shop Comstock joins K Street firm Congress can stop the war on science MORE; and Michael Cloud, who is running to fill the seat vacated by former GOP Rep. Blake FarentholdRandolph (Blake) Blake FarentholdFemale Dems see double standard in Klobuchar accusations Lawmaker seeks to ban ex-members from lobbying until sexual harassment settlements repaid Former Texas lawmaker Blake Farenthold resigns from lobbying job MORE.

Freedom Caucus leaders also like Bunni Pounds, who had worked as campaign manager for Rep. Jeb HensarlingThomas (Jeb) Jeb HensarlingThe next two years of federal housing policy could be positive under Mark Calabria Why Ocasio-Cortez should make flood insurance reform a priority Exiting lawmakers jockey for K Street perch MORE (R-Texas), the man she is now trying to replace. Chamberlain said Main Street is staying out of the Texas races.

“I hope we’re gonna get three out of three," said Jordan, a former college wrestling champ. “It’s like wrestling matches — you wrestle as hard as you can and hope you win. But when you lose, you learn from it and get ready for the next match.”