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 MeadowsHouse Republicans dismissive of Paul Ryan's take on Trump The 27 Republicans who voted with Democrats to block Trump from taking military action against Iran Live coverage: House Oversight examines Trump family separation policy MORE (R-N.C.), Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanSocial media summit highlights partisan approaches on tech The 27 Republicans who voted with Democrats to block Trump from taking military action against Iran Live coverage: House Oversight examines Trump family separation policy 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 RyanJuan Williams: GOP in a panic over Mueller House Republicans dismissive of Paul Ryan's take on Trump Amash's critics miss the fact that partisanship is the enemy of compromise MORE (R-Wis.) steps down.

Ryan has endorsed his top deputy, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyThis week: House Dems voting to hold Barr, Ross in contempt Social media summit highlights partisan approaches on tech House Republicans dismissive of Paul Ryan's take on Trump 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 RodgersOvernight Energy: Fight over fuel standards intensifies | Democrats grill Trump officials over rule rollback | California official blasts EPA chief over broken talks | Former EPA official says Wheeler lied to Congress EPA head clashes with California over how car emissions negotiations broke down Lawmakers celebrate 100th anniversary of women getting the right to vote MORE (R-Wash.) and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve StiversSteven (Steve) Ernst StiversOvernight Defense: Woman accusing general of sexual assault willing to testify | Joint Chiefs pick warns against early Afghan withdrawal | Tensions rise after Iran tries to block British tanker House approves amendment to reverse transgender military ban Fed chief: Facebook crypto project poses 'serious concerns' for economy, consumers 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. RenacciMedicare for All won't deliver what Democrats promise GOP rep: If Mueller had found collusion, 'investigation would have wrapped up very quickly' House Ethics Committee extends probe into Renacci 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 ShusterAnti-corruption group hits Congress for ignoring K Street, Capitol Hill 'revolving door' Republicans spend more than million at Trump properties K Street giants scoop up coveted ex-lawmakers 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 BoehnerAmash's critics miss the fact that partisanship is the enemy of compromise A cautionary tale for Justin Amash from someone who knows Border funding bill highlights the problem of 'the Senate keyhole' 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 DavidsonThe 27 Republicans who voted with Democrats to block Trump from taking military action against Iran Conservatives ask Barr to lay out Trump's rationale for census question Democrats push for tougher oversight on student loan market MORE, who succeeded BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerAmash's critics miss the fact that partisanship is the enemy of compromise A cautionary tale for Justin Amash from someone who knows Border funding bill highlights the problem of 'the Senate keyhole' 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 NormanConservatives ask Barr to lay out Trump's rationale for census question Hillicon Valley: White House to host social media summit amid Trump attacks | Pelosi says Congress to get election security briefing in July | Senate GOP blocks election security bill | Pro-Trump forum 'quarantined' by Reddit | Democrats press Zuckerberg Bipartisan House committee members agree on cyber threats to elections, if not how to address it MORE narrowly defeated Chamber of Commerce-backed candidate Tommy Pope in the race to replace former Rep. Mick MulvaneyJohn (Mick) Michael MulvaneyThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - Trump attack on progressive Dems draws sharp rebuke Acosta out as Trump Labor secretary Pelosi reportedly told Trump deputy: 'What was your name, dear?' 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 CruzGOP senators ask for federal investigation into social media companies' decision-making The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - Trump attack on progressive Dems draws sharp rebuke Ted Cruz blasts Tennessee GOP governor for declaration honoring early KKK leader MORE (R-Texas) who is running to replace retiring GOP Rep. Lamar SmithLamar Seeligson SmithAnti-corruption group hits Congress for ignoring K Street, Capitol Hill 'revolving door' K Street giants scoop up coveted ex-lawmakers Ex-GOP Rep. Denham heads to lobbying firm MORE; and Michael Cloud, who is running to fill the seat vacated by former GOP Rep. Blake FarentholdRandolph (Blake) Blake FarentholdMembers spar over sexual harassment training deadline Female Dems see double standard in Klobuchar accusations Lawmaker seeks to ban ex-members from lobbying until sexual harassment settlements repaid MORE.

Freedom Caucus leaders also like Bunni Pounds, who had worked as campaign manager for Rep. Jeb HensarlingThomas (Jeb) Jeb HensarlingHas Congress lost the ability or the will to pass a unanimous bipartisan small business bill? Maxine Waters is the Wall Street sheriff the people deserve Ex-GOP congressman heads to investment bank 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.”