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 MeadowsOvernight Health Care: Trump vows to veto bills expanding abortion rights | Abortion foes march into divided Washington | Medicaid work requirements approved in Arizona Abortion foes march into divided Washington McCarthy, allies retaliate against Freedom Caucus leader MORE (R-N.C.), Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanMcCarthy, allies retaliate against Freedom Caucus leader Republicans request update on investigation into ex-FBI official accused of leaks GOP lawmakers rip Dems for calling Cohen to testify 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 RyanAEI names Robert Doar as new president GOP can't excommunicate King and ignore Trump playing to white supremacy and racism House vote fails to quell storm surrounding Steve King MORE (R-Wis.) steps down.

Ryan has endorsed his top deputy, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthySteve King fundraising off controversy surrounding white supremacy comments House rejects GOP measure to pay workers but not open government McCarthy, allies retaliate against Freedom Caucus leader 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 RodgersHillicon Valley: Republicans demand answers from mobile carriers on data practices | Top carriers to stop selling location data | DOJ probing Huawei | T-Mobile execs stayed at Trump hotel as merger awaited approval House Republicans question mobile carriers on data practices Washington governor announces killer whale recovery plan MORE (R-Wash.) and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve StiversSteven (Steve) Ernst StiversHouse vote fails to quell storm surrounding Steve King House passes resolution condemning white nationalism House Democrats offer measures to censure Steve King 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 ShusterExiting lawmakers jockey for K Street perch GOP struggles to win votes for Trump’s B wall demand House and Senate negotiators reach agreement on water infrastructure bill 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 BoehnerBreaking the impasse on shutdown, border security McCarthy, allies retaliate against Freedom Caucus leader House vote fails to quell storm surrounding Steve King 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 DavidsonWashington must defend American crypto innovation, not crush it GOP lawmaker unveils bill soliciting private contributions to pay for border wall Fractious GOP vows to unify in House minority MORE, who succeeded BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerBreaking the impasse on shutdown, border security McCarthy, allies retaliate against Freedom Caucus leader House vote fails to quell storm surrounding Steve King 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 MulvaneyOn The Money: Trump teases 'major announcement' Saturday on shutdown | Fight with Dems intensifies | Pelosi accuses Trump of leaking trip to Afghanistan | Mnuchin refuses to testify on shutdown impacts The Hill's Morning Report — Shutdown fallout — economic distress On The Money: Shutdown Day 26 | Pelosi calls on Trump to delay State of the Union | Cites 'security concerns' | DHS chief says they can handle security | Waters lays out agenda | Senate rejects effort to block Trump on Russia sanctions 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 CruzGroup aiming to draft Beto O’Rourke unveils first 2020 video Howard Dean looking for a 'younger, newer' Democratic nominee in 2020 Congress can stop the war on science MORE (R-Texas) who is running to replace retiring GOP Rep. Lamar SmithLamar Seeligson SmithCongress can stop the war on science Yoder, Messer land on K Street Ex-GOP lawmaker from Washington joins lobbying firm MORE; and Michael Cloud, who is running to fill the seat vacated by former GOP Rep. Blake FarentholdRandolph (Blake) Blake FarentholdFormer Texas lawmaker Blake Farenthold resigns from lobbying job Congress sends bill overhauling sexual harassment policy to Trump's desk Senate approves bill reforming Congress's sexual harassment policy MORE.

Freedom Caucus leaders also like Bunni Pounds, who had worked as campaign manager for Rep. Jeb HensarlingThomas (Jeb) Jeb HensarlingExiting lawmakers jockey for K Street perch Ryan focuses on legacy as talk of shutdown dominates capital Rare bipartisanship in lame duck Congress battling the ‘WTO’ of insurance regulation 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.”