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 MeadowsGraham to renew call for second special counsel Hillicon Valley: Sanders finds perfect target in Amazon | Cyberattacks are new fear 17 years after 9/11 | Firm outs alleged British Airways hackers | Trump to target election interference with sanctions | Apple creating portal for police data requests Graham: Obama, not Trump, politicized DOJ and FBI MORE (R-N.C.), Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanJordan says FBI used 'crushing power of the state' to probe Trump campaign based on dossier GOP lawmakers nearing deal to get Nellie Ohr to testify The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — Kavanaugh confirmation in sudden turmoil 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 RyanPelosi calls on Ryan to bring long-term Violence Against Women Act to floor Juan Williams: America warms up to socialism Jordan hits campaign trail amid bid for Speaker MORE (R-Wis.) steps down.

Ryan has endorsed his top deputy, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyThe Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — Kavanaugh confirmation in sudden turmoil GOP: The economy will shield us from blue wave Jordan hits campaign trail amid bid for Speaker 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 RodgersGOP: The economy will shield us from blue wave Jordan hits campaign trail amid bid for Speaker Conservatives blame McCarthy for Twitter getting before favorable committee MORE (R-Wash.) and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve StiversSteven (Steve) Ernst StiversHouse Dem campaign chief presses GOP on banning use of hacked materials Trump is wrong, Dems are fighting to save Medicare and Social Security Hillicon Valley: Ex-Trump campaign adviser gets 14 days in jail | Tesla stocks fall after Elon Musk smokes weed on video | Dem, GOP talks over hacked info break down | Russian extradited over massive financial hack | Whole Foods workers trying to unionize 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 TiberiAP: Balderson wins hotly contested Ohio special election House Dems to invest in South Carolina race Ohio Dem candidate knocks Trump: He doesn’t know what he’s talking about 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. RenacciDark money group targets Brown over previous domestic violence claim The Hill's Morning Report: Trump’s allies turn against him The Hill's Morning Report — Trump’s GOP feuds dominate ahead of midterms 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 ShusterHouse and Senate negotiators reach agreement on water infrastructure bill Congress, states and cities are not doing enough today to fix our infrastructure It’s high time for a discussion on infrastructure 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 BoehnerJordan hits campaign trail amid bid for Speaker GOP senator says he 'regularly' considers leaving Republican Party Republicans mull new punishments for dissident lawmakers 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 DavidsonFreedom Caucus ponders weakened future in minority Congress must provide a check on harmful tariffs Stop the tariff madness MORE, who succeeded BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerJordan hits campaign trail amid bid for Speaker GOP senator says he 'regularly' considers leaving Republican Party Republicans mull new punishments for dissident lawmakers 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 NormanHouse conservatives criticize media, not Trump, for Putin furor Races to watch in Tuesday’s primaries Dem wins South Carolina congressional primary despite abuse revelation MORE narrowly defeated Chamber of Commerce-backed candidate Tommy Pope in the race to replace former Rep. Mick MulvaneyJohn (Mick) Michael MulvaneyFinancial policymakers must be suffering from amnesia On The Money: Broad coalition unites against Trump tariffs | Senate confirms new IRS chief | Median household income rose for third straight year in 2017 | Jamie Dimon's brief battle with Trump Eight weeks out: Dems see narrow path to Senate majority MORE (R-S.C.). Norman won the seat and joined the Freedom Caucus.

After Rep. Trent FranksHarold (Trent) Trent FranksFreedom Caucus members see openings in leadership AP Analysis: 25 state lawmakers running in 2018 have been accused of sexual misconduct Jordan weathering political storm, but headwinds remain 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 CruzGrassley agrees to second Kavanaugh hearing after GOP members revolt FEC: Cruz campaign didn't violate rules with fundraising letter labeled ‘summons’ Cruz criticizes O'Rourke on Dallas shooting: Wish he wasn't 'so quick to always blame the police officer' MORE (R-Texas) who is running to replace retiring GOP Rep. Lamar SmithLamar Seeligson SmithReport on new threats targeting our elections should serve as a wake-up call to public, policymakers Overnight Energy: Watchdog faults EPA over Pruitt security costs | Court walks back order on enforcing chemical plant rule | IG office to probe truck pollution study St. Louis prosecutor refusing to take criminal cases from over two dozen police officers MORE; and Michael Cloud, who is running to fill the seat vacated by former GOP Rep. Blake FarentholdRandolph (Blake) Blake FarentholdAP Analysis: 25 state lawmakers running in 2018 have been accused of sexual misconduct Ex-lawmakers see tough job market with trade groups Republican wins right to replace Farenthold in Congress MORE.

Freedom Caucus leaders also like Bunni Pounds, who had worked as campaign manager for Rep. Jeb HensarlingThomas (Jeb) Jeb HensarlingKavanaugh hires attorney amid sexual assault allegations: report Did Congress just settle for less than best plan to reform housing finance? The White House can — and should — bypass Congress to kill Obama-era spending 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.”